Catholicism and Politics

The relationship between faith and politics generally, and Catholicism and US elections specifically, is too complex to adequately summarize in a blog post, and I don’t pretend to have the expertise necessary to do so. But a 20,000 mile view of the terrain, I might be able to do.  A couple Catholic friends of mine sat down Sunday evening and talked about this relationship, and here’s what I walked away with:

Basically, it seems that US Catholics ally with a certain political party based on that party’s views on the “Big Issues.” To clarify what I mean, imagine two Catholic-friendly candidates running against each other. Both of these candidates are solidly pro-life, neither want to force healthcare workers to assist in abortions against their will, neither support torture, etc.  Outside of the issues of abortion and torture, though, the two candidates resemble the modern Democratic and Republican parties.  This sort of election would require each of us to form some real opinion on what we thought the government’s role ought to be in education, or healthcare, or labor rights, or foreign aid, etc.  There would be no “wrong” vote, but it would take some thoughtful contemplation over whose approach was better.

We don’t live in that society.  Instead, we’ve spent years living in a society in which faithful Catholics were allied with only one party.  In the past, this meant that we were Democratic, because the Republicans were fiercely anti-Catholic and against Catholic immigration.  Remember the accusation that the Democratic Party was the party of “Rum, Rebellion, and Romanism” back in 1884.  Since Republicans didn’t want us (and even hated and feared us) we were Democrats.  The DNC was unafraid to nominate a Catholic, Al Smith, to run for president against Hoover in 1928.  And in 1960, Kennedy ran and won, winning a now-shocking 80% of Catholic votes.  For about a century, the Democratic Party had been the party of choice for Catholics

These days, the opposite is true.  We’re Republicans, because of abortion. For much of our history, it’s been hard for Catholics to support one of the two major parties, because they were on the wrong side of a Big Issue. The unfortunate consequence of this, though, is that we tend to fall in lock-step with the party of choice on the “small issues.” That is, on those areas where the right choice is a prudential judgment, our consciences are often shaped by our favored political party. There are a lot of reasons for this:

  1. The small issues don’t matter — To use the extreme example, if you’re a German voter in the 1930s, you’re not basing your ballot for or against Hitler off of your feelings on his proposed Autobahn.  If one of the two candidates supports the legalized killing of infants, his ideas about tax reform don’t matter. You’re voting for the one who doesn’t support legalized killing.  
  2. Since the small issues don’t matter, we don’t think about them — We generally don’t have a very well thought-out position on the prudential judgments of the day, even on the ones we think are very important.  A lot of American Catholics are troubled by the state of the healthcare system, by the crisis of poverty here and abroad, and so on.  But because we never have to stand in a voting booth and choose based on that issue, we give practical solutions to the problem less thought.
  3. We stop trusting the other side — Quite sanely, if Candidate (or Party) X either is pro-legalized killing, or perhaps worse, is “personally opposed” to killing children, but doesn’t have the good sense to think it should be outlawed, we find that Candidate untrustworthy.  Perhaps they’re evil, or stupid, or terribly naive; perhaps they just have a “different” (stupid, evil, or naive) system of morality.  At the very least, we can say that their judgment is terribly flawed on the major issues.  As a result, since this Candidate or Political Party isn’t trustworthy on the big things, we’re unlikely to trust them on the small one.  It makes sense: it’s the converse of what Matthew 25:23: “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.”  From a Catholic perspective, if someone gets the question of abortion so radically wrong, there’s no reason to think he’s any better on the question of, say, tort reform.
  4. As a result, we trust our favored party — Because we haven’t given the small issues a whole lot of thought (generally speaking), our default position is to trust the party which is trustworthy on big things to be trustworthy on small things.  So when the DNC was the only party for Catholics, we tended to take Democratic views on issues from immigration to labor rights to caring for the poor — that is, we didn’t just agree that those issues were important, but we trusted the Democrats to be the party to fix them. Faithful Catholics today tend to agree with the Republican party on many of these same issues, disagreeing with their forebears.  The Church’s stance hasn’t changed.  Instead, the Catholic-friendly party has.
All of this makes is quite rational behavior, quite frankly.  Human beings are communal and tribal by nature, and so we want a party we can trust. In the American context today, is ridiculously simple.  The Democratic Party supports the legalization of the killing of infants.  When push came to shove, even many of the allegedly “pro-life” elected members of the party sold out and voted for a healthcare plan that even they believed funded abortion.  So faithful Catholics tend to vote Republican (or, in a few cases, third-party) at the polling booth.  As bad as the Republican Party can be, it’s not even a close call.  
But it’s also problematic:  
  1. This can cause us to tune-out of the political issues of the day, or engage in them in a strictly partisan manner.  Given how stark the abortion divide is, it’s easy to paint a Republicans Good / Democrats Bad narrative that’s just not accurate.
  2. When the USCCB says something the GOP disagrees with, many Catholics’ first impulse is to take the GOP’s side.  In doing so, we risk ignoring the Bible’s warning, from Psalm 146:2-3, “Put not your trust in princes:in the children of men, in whom there is no salvation.” Once we start putting all of our trust in the GOP over Christ and His Church (even a fallible body like the USCCB), we’re playing a very dangerous game, spiritually.
  3. We get taken for granted. The Republicans don’t even need to do anything about abortion.  They can preserve the status quo, and pro-lifers have nowhere else to turn.  Faithful Catholics aren’t much of a “swing” vote, since the two parties’ positions are pretty constant, as is Catholic moral theology on abortion.
  4. The problem only gets worse as time goes on. With each passing year, the two sides get more and more entrenched.  Once Catholics’ consciences are formed by the GOP to agree on the small things, and once they’ve become convinced that they can’t even trust “pro-life” Democrats, even a genuinely pro-life Democrat would face an uphill battle to win those votes. So they don’t even try (let’s be clear: pandering to pro-lifers for their votes is part of the problem, but not making any effort may be worse).
  5. This opens the door for a betrayal. I don’t see a lot of prospects for a pro-life Democratic candidate emerging from the presidential primary.  But I do see a very real risk of a pro-choice Republican.  Look at the evidence: McCain was pro-embryonic stem cell research, he contemplated choosing pro-choice Lieberman as his running mate, and rising Republican star Scott Brown’s pro-choice.  You’ve even got pro-lifers like Mitch Daniels and Hailey Barbour wanting to shush pro-lifers, to prevent them from getting in the way of a 2012 victory. The pattern’s clear: since the GOP knows pro-lifers aren’t going to vote Democratic, there’s a real urge to put up a “socially-liberal” candidate to appeal to moderates.  Or they’ll just find some other block of voters they like more than us.
  6. This betrayal would risk many Catholic souls. Look at the DNC in the 1970s.  As I mentioned above, the had the Catholic vote virtually locked down.  But then the Democrats discovered the “New Left,” the young radicals who were pro-feminism, free love, and abortion.  The DNC sensed that this was the emerging trend, and wanted to be at the forefront.  For the first time, it started supporting causes that a Catholic could not support.  Catholics were forced to either abandon the party they’d voted for their entire lives and which made up a huge part of their social identity, or abandon their morals.  A number of Catholics chose the wrong answer to that question.

There’s not an easy answer to this question.  On the one hand, Catholics can’t support the Democratic Party, as long as the Democratic Party supports abortion.  On the other hand, Catholics can’t blindly trust the Republican Party, or they’re putting themselves in real peril.  The only solution seems to be to keep eyes wide open, be willing to throw away the occasional vote on a quixotic third-party candidate, and pray for the return of our country and the DNC to Christian morality.


  1. Joe,
    Good article. A nice change from apologetics, which I enjoy very much. I have two initial thoughts. First, I only vote pro life. You will never get my vote if you are pro abortion. Second, most of the “Catholics” I know are pro abortion. They all vote democrat. The issue I would like to bring up is the vague and confusing statement the USCCB made during the last presidential election. I was frustrated and wrote a few letters to them and to newspapers. My point was clear and unambiguous, although maybe not Church teaching. IT IS A SIN TO VOTE FOR A PRO ABORTION CANDIDATE.
    I lost the respect of many people who know me for my vocal position.

  2. Bill,

    I’m sorry to hear that. As a general rule, you’re absolutely right. There are a few cases in which it’s permissible to support a pro-abortion candidate. For example:

    (1) If both major candidates on the ballot are pro-choice, you are morally permitted to choose the least-evil (you can also vote third party, or write-in). There are times when prudence dictates voting for the pro-choicer.

    (2) If there is a sufficient countervailing reason, it may be morally licit. For example, if there are three candidates running in a close race. The two major candidates are pro-choice, and one of the two has a platform to nuke everyone. You could vote for the pro-choicer with a shot at beating him, instead of the pro-lifer without a shot.

    (3) My understanding, which may be wrong, is that for elections to offices unrelated in any foreseeable or possible way with abortion, the gravity of voting pro-life is greatly diminished (e.g., you’re voting for town dogcatcher).

    In any case, Catholic Answers has a good voter’s guide (

  3. And yet, the Democratic candidate for president received 54% of the Catholic vote in the last election, which I suppose is what you meant by “faithful” Catholics.

  4. Exactly. I suppose I could have further qualified that, somehow. Basically, Catholics who are informed enough to understand and believe what the Church teaches, and what both political parties / candidates stand for.

    I’ve known plenty of proudly-apostate Catholics who still use the “Catholic” moniker to know not to give too much weight to surveys establishing what self-proclaimed Catholics are doing.

  5. Joe,
    I read a CNS article about New Ways Ministry, a gay marriage “Catholic” organization. Why can’t the Church sue organizations like this and “Catholics” For Choice, for calling themselves Catholic, but do not follow Church teaching.

  6. Bill,

    That’s a tough question. They’re intentionally holding themselves out as something that they’re not, and generating media controversy (of the “Such-and-such Catholic bishop says no, but ‘Catholic’ groups says yes” variety).

    But I suspect that no court would permit such a suit, since it would require ruling on who was “truly” Catholic. From the perspective of “Catholics for Choice,” anyone who claims to be Catholic is. They’re wrong, but we can say that as Catholics, not as secular judges.

    Imagine if a group of Catholics brought suit against the Mormon Church for calling itself the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, under the theory that it wasn’t really Christ’s Church? If they can claim to be Christ’s true Church, it seems that pro-choicers can pretend to be Catholic.

    A much better remedy than lawsuits is to settle this internally (a la 1 Corinthians 6). Bishop Bruskewitz gave a two-week warning to all Catholic members of the Masons, Catholics for Choice, the Hemlock Society, and SSPX. Those who didn’t leave within two weeks were automatically excommunicated. The Vatican affirmed his right to do this. If the USCCB wants to get serious about battling Catholics for Choice, have more bishops willing to draw the line in the sand saying, “If you promote this, you’re not one of us.”

    Of course, the media would have a field day, but who cares? We’re not Catholic for the publicity.


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