Deal W. Hudson
Published June 12, 2012
Any earnest Catholic who either runs for political office, or is attempting to hold office, deserves both our admiration and our prayers. Because it is the Catholic politician, more than the politician who identifies with other religious traditions, who finds himself or herself immersed in a series of volatile crosscurrents that, if not surveyed in advance, can drown a candidacy and even a career.
But it’s precisely the earnest Catholic politician, as I put it, who assumes knowledge of the Catholic voter is acquired by years of practicing the faith. Well, yes and no. Certainly any practicing Catholics should have been schooled in the fundamentals of their faith as applied to politics and political policy. Yet, the chronicle of Catholics in politics over the past fifty years shows this not to be the case: The marked differences in what Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D, CA) and Rep. Chris Smith (R, NJ) believe to be a Catholic approach to politics illustrate the present state of affairs. Indeed, the majority of Catholic members of Congress over the past fifty years have come from the Pelosi mold, rather than that of pro life, pro family Chris Smith.
Catholic politicians need to know their faith, that is axiomatic, but what follows is not just a list of first principles, which is available in numerous Church documents. Here is a list of practical advice to the Catholic politician who, like Rep. Chris Smith, attempts to represent the faith without caving in to the pressures of the secular, and Catholic, “progressives.”
1. If you are Republican, pro life, and pro family, at least half of the institutional Church will be disposed to oppose you. I can’t remember all the times I have talked to Catholic candidates who are completely bewildered by the antagonism they have encountered among various parts of the institutional Church, from the parish and chancery to the bishops and their conference. (I will leave an explanation of that antagonism to another day, another article!)
2. The legacy of the “seamless garment” is real and remains a matter of constant vigilance in Catholic voter outreach. In spite of the articulate efforts of leaders like Deacon Keith Fournier, there exists a deep division among Catholics who consider themselves pro life and those who embrace the moniker of “social justice.” It’s fatal for a Catholic politician to assume this division can be ignored because it distorts the Church’s teaching that social justice begins with respect for the unborn and vulnerable lives.
3. “Social justice” Catholics will go to the most outlandish lengths imaginable to find fault with the pro life records of Catholic politicians and to defend the pro life credentials of those who are pro abortion or, as they prefer, “pro choice.” Under the banner of caring about human life “after birth,” this “progressive” Catholic crowd will elevate any and all of their political priorities to the pro life category. For example, if a Catholic member of Congress suggests an entitlement program does not need to be expanded by, say, 5%, the Catholic “progressives” will scream and yell about “abandoning the poor,” and the pummeling will begin.
4. The good news in all this is that “progressives” constantly give their version of the Catholic politician bad advice. They recently led President Obama into the briar patch of denying religious liberty to Catholic institutions by demanding they pay for contraception and sterilization in their health insurance plans. The argument was that most Catholic women use contraception, therefore, Catholics will accept this historical encroachment on religious liberty. It never occurred to any of Obama’s religious advisers to consider that the Catholic woman who does use contraception may cringe at the thought of the federal government demanding the Catholic Church pay for her birth control pills! A big distinction here – evidently lost on the Obama administration.
5. Catholic voters, for the most part, do not like to be talked to like evangelical voters. Catholic politicians who adopt an evangelical style will win some Catholic support for their “bold” tone, but much more support will quietly edge away in discomfort. It’s not complicated, just follow the first rule of rhetoric: Know your audience! Or, to put it another way, one size does not fit all! Avoid a self righteous, moralizing tone with Catholic voters, but state clearly your commitment to life and marriage while extending that concern to those in society who need the maintenance of the government’s “safety net.” Catholics are a compassionate people who wince at the language of “cut backs” and “smaller government,” unless these notions are explained in a way that allays their fears that the poor will be abandoned.
The list could be longer, but these are the essentials. The 2010 election saw a new generation of pro life, pro family Catholics elected to the Congress: This freshman class is already the announced target of an intense effort by “progressives” who will attempt to twist their concern for the budget as “anti life.” Whether or not they survive will depend on how successfully this freshman class responds to the attack, or, even better, inoculates themselves in advance.