Catholic Republicans, challenged by their faith

That’s the conclusion, at least, offered by Michael Gerson in the Washington Post:

When Nancy Mitford asked novelist Evelyn Waugh how he could behave so atrociously while claiming to be a practicing Catholic, he responded, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic.”

In Congress, we are about to test the ameliorative effects of Catholicism in practical ways, particularly among Republicans. Before the November election, there were 97 Catholic Democrats in the House and 36 Catholic Republicans. Now there are 68 Catholic Democrats in the House and 64 Republicans. The overall number in the House Catholic caucus remained steady, but its composition is decidedly more conservative.

What influence is this shift likely to have? Judging from the broader behavior of Catholics in American politics, not much. A century ago, many Catholics voted Democratic out of ethnic solidarity. Today, most Catholics vote almost exactly like their suburban neighbors. Catholics are often swing voters in elections precisely because they are so typical. So it was a sign of the times when last year a poll found 58 percent of Catholics sympathetic to Tea Party protests.

There is something vaguely disturbing about the precise symmetry of any religious group with other voters of their same class and background. One would hope that an ancient, demanding faith would leave some distinctive mark. A reflection may move and smile, but it lacks substance and will.

But though it is hard to identify a distinctive Catholic voter, there is certainly a distinctive Catholic teaching on politics – a highly developed and coherent tradition that has influenced many non-Catholics, myself included. Human life and dignity, in this view, are primary. The common good takes precedence over selfish interests. Local institutions – families, churches, unions, religious schools – should be respected, not undermined, by government. The justice of a society is measured by its treatment of the poor and vulnerable.

These distinctive commitments have created tensions with liberal Catholic politicians who elevate autonomy and choice as the highest political values – higher even than the rights of the weak. But the Catholic tradition also challenges elements of conservatism, particularly when it comes to Tea Party excess.

Check out the rest to see what he has in mind.

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4 responses to “Catholic Republicans, challenged by their faith”

  1. Gerson manages to give a pretty good thumbnail sketch of standard Catholic teaching on political society. It is clear that much of it is congenial to Republican principles, and it is also clear that it contains correctives for some extreme positions, particularly on immigration. I join Gerson in hoping that the Catholic Republicans will let themselves be formed by Catholic teaching, and I wonder why he doesn’t express similar concern for the Catholic Democrats. Does he consider them hopeless?

  2. A well-researched article… There are many reasons why Catholics vote like everyone else, and most of them are not very comforting. However, I would submit that one significant reason is that Catholics are the most diverse demographic in terms of ethnicity and socio-economics. It is one of the things I love most about the church…here comes everybody!

  3. The point he makes — that Catholic loyalty to the Democratic Party throughout most of the twentieth century was primarily “ethnic” — is accurate enough but also incredibly simplistic.

    Not long ago, I had the opportunity to examine the state of America’s immigration policies in the era from roughly 1840 until 1920 or so. The Republican Party of those 80 years was largely rural, conservative, WASP, and very much entrenched in the temperance mentality.

    Then along came first the Irish immigration of the Great Famine, then the German immigration wave of the Kulturkampf and finally the huge wave of European immigrants through Ellis Island. These folks were largely Roman Catholic but also there were Byzantine Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish folks of French, Italian, Polish, Armenian, Ukrainian, Serbian and almost too many other nationalities to count.

    They tended to settle in the cities in tightly controlled ethnic neighborhoods for protection and support. They built “nationality” churches in those neighborhoods and often the resident priest/pastors were the only persons in that neighborhood who spoke English enough to help folks with their legal issues — such as buying a home.

    The rural-based Republican Party of that era had long abandoned the cities so the Democratic Party — no doubt already guided by an Irish Catholic leadership — spread into the vacuum.

    It also did not help that the Republican Party of that era tended to condemn all alcohol right when huge waves of immigrants — all of which used alcohol in some form in their religious celebrations — started arriving.

    Planks in the Republican Party platforms of the late 1800’s were not only anti-alcohol, they were anti-immigrant and — in some of its more fringe areas — anti Catholic and anti-Semitic as well.

  4. Gerson is my favorite “compassionate conservative” (I believe he coined the term — and in his case it really applies). I thought this column was right on target.

    As to naturgesetz question concerning the Democrats: I think Gerson’s point is that the US bishops have, for the last 10 years or so, been butting heads with Catholic Democrats on abortion, same-sex marriage, embryonic stem cells, etc. Now that there are more Catholic Republicans in the House, some of whom seem to support certain un-Catholic ideas associated with the Tea Party, it will be interesting to see what new head-butting emerges.

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