Thursday, October 05, 2006

Catholics and the Democratic Party: Mike McG Steps Into the Fray on dotCommonweal

From N.C. Wyeth’s Treasure Island

A little while ago, Mike McG called my attention to a post on dotCommonweal called Homework Assignment. It included a link to a superb, fascinating article by John T. McGreevy called Shifting Allegiances. Catholics, Democrats & the GOP. It gives a good, comprehensive history of the complicated relationship between Catholics and the Democratic Pary in the United States, and as always, the third-rail issue is the issue of abortion. Mike McG steps into the lively discussion on the thread with some good comments. Mike also presents the question:

Is conversation among Democrats possible, or do we have to endure a reenactment of 2004 in 2008?

Some excerpts from McGreevy’s article:
True story: It is the day before Pope John Paul II’s funeral, a year ago last April. Assembling in Rome are the members of the official delegation of the United States government, including President and Mrs. Bush and a number of Catholic senators and representatives. Two of those Catholic senators are Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and John Kerry of Massachusetts.

As the two of them walk across St. Peter’s Square, bystanders stop Kerry every few steps to bemoan his defeat in the presidential election just a few months before. Some of these admirers-including a few Italian priests-drape themselves enthusiastically over Kerry’s lanky frame for group snapshots.

Then a single priest stops Kerry and Durbin. He warns Kerry that he will have to answer, perhaps in hell, for his position on abortion.

That priest is from Minnesota.

How did we get here? And are we stuck?

…As late as 1968, two of the three Democratic candidates for president, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, were serious Catholics on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and support from white Catholics in the North almost pushed the eventual Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, past Richard Nixon. As Howard Dean recently put it, “The Democratic Party was built on four pillars-the Roosevelt intellectuals, the Catholic Church, labor unions, and African Americans.”

…George McGovern proved incapable of sustaining this Catholic backing in 1972, in part because the Democratic Party in the heady years between 1968 and 1972 became associated with a cultural liberalism that some Catholic voters, especially working-class whites, found unsettling. (Humphrey, during the bitter days of the 1972 Democratic primaries, inaccurately but effectively tarred McGovern as favoring “abortion, acid, and amnesty [for Vietnam era draft evaders].”)

…Much of this uneasiness with the national Democratic Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s revolved around race, with working-class white Catholics appalled by Democratic support for forced busing programs to alleviate racial imbalance in the public schools, and suspicious of efforts to integrate lily-white (and heavily Catholic) construction and trade unions. The sympathy for African-American civil rights displayed by many priests and nuns in the late 1960s evoked among some white Catholics a raw sense of betrayal…

…Roe v. Wade made everything more partisan. The unexpectedly sweeping consequences of the 1973 ruling-eliminating most state restrictions on the procedure, with the number of abortions rising to over 1.5 million a year by 1980-jumpstarted a grassroots antiabortion movement, arguably the largest social movement of the post-civil-rights era, led, funded, and supported in its first years by Catholics. At the same time, abortion rights became central to the modern women’s movement in the United States (more so than in most of Europe) and these activists called the Democratic Party their home. Now no politician could dodge the issue (as Robert Kennedy had in 1968) and a generation of Catholic Democrats, some principled, some pragmatic, adopted a prochoice stance…

…In the aftermath of Kerry’s defeat, Democrats began to pick up the pieces. As part of this effort, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg-famous for his analysis of Reagan Democrats in Macomb County, Michigan-and an associate, Matt Hogan, polled white Catholics…. Greenberg and Hogan paid special attention to Democratic defectors, the small but crucial group of white Catholic Democrats, especially in Ohio and other battleground Midwestern states, who voted for Clinton in 1996 but supported George W. Bush in 2004. (Clinton carried white Catholics by seven points in 1996, Gore lost them by seven points in 2000, and Kerry lost white Catholics by fourteen points in 2004). In an election where notions about morality played an important role, these Catholic Democrats named abortion as their “single greatest moral concern.” Indeed, Galston, a onetime Clinton aide, recently argued that vetoing the partial-birth abortion ban was the “single worst political mistake that Bill Clinton made in his eight years....If there was ever an issue to take off the table, that was it.”

…John Paul II, despite his extraordinary charisma, did not stem the drift away from official church teaching on most of the hot-button sex and gender issues. More Catholic couples now use birth control than at the beginning of John Paul II’s papacy, and the Greenberg/Hogan polling data highlight the sympathy of Catholic voters, even practicing Catholic voters supporting President Bush, for same-sex civil unions.

...Within the church, John Paul II’s frequent condemnations of contraception, his fiat against discussion of women’s ordination, his refusal to appoint as bishop any priest not willing to defend Humanae vitae, and his characterization of the modern United States as a “culture of death,” fostered a more sectarian mood. Just this August, Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Illinois, solemnly (and offensively) listed the “sacraments” of the Democratic Party as “abortion, buggery, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, feminism of the radical type, and genetic experimentation and mutilation.” These Democratic positions, Doran cheerfully informed Rockford Catholics, “place us squarely on the road to suicide as a people.”

...More politely, Denver archbishop Charles Chaput described Catholics as “timid” in a “culture that grows more estranged from the gospel with every year.” Or, as Chaput explained last year to the New Yorker’s Peter Boyer: “We’re at a time for the church in our country when some Catholics-too many-are discovering that they’ve gradually become non-Catholics who happen to go to Mass. That’s sad and difficult, and a judgment on a generation of Catholic leadership. But it may be exactly the moment of truth the church needs.”

…To Chaput and other like-minded Catholics, the primary obstacle to a new evangelization is a “liberal culture” entrenched in the media, the universities, and, crucially, within the church itself. In an eerie echo of the 1960s, these spokespersons urge their coreligionists to reject not just the mainstream media but the Catholic mainstream as well: Protect your children at Steubenville, instead of throwing them to the wolves at Boston College (or Notre Dame). Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum even blamed Boston liberalism-instead of, say, Cardinal Bernard Law-for that archdiocese’s implosion during the sexual-abuse crisis, a dubious claim given what the Philadelphia district attorney has recently told us about sexual abuse in that archdiocese….

…This more apocalyptic ecclesiastical mood blended with the waning of the Catholic subculture over the past thirty years, and the felt need of a significant minority of young Catholics for more familiarity with the faith they professed. Catholic leaders of the 1970s and 1980s, to their shame, ignored the plight of these young people, and never solved the larger puzzle of what serious catechetical education might entail in a mobile, fragmented society. (See John Cavadini’s April 9, 2004, Commonweal cover story, “Teaching Theology: What Young Catholics Don’t Know.”) At Notre Dame, where I teach, one colleague claims that some of her advanced students, almost all Catholic, cannot identify Pontius Pilate.

The most committed of these Catholic young people now lurch between an attractive (even brave) love for the faith and the church, and a defensive circling of the wagons. Who can but admire young Catholics immersing themselves in serious study of Catholic intellectual traditions and choosing service to the church through volunteer programs? Who can but sigh when reading the following headline in a conservative Catholic student newspaper: “Can Women Be Priests? A Full Defense of the Authoritative Church Position, and Why It Cannot and Will Not Change”?

Given these three contexts: the relationship of Catholics to the Democratic Party, the partisan cast of the abortion debate since Roe v. Wade, and the more sectarian tone in recent Catholic life, perhaps the real surprise is that the priest from Minnesota didn’t insist on escorting John Kerry to hell himself…

…Can we do better? How should we actually decrease the abortion rate, given that federal policies on access to abortion matter less than the socio-economic plight of women seeking abortions? How should we understand low abortion rates in Western Europe (where abortion is legal) and high rates in putatively Catholic Latin America (where it is not)?

…here’s the final exam question: Can Catholics and other people of goodwill agree to make abortions rare, and mean it, or will the issue remain a rhetorical ploy Republicans exploit and a moral scandal to which Democrats are blind?

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