Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Decline and Fall of Catholic Democrats?

Published in National Review Online on September 11, 2012



Sister Simone Campbell has become a minor celebrity over the last few months. Her 15 minutes began back in April when her social-justice lobbying outfit, NETWORK, earned a rare public rebuke from the Vatican for, ironically, its inadequate understanding of social justice. Capitalizing on the fawning media attention she received, Sister Simone and a few of her fellow progressive friends embarked on a highly publicized bus tour of the Midwest — Nuns on the Bus, they called it — during which they slammed Paul Ryan’s budget for being incompatible with Catholic social teaching.

Sister Simone’s crusade against Paul Ryan has taken her from D.C. to Iowa and from Comedy Central to CNN, the Catholic Left cheering her all the while. Last Wednesday, her crusade led her to the Democratic National Convention, where she made her case against Paul Ryan yet again, denouncing the GOP budget proposals for contradicting the teachings of the Catholic faith: “[Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan's] budget goes astray in not acknowledging that we are responsible not only for ourselves and our immediate families. Rather, our faith strongly affirms that we are all responsible for one another.”

But the arguments Sister Simone offered against the Ryan budget (she attacked Romney only by association) echo many of the arguments we heard from liberal Catholics during welfare reform in the 1990s. Then, as now, they claimed that reform would constitute an abandonment of the poor and an abdication of our social responsibilities to the least among us. Then, as now, many Catholics refused to define justice down by equating the need for better government with the need for more government.

Progressive Catholics, of whom Sister Simone is now the most prominent representative, are so convinced that Paul Ryan has betrayed Catholic teaching with his budget proposals that the charge of dissent — long leveled against certain theologically incontinent corners of the Catholic Left — is now being hurled with gusto at Ryan and his Catholic supporters.

While at least one bishop has said he finds Ryan’s proposals lacking — a position Sister Simone wrongly presumes to be common among Catholics — Ryan’s own bishop, Robert C. Morlino of Madison, recently made it clear that he sees nothing at all to prevent good Catholics from supporting Ryan or his proposals. As another prominent cleric, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver, put it: “Claims that Paul Ryan’s plan run deeply counter to Catholic social teaching are unfounded and unreasonable.” Cardinal Dolan of New York has expressed similar approbation for the moral legitimacy of the Ryan plan.

These bishops aren’t endorsing Ryan or his budget — Catholic bishops don’t do political endorsements – but the open acknowledgment that Ryan and his policies are worthy of serious consideration by Catholics makes it all but impossible to portray Ryan as a corruptor of Catholic social teaching. More important, they are evidence that American Catholics, including some of the most influential prelates, are increasingly willing to question the old Democratic shibboleths about how best to promote a just society.

In Catholic teaching there are some things that are always wrong — intrinsic evils, we call them — things that no amount of moral gymnastics or creative casuistry can justify. High among such evils is the intentional taking of an innocent human life — including human life in the womb. All Catholics are expected to work to make the civil law reflect, as fully as possible, what the Church teaches with absolutely clarity: Abortion can never be justified.

Many, many other issues require prudent judgment: Medicare growth rates, marginal tax rates, defined-benefit versus defined-contribution entitlements, even the decision whether or not to go to war. These matters have moral implications, but getting the right answer means using one’s best judgment to discern the best response amid complex circumstances. There is no moral principle that tells you categorically what the interest rate should be on a federal student loan or even whether the government should offer student loans. Reasonable people can and do disagree on such things, and in good conscience, too.

Which brings us back to Sister Simone Campbell. Before taking the podium at the DNC to denounce the moral failings of the Republican candidates, she was asked by John McCormack of the Weekly Standard whether she believed that performing abortions should be illegal. Her response? “That’s beyond my pay grade. I don’t know.”

This is astounding. In Sister Simone’s moral universe, there is only one just policy when it comes to government spending on social programs (more of it), but the undeniable implications of an unchanging Catholic principle — namely the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” — are beyond her pay grade.

Sister Simone’s words captured with almost perfect clarity the bizarre moral inversion that has taken place among so many of the American Left, including the Catholic Left: moral absolutism on matters that should allow for prudence combined with near-infinite plasticity when it comes to fundamental moral norms.

Here is a woman who, because of her Catholic faith, embarked on a cross-country bus tour to proclaim Paul Ryan’s budget anathema — not just imprudent, mind you, but fundamentally incompatible with Catholic morals. Yet this same woman cannot bring herself to admit so much as the possibility that legal sanction for the intentional killing of innocent human beings might be unjust.

If this is the expression of Catholicism most aligned with today’s Democratic party — and it seems to be, at least at the national level — then the decline of Catholic support for the Democratic party may well continue. Why? Because, just like Sister Simone, today’s Democrats are malleable on those moral issues where the Church is firm and they are rigid where the Church is open to debate.

It’s not news that Democrats began to lose their advantage in the Catholic vote about the same time they began embracing abortion. Despite high-profile Catholic defenders of the abortion license (Kathleen Sebelius, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden), millions of Catholics, especially observant Catholics, have left the Democratic party because of its willingness to compromise with what Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death.” One result of this is that the Catholic vote — once overwhelmingly Democratic — is now split fairly evenly between the two parties.

Despite continued losses of Catholics on social issues, Democrats have maintained a certain “Catholic advantage” on economic issues and entitlements, an edge based largely on the premise that the policies Democrats promote better protect those on the margins. But just as the moral flexibility of Democrats on social issues has driven away millions of Catholic voters over the last few decades, the inflexibility of Democrats on government spending and entitlement reform may prove equally unappealing.

With a stubbornly bad economy, massive government expansion, and a president who refuses to reconsider his party’s tired orthodoxies on entitlements or to offer any plausible solution for this nation’s fiscal woes, Catholic support for Democrats on those issues may begin to erode. In fact, it may already be happening.

A Pew study from early this year showed a shift in party affiliation among Catholic registered voters away from Democrats and toward Republicans that outpaced (+6 percent) the rightward shift in the general population (+4 percent). A more recent Pew study showed Democratic affiliation among white Catholics, hugely important voters in swing states such as Ohio and Wisconsin, at a record low of only 28 percent.

The reasons for this shift are complex and varied, and no single explanation — not abortion, not gay marriage, not religious liberty — can account for the decline of Catholic support for Democrats in recent decades. Certainly the cultural assimilation of Catholics has greatly reduced the degree to which they vote as a bloc. But for the first time in history, the GOP has a Catholic on the ticket willing and able to make the case to Catholic voters that the common good, including the good of the poor and marginalized (to say nothing of the unborn) is better served by policies on offer from Republicans than from Democrats.

That case is compelling. Burying future generations under a mountain of debt — only to watch the social safety net unravel anyway — serves neither the interests of the poor nor the common good. On the contrary, it’s a gross offense against what Pope Benedict XVI has called “inter-generational justice” and an abdication of our responsibility to care for those at the margins of society and provide a future for the next generation.

It is clear that the Democrats are intent on painting this election as a choice between individualism and shared responsibility, a theme that resonates deeply with Catholics as it does with many Americans. But so long as the best Democrats have to offer is an unyielding refusal to reconsider the wisdom of Big Government — despite the disaster of the last four years — then Republicans have an opportunity to gain Catholic ground on those fiscal and economic issues once considered safe Democratic turf.

“Catholic” and “Democrat” were once nearly synonymous in this country. As Paul Ryan said earlier this year at Georgetown, “I suppose there are some Catholics who for a long time have thought they had a monopoly of sort . . . not exactly on heaven, but on the social teaching of our Church.” If Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are able to win over Catholic voters on fiscal and economic issues and — this is crucial — able to deliver reform that actually creates greater opportunity for the nation’s poor, then moderate Catholics whose votes are deeply influenced by their faith may move the Catholic vote from a virtual wash to a slight Republican advantage.

With Catholics accounting for more than a quarter of American voters, that should have Democrats worried.

- Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.

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