The midterms in November are becoming more interesting from a political perspective as President Joe Biden’s poll numbers have started to rise, former President Donald Trump’s legal woes remind voters of how enervating his tenure was, and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade motivates a significant part of the Democratic Party’s base. At the beginning of the summer, Democrats appeared headed into a tsunami, but now control of the Senate appears up for grabs even if it remains doubtful the Democrats can hold the House.
The past months, however, have brought more bad news for Catholic political involvement. It is difficult not to conclude that the polarization of the ambient political culture, which has gradually been eating away at the very idea of a distinctive “Catholic vote,” has now completed its task. Pro-life Catholic Democrats and pro-immigration Catholic Republicans have joined the endangered species lists.
In 2008, when I published a book called Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats, I still held out the hope that there were enough well-catechized Catholics who would resist the different ways libertarianism was eating at the social bonds that lay at the root of both parties.
For Republicans, libertarianism sidelined any consideration of the common good in economic policy. The invisible hand of the market became an idol as well as a myth, and any challenge by the government on behalf of other social goods was considered a priori illegitimate. Morally, they put the “lazy” into laissez-faire.
For Democrats, libertarianism manifested itself in the mantra “my body, my choice” adopted by the abortion rights movement. All the intellectual and moral pathologies that flowed from the libertarian ethic followed inexorably: indifference to the humanity of the unborn and the adoption of a throwaway culture regarding unwanted progeny.
Still, there was a group of pro-life Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives and, in the debate over the Affordable Care Act, resolving the issue of federal funding of elective abortions was the last hurdle standing. Led by Rep. Bart Stupak, the pro-life Democrats successfully forced the House to demonstrate no legislative intent at circumventing the Hyde Amendment’s proscription of such federal funding.
And there were Republicans like Sen. John McCain and former President George W. Bush who urged their party to adopt not only a more humane approach to the issue of immigration but to recognize immigrants as a potential boon for the country and for their party. The entrepreneurial spirit of many migrants seemed a natural fit for the GOP, exemplified by New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez’s 2012 convention address, in which she explained her family’s business success and its foundation in the American Dream.
What is more, Catholics occupied a unique place for media strategists working on campaigns. Democrats were ill-advised to run an ad on Christian radio programming because they would be reminding four Republican evangelicals to vote for every Democratic evangelical. A Democrat might run an ad in a Jewish newspaper, but no Republican would. Catholics, however, appeared split between the parties by about 46%-46%. The remaining 8% were persuadable and, in the event, would decide any close election, not least because several key swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania had a large Catholic population.
Now, the ill effects of gerrymandering, combined with Supreme Court decisions permitting more and more dark money into politics, have made it harder and harder to maintain a centrist position in either party. Activists with lots of special interest money behind them impose litmus tests on candidates in primaries for both parties.
I am especially disappointed with liberal Catholics. In the months since the Dobbs’ decision, they have largely abandoned the “consistent ethic of life” that was the hallmark of liberal Catholic sentiment on life issues. Paul Baumann courageously took on the pernicious influence of “Catholics for Choice.” But where have been the liberal theologians at respectable Catholic schools insisting that whatever the moral failings of the pro-life movement, and they are many, we Catholics can’t turn a blind eye to abortion on demand?
Conservative Catholics made their deal with the devil with Donald Trump. The House Select Committee Hearings into the attack on the U.S. Capitol have shown just how conscious prominent Catholics like William Barr and Pat Cipollone were that it was the devil with whom they were doing business. Groups like “Catholic Vote” undermine Catholic social doctrine with impunity. And the U.S. bishops’ conference is in absentia from the fight to preserve democracy.
Let’s hope the old adage proves true again: It is always darkest before the dawn.
Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.