Progressive Revival

Judging by the headlines this campaign, you might have thought the shepherds were headed one way and the flock in another direction. That’s not quite the case, as reports of 50 or 60 or even 100 bishops promoting a “McCain-or-be-damned” approach to abortion and the civil sacrament of voting don’t hold up under scrutiny. Still, there’s no doubt many more bishops than usual want a more forceful approach to political activity, and that will be an interesting (closed-door) discussion next week when they gather in Baltimore.

The “flock”–some 65 million or so of us lay folk and ordinary religious–also didn’t go en masse over the cliff for Obama, though it’s pretty clear the bishops didn’t have much sway, or if they did, it may have been to push Catholics the other direction. Catholics as a whole went for Obama 54-45, a major swing from 2004, when they went for Bush over (Catholic) John Kerry. But break it down by ethnicity and white Catholics went for McCain 52-47–although, as Mark Silk points out in an excellent analysis (complete with regional breakdowns), Obama did better than Kerry with white Catholics by 8 points. White Catholics also tend to be marginally more Democratic than whites as a whole. (I’d also highly recommend the Mark Silk-Andrew Walsh piece in the Nov. 3 edition of America, on the past and future of the Catholic vote.)

On the other hand, Latinos, who are the future of the church in many respects, went strong for Obama. That’s an internal fault line as critical as that within the hierarchy. But, lay people are united in not factoring the abortion issue into their vote very much, as against the advice of the bishops. The economy, war, health care, energy, etc all rated high while “life” issues barely appeared on the radar. That is consistent with past elections. What is also consistent–and what is reflected in the ballot results–is that the bishops get more traction with Catholics (and the public) on gay marriage than on overturning Roe v. Wade. Ballot proposal to limit abortion were defeated in three states, while proposals barring gay marriage and adoption by gay parents passed.

Another warning sign: Young Catholics clearly do not support the political positions of the bishops and others on abortion and gay marriage. It’s tough to have a political strategy without voters behind you.

So what now? How does the Catholic Church recover a voice and presence and, to dream, influence, in the public square? Phil Lawler of Catholic World News says, as usual, the problem is dissent, and he vows a “crusade” that he hopes will be joined by outspoken bishops. Tom Reese has a comprehensive analysis at The Washington Post, ending with this:

“A closer look at the exit polls should be as discouraging for left-wing Catholics as for right-wing Catholics. Catholic voters did not embrace either the conservative non-negotiables or the church’s preferential option for the poor. They were concerned about themselves and their families. Will the abortion debate rise up again in four years at the next presidential election? A lot depends on President Obama and the Democratic Congress. If they push through the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), then they will have betrayed their pro-life Catholic supporters. This will make it nearly impossible for these people to support them again. On the other hand, if they make a priority the enactment of an abortion reduction bill, then it will be more difficult for the bishops and the Republicans to portray the Democrats as the pro-abortion party.”

Another danger for the bishops, however, was pointed out by Al Mohler, a leading voice of Southern Baptists and the “religious right”:

“Will the Republican Party decide that conservative Christians are just too troublesome for the party and see the pro-life movement as a liability?  There is the real danger that the Republicans, stung by this defeat, will adopt a libertarian approach to divisive moral issues and show conservative Christians the door.”

That seems to me to be the true risk inherent in the pro-lifers’ strategy, in that it is so tied to the GOP that if the party moves toward a more moderate position–that debate is underway–the Catholic leadership could be left without a prayer (not to mention the unborn). “Put not your trust in princes,” the Psalmist says. But if you are going to get involved in politics, he might have added, hedge your bets by keeping ties to both parties.

There is much to be said for the thesis that Catholics are “politically homeless.” No party will ever represent Catholic teaching completely, of course. But that can also be something of a cop-out. Catholics are in many respects just living in separate houses (or chanceries, as the case may be). Besides, people make politics. So what now?

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