Catholics keep voting Democratic. In 1996, 54% of Catholics went for Bill Clinton, 38% for Bob Dole. They were among the few groups whose 1996 support for the president increased over its 1992 level. To be sure, the percentage of Catholics who identify themselves as practicing has declined quite sharply, from 73% in 1960 to 46% in 1996. But even among "active" Catholics, who attend Mass weekly, 44%, a hefty plurality, supported Clinton, while 47% voted for Dole. (These figures are taken from a Crisis magazine survey of Catholic voting patterns in November 1998 and June 1999.)

Earlier this year the Republican Party's Catholic Task Force issued a statement contending that the GOP is "closest to the teachings of the Catholic Church." I believe that is correct. George W. Bush is committed to appointing Supreme Court justices who would interpret the Constitution strictly and thus be unlikely to issue judicial decrees furthering the liberal agenda on abortion and other moral issues.

The Republican Party's orientation toward smaller government--and thus, lower taxes--means that Republican lawmakers and administrators would be less likely to redistribute people's earnings to support blatantly anti-Catholic causes such as worldwide condom distribution and forcible population control. Nonetheless, a narrow majority of Catholics support Al Gore over Bush, as Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot recently reported.

You have to ask why, considering that the Democratic Party now promotes a secularist, liberal ideology that is hostile to Catholicism. For Catholics, the central issues should be moral and spiritual--how to save one's soul--not political. A political party is strong on "Catholic issues" when it promotes a government system that furthers Catholic moral and spiritual teachings. Abortion is a central one of those teachings, because the taking of innocent human life is gravely wrong. Abortion should be foremost in the minds of Catholic voters and Catholic officeholders. Yet Democratic politicians who openly flout Catholic moral teaching on abortion and related matters enjoy strong support from the Catholic electorate. Democrats in the Senate, including that well-known Catholic, Ted Kennedy, have twice been overwhelmingly responsible for upholding President Clinton's veto of a proposed ban on partial-birth abortion, a particularly brutal late-term form of that procedure. The nation's Catholic cardinals unanimously appealed to Congress last year to overturn Clinton's veto, but thanks to the Democrats, the secular-feminist, pro-abortion agenda prevailed.

The main reason that Catholics continue to support the Democrats, even though the Democrats (with a few exceptions) won't support Catholic moral teaching, is that the Catholic bishops, as leaders, have frittered away their moral authority. Instead of focusing on the spiritual and moral core of Catholicism, on issues that directly relate to salvation, the bishops have concentrated on secular social issues. In so doing, they have bought into the liberal, big-government version of social justice (socialism, actually), which they present to their flocks as Catholic social teaching. This is, of course, the Democratic Party platform as well.

Thus, many clerical and lay Catholics have concluded that voting Catholic means voting Democratic. It is not surprising that the bishops were unable to make a difference on Capitol Hill when they finally turned their attention to partial-birth abortion, an important spiritual cause.

The Catholic religious establishment has only itself to blame for this. For example, the ultra-liberal National Catholic Reporter, published an article in August casting doubt upon the GOP's claim to be closest to Catholic teaching. Catholic sociologists and political analysts stated that, apart from "the Republican Party's anti-abortion stand and its support for educational vouchers and funds for Catholic schools, the party's claim to best represent Catholic voters is greatly exaggerated." Democrats, with their willingness to spend to aid the poor and middle class, more closely reflect Catholic teachings "over the broad spectrum," the experts said.

Among the groups the National Catholic Reporter consulted was Network, a lobbying organization founded by Catholic women religious in 1971 that has analyzed congressional voting on issues it considers "relevant" to church teachings. Significantly, Network does not lobby on abortion-related legislation, which suggests that it does not consider abortion important. The issues that do interest the group seem more closely related to redistributing wealth and implementing a big-government agenda than promoting a Catholic one. Network opposes tax cuts--they would make the tax system "even more regressive by benefiting predominantly upper-income individuals and corporations"--and most government spending cuts

The bishops themselves have signed on to this essentially big-government, essentially secular "Catholic" agenda. A recent statement, "Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium," issued by the U.S. Catholic Conference, the social policy arm of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, listed affirmative action, gun control, an increase in the minimum wage, and even universal internet access as "Catholic" causes.

If Catholic leaders criticized capitalism on the ground that it produces too much wealth and thus puts the souls of the rich in jeopardy, they would make a respectable case. But their criticism has always been based on the belief that capitalism doesn't produce enough wealth. That is where self-described "Catholic social teaching" has gone wrong The very first Catholic social encyclical, Leo XIII's "Rerum Novarum" in 1891, adopted the socialists' fear that a free-market system might not provide sufficient material goods for the working poor. Since then, history has tested the economic choices: centrally planned socialism in the Soviet Union vs. laissez-faire capitalism in Hong Kong before the Beijing takeover. The results are not in doubt. In Moscow today, elderly people who were forced to work in an unproductive system all their lives can be found in rags on street corners holding tin cups, while in free-market economies such as Hong Kong you could never find enough people to fill the jobs available.

Nonetheless, Catholic social teaching has stayed the socialist cource. Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical "Populorum Progressio," saw virtue in central planning and rebuked wealthy countries for not redistributing what they had earned to poorer nations. Many have argued that Pope John Paul II also supports wealth redistribution. My reply would be to say that the Catholic social teaching of the past century has hardly been a pinnacle of intellectual achievement for the church, and it has distracted the Catholic hierarchy from its spiritual mission.

Furthermore, the welfare systems that the Democratic Party and many Catholic leaders, including the U.S. Catholic Conference, have long promoted have been shown to encourage illegitimacy, single parenthood, and family breakup--moral hazards that should be of far greater concern to spiritual leaders than unequal incomes. But the American bishops, who are overwhelmingly from Democratic Party backgrounds, seem to have been unable to rethink what they learned in childhood. Income redistribution via welfare is also coercive, admitting of neither charity on the part of the donor nor gratitude on the part of the recipient. It is is based on the uncharitable premise that people, left to their own devices, will not be kind to their neighbors.

Catholics continue to vote Democratic because moral confusion reigns among the Catholic hierarchy over what issues are genuinely Catholic. The persistent Catholic support for the party of moral disorder is a sign not so much of political virtue but of failed spiritual leadership--by bishops and bureaucrats still bedazzled by visions of a secular, socialist utopia long after they should have learned the lessons of history.

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