In 2004, it was hard for Catholics to read a newspaper or turn on the television without hearing debates about their political responsibilities. As the election approached, many Catholics were inundated with voter guides that argued no Catholic in good conscience could vote for a candidate whose positions were at odds with “nonnegotiable” Catholic teaching. Whether this argument convinced many Catholic voters is debatable, but the desired result-a majority of votes for John Kerry’s opponent-was obtained.

Now that the election is over, what responsibilities do Catholics have? If Catholic Democrats are going to be asked to confront their party’s intransigence on abortion, should Catholic Republicans bear a similar responsibility on other issues with respect to the GOP?

Consider the recent debate-or lack thereof-over the president’s nomination of Alberto Gonzales for attorney general. Gonzales was a key player in the Bush administration’s internal discussions about what qualified as torture, a term he apparently did not think applied to techniques like “waterboarding,” which causes a powerful sensation of drowning. While the scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay cannot be laid solely at Gonzales’s doorstep, there is no question that his efforts contributed to a weakening of legal and moral constraints against the use of torture by intelligence officers and military personnel. The Washington Post, which has generally been supportive of the president’s foreign policy, argued that “to confirm such an official as attorney general is to ratify decisions that are at odds with fundamental American values.”

Given that the Catechism of the Catholic Church condemns torture as “contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity,” one might have thought that the Gonzales nomination would have provided Catholics who supported Bush with an opportunity to show their commitment to values that transcend partisan loyalties. If opposition to torture as an instrument of national policy is not a “nonnegotiable” Catholic teaching, it is fair to ask what is. Given the president’s solicitude for the Catholic vote, one wonders what would have happened if Catholics who had supported him had come together to oppose the Gonzales nomination.

But many prominent Catholics apparently had no problem throwing their support behind Gonzales. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), a favorite of Catholic conservatives and a possible 2008 presidential contender, asked no questions about torture during Gonzales’s nomination hearing. Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) voted to confirm Gonzales without expressing a word of concern about his record. Catholic supporters of the war in Iraq, such as Rev. Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel, were oddly silent about the Gonzales nomination, despite the demonstrable damage that the torture scandals have done to the foreign-policy goals they champion.

A cynic may wonder why we would have expected anything different. Yet only a few years ago some were speaking about a “Catholic moment” in the Republican Party. In 2000, Bush’s talk of “compassionate conservatism” seemed particularly infused with Catholic themes. A year later, the president invoked the memory of Dorothy Day at a commencement speech at Notre Dame. It did not seem far-fetched to suggest that a strong Catholic presence could influence the Republican Party as significantly as it had once influenced the Democrats.

That time seems very far away now. If there is a unifying theme to the foreign and domestic policies of the Bush administration, it is contempt for any mechanisms of collective action-progressive taxation, Social Security, labor unions, the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations-that seek to level the playing field between the strong and the weak. With the exception of the administration’s efforts to protect human life in the womb and to defend the traditional definition of marriage, it is hard to imagine an ideology that is farther removed from the mainstream tradition of Catholic social thought.

Catholic Democrats inclined to rejoice in this line of analysis should be wary of casting the first stone, as they are often no more willing than their Republican counterparts to challenge their own party on issues close to the core of Catholic social teaching. The list of Catholic Democrats with national ambitions who abandoned earlier prolife views is long: Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Mario Cuomo, Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle, Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). Many of these Democrats have long resorted to boilerplate statements that they are “personally opposed” to abortion. But when they trumpet their prochoice voting records, raise millions from the abortion lobby, declare that Roe v. Wade is “sacred ground,” and oppose even the most minimal protections for the unborn, it is hard not to see their personal opposition as essentially meaningless. Last November’s elections do seem to have initiated a conversation among Democrats about their rigid adherence to abortion rights (see William J. Byron’s “Prolife and Prochoice,” February 11, 2005), but it remains to be seen whether this conversation will lead to anything more than rhetorical repositioning.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the distinct voice that Catholics once brought to the public square is gradually being lost. In its place, we see the emergence of two separate Catholic political cultures, each serving the needs of one of the two major parties, and each with its own “magisterium.” Those wishing to embrace the church’s social-justice tradition while evading the moral force of its teaching on abortion can cite the speeches of Mario Cuomo, while those seeking a Catholic apologetics for libertarian economics or preemptive war can consult the encyclicals of Michael Novak and George Weigel.

The fact that Catholics are divided between the two parties is not the problem. There is no reason why Catholics must be of one mind on all matters of public policy. But there is still something disturbing about seeing Catholics become so completely conformed to the ideologies of their chosen political parties or movements. The recanting of earlier prolife views by so many prominent Catholic Democrats is one example of this. The unwillingness of many Catholic Republicans to offer any criticism of the Gonzales nomination-to say nothing of the war in Iraq-may be another.

In their 2004 statement, Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. Catholic bishops suggested that the church must be “political but not partisan.” But political parties-and the social movements affiliated with them-play a critical role in the nation’s democratic process. The question is how Catholics can participate in partisan political activity without compromising their religious beliefs. It is often suggested that the church needs to do a better job of educating Catholics about the church’s social teaching-our “best-kept secret”-which challenges the easy orthodoxies of Right and Left. But merely educating Catholics about that teaching is unlikely to make an impact if it is ultimately seen as no more authoritative than the information provided by a political party, trade union, small business association, or favorite Weblog.

The problem, of course, goes beyond politics and politicians. It reflects the challenge of maintaining a distinct Catholic identity, one powerful enough to compel Catholics to act against the interests of self, party, clan, or nation when the service of truth requires it. If that challenge cannot be met, it is easy to foresee a day when the cultural and political assimilation of Catholics in the United States will be complete and perhaps irreversible. The United States will be the poorer for it, to say nothing of the gospel.

J. Peter Nixon, a regular Commonweal contributor, works in the health-care industry and lives in Northern California.

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Published in the 2005-02-25 issue: View Contents
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