We will never know how many Catholics voted for Donald Trump. Suffice it to say that, whatever the number, it was uncomfortably large. Nor can we know the reasons for their deeply troubling choice. The best we can do is speculate, as Steven P. Millies does throughout his new book, Good Intentions. He does so intelligently, and I wouldn’t quarrel with his conclusions. But since he does not address the important variables of age, class, gender, ethnic origins, and place of residence, his analysis does not run deep. He does do an excellent job, however, when it comes to the nation’s bishops, who since 1973 have been more assertively political than at any time in our history. If Catholic voters are just as polarized as their non-Catholic fellow citizens, the bishops are at least partly to blame. Such is the message of Millies’s book, and he makes a sturdy case.
Roe v. Wade, central to Millies’s story, initially met with something close to unified opposition from Catholics, in part because the decision was so radical. (No western European country even today has as few restrictions on abortion as the United States.) A good many prominent Democrats, including Senator Edward Kennedy, also expressed disapproval. Within days of the decision, a Catholic congressman from Maryland proposed a human-life amendment to the Constitution, which the bishops quickly embraced as the best means for overturning Roe. But how should such an amendment be worded—there were soon rival versions in circulation—and what would it mean for the specifics of abortion law? Even prior to Roe, no state had a law of abortion fully congruent with Catholic teaching, since even the most restrictive permitted abortion to save the life of the mother. Did the bishops envision a regime where abortion would never be permitted, no matter what the popular will? If so, how would such a law be enforced? The bishops never addressed these questions, which left Catholic lawmakers on their own.
The 1976 Democratic Party platform repudiated all versions of the human-life amendment, and candidate Jimmy Carter reluctantly signed on. Although Carter opposed abortion personally and believed that the state should not promote it, the bishops’ conference insisted that he repudiate the offending plank and went public with its distress when he did not. Republicans, on the other hand, did endorse a human-life amendment, and the bishops’ praise for their stance was widely perceived to be an endorsement of Gerald Ford. Conference staffers were reportedly troubled by this “dangerous involvement in partisanship and an unjustified narrowing of the church’s social concerns” to the single issue of abortion, with Father Bryan Hehir predicting—all too accurately—that partisanship among church leaders would eventually divide the faithful. No church leaders sought this outcome. But partisanship and division were inevitable once the bishops embarked on a crusade to overturn Roe, a crusade that in Millies’s telling has lacked both prudence and humility.
Even in 1976, when the Republican candidate had a frankly pro-choice wife, the Republican Party was targeting Catholic voters. The courtship intensified in 1980 and continued thereafter. Catholic voters, for their part, had since the 1950s had been drifting toward the Republican Party for reasons other than abortion, as leading Democrats were aware. As the women’s vote became increasingly important for the party, most prominent Democrats by 1980 had emerged as defenders of Roe. Their numbers included many Catholics, some of whom also supported Medicaid funding of abortions on the grounds of equity. Every Catholic Democrat, it should be noted, expressed personal opposition to abortion. In a less-polarized political climate, most would doubtless have supported at least modest restrictions on the nation’s remarkably lenient abortion policies—an option that the Casey decision suggested might pass judicial muster. But compromise talk was close to impossible by the 1980s. The anti-abortion movement by then had grown in size and militancy, even as its opponents were speaking an ever more strident language of rights.