Shifting Allegiances

Catholics, Democrats & the GOP

True story: It is the day before Pope John Paul II’s funeral, a year ago last April. Assembling in Rome are the members of the official delegation of the United States government, including President and Mrs. Bush and a number of Catholic senators and representatives. Two of those Catholic senators are Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and John Kerry of Massachusetts.

As the two of them walk across St. Peter’s Square, bystanders stop Kerry every few steps to bemoan his defeat in the presidential election just a few months before. Some of these admirers—including a few Italian priests—drape themselves enthusiastically over Kerry’s lanky frame for group snapshots.

Then a single priest stops Kerry and Durbin. He warns Kerry that he will have to answer, perhaps in hell, for his position on abortion.

That priest is from Minnesota.


How did we get here? And are we stuck?

Unraveling the meaning of this vignette requires attention to three interlocking narratives. The first is the story of the once-happy but now troubled marriage between Catholics and the Democratic Party. The second is the history of the fight over public access not to abortion, but to birth control. The third is the emergence of a new generation of bishops, priests, and lay intellectuals, suspicious of both theological and political liberalism, and eager to take a more adversarial posture toward modern society.

The first story of Catholics and Democrats is the most familiar. Most Catholics, clustered along the East Coast and in the Great Lakes region, voted Democratic in presidential elections for most of the twentieth century, an alliance jumpstarted by Al Smith’s failed 1928 presidential campaign and cemented by Franklin Roosevelt’s charisma, the early programs of his New Deal, and his sympathy for U.S. workers. (Roosevelt thrilled Catholic activists by quoting from Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical on the economy, Quadragesimo anno, at a rally in Detroit during the final days of the 1932 campaign.) Many Catholic voters drifted toward the popular Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, but a remarkable 78 percent voted for Catholic war hero John Kennedy in 1960. As late as 1968, two of the three Democratic candidates for president, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, were serious Catholics on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and support from white Catholics in the North almost pushed the eventual Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, past Richard Nixon. As Howard Dean recently put it, “The Democratic Party was built on four pillars—the Roosevelt intellectuals, the Catholic Church, labor unions, and African Americans.” (Dean ignores white Southerners, the most reliable members of the pre-civil-rights era Democratic Party, but the observation is accurate for the party in the North.)

George McGovern proved incapable of sustaining this Catholic backing in 1972, in part because the Democratic Party in the heady years between 1968 and 1972 became associated with a cultural liberalism that some Catholic voters, especially working-class whites, found unsettling. (Humphrey, during the bitter days of the 1972 Democratic primaries, inaccurately but effectively tarred McGovern as favoring “abortion, acid, and amnesty [for Vietnam era draft evaders].”)

Much of this uneasiness with the national Democratic Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s revolved around race, with working-class white Catholics appalled by Democratic support for forced busing programs to alleviate racial imbalance in the public schools, and suspicious of efforts to integrate lily-white (and heavily Catholic) construction and trade unions. The sympathy for African-American civil rights displayed by many priests and nuns in the late 1960s evoked among some white Catholics a raw sense of betrayal. One segregationist priest in Chicago, defying his archbishop and the head of his religious order, became an alderman as an advocate for the “forgotten minority” of white homeowners. J. Anthony Lukas’s study of the busing crisis in Boston, Common Ground, pivoted on the role of the church, attempting to mediate between Catholic politicians and judges eager to end racial segregation (but often themselves living in suburban enclaves), and working-class white Catholics often incapable of welcoming African Americans, even African-American Catholics, into their midst.

As the racial tensions of the 1960s and 1970s ebbed, abortion took center stage. But not right away. Until the early 1970s most Democrats seemed more conservative than Republicans on abortion. Republican governors—including Nelson Rockefeller in New York and William Milliken in Michigan—signed or advocated laws loosening state restrictions on abortion. By contrast, Senator Edward Kennedy assured his constituents as late as 1971 that “abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life.” George McGovern’s first choice for running mate in 1972, Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, held prolife views as did McGovern’s eventual running mate, Kennedy in-law and Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver.

Roe v. Wade made everything more partisan. The unexpectedly sweeping consequences of the 1973 ruling-eliminating most state restrictions on the procedure, with the number of abortions rising to over 1.5 million a year by 1980-jumpstarted a grassroots antiabortion movement, arguably the largest social movement of the post-civil-rights era, led, funded, and supported in its first years by Catholics. At the same time, abortion rights became central to the modern women’s movement in the United States (more so than in most of Europe) and these activists called the Democratic Party their home. Now no politician could dodge the issue (as Robert Kennedy had in 1968) and a generation of Catholic Democrats, some principled, some pragmatic, adopted a prochoice stance.

They did not pay an electoral price. Catholic voters during this period were only modestly less prochoice than the general population—a point worth emphasizing—and tended not to make abortion a voting issue. The number of prolife Catholic Democrats holding high office dwindled, a decline marked by the 1984 Democratic Party platform, which described reproductive freedom as a “fundamental human right.” (The same year, New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor chastised Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s running mate, for her prochoice views, and New York Governor Mario Cuomo defended his prochoice position in a widely publicized speech at Notre Dame.) In 1992, leading Democrats notoriously prevented Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey, the country’s most prominent prolife Catholic Democrat, from speaking at the party’s national convention.

The Republican Party moved in the other direction. Its most prominent congressional voice became an Illinois Catholic, Congressman Henry Hyde, who endeared himself to Catholic conservatives by attacking the use of Medicaid funds for abortions. (“I stand before you,” Hyde would tell Catholic audiences in the 1970s, “a 652-month-old fetus.”) More important, for the first time prominent Evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell threw themselves into the antiabortion campaign, and their enthusiasm helped propel a prolife candidate, Ronald Reagan, into the White House.

Bill Clinton stemmed this Catholic drift into the Republican Party during the 1990s, and the relationship of Catholic politicians to their bishops faded from the headlines. (A new cluster of prochoice Catholic Republicans in states where prolife politicians have little hope for election to statewide public office, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger in California and George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani in New York, also complicated the picture.) But in 2004 Democrats nominated John Kerry, a prochoice Catholic, for president. A few bishops battered the Kerry campaign with prohibitions, or threatened prohibitions, on his receiving Communion. Kerry, himself, when asked about abortion in the second presidential debate, offered a windy soliloquy “about life and about responsibility” that begged the hard questions.

In the aftermath of Kerry’s defeat, Democrats began to pick up the pieces. As part of this effort, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg—famous for his analysis of Reagan Democrats in Macomb County, Michigan—and an associate, Matt Hogan, polled white Catholics. (The results are available at A more comprehensive analysis of the Democrats’ plight that draws on the Greenberg/Hogan analysis is “The Politics of Polarization” by Commonweal contributor Willam A. Galston and Elaine C. Kamarck, available at Greenberg and Hogan paid special attention to Democratic defectors, the small but crucial group of white Catholic Democrats, especially in Ohio and other battleground Midwestern states, who voted for Clinton in 1996 but supported George W. Bush in 2004. (Clinton carried white Catholics by seven points in 1996, Gore lost them by seven points in 2000, and Kerry lost white Catholics by fourteen points in 2004). In an election where notions about morality played an important role, these Catholic Democrats named abortion as their “single greatest moral concern.” Indeed, Galston, a onetime Clinton aide, recently argued that vetoing the partial-birth abortion ban was the “single worst political mistake that Bill Clinton made in his eight years....If there was ever an issue to take off the table, that was it.”

The Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito also testified to the durability of the abortion debate. A Catholic Kabuki theater marked Roberts’s confirmation hearings, especially with the liberal Catholic lions on the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Kennedy from Massachusetts, Durbin from Illinois, and Patrick Leahy from Vermont, probing the Catholic Roberts on his views on privacy and individual rights, while Catholic conservatives tied to the Bush administration muttered about anti-Catholic litmus tests. (Roberts’s wife, Jane Sullivan Roberts, a College of the Holy Cross graduate, has also donated her legal talents to the predominantly Catholic organization, Feminists for Life.) Tim Russert on Meet the Press asked Durbin to explain how as a congressman he had once called for Roe v. Wade to be overturned, but now, as a senator, termed opposition to Roe v. Wade “out of the mainstream.” Durbin, in turn, recalled that he came to Washington holding prolife views but discovered that many opponents of abortion were unwilling to make exceptions for victims of rape or incest. Even more troubling, so many “opponents of abortion were also opponents of family planning. This didn’t make any sense to me.”


Durbin’s last point is intriguing, if inevitably self-interested. Understanding the contemporary American abortion debate requires a return to the dimly recalled history of the public debate about contraception. In 1930, Pius XI, the same pope who just three months later in Quadragesimo anno would condemn “individualist economic teaching,” chose, in Casti connubii, to define all contraceptive use as immoral.

By then, as Margaret Sanger and other birth-control advocates delighted in pointing out, Catholics remained the only sizable lobby opposed to liberalization of laws regarding birth control. The issue began to flare up: Should the Army issue condoms to Catholic soldiers? Should Community Chest fundraising drives contribute to Planned Parenthood chapters? The most heated debates took place in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where nineteenth-century laws (written by Protestants, not Catholics) that prohibited even married couples from purchasing contraceptives remained on the books. (Doctors evaded the law by prescribing contraceptives for “health” reasons.)

Catholics in Massachusetts defeated a first push to change the state’s laws in 1940. In 1948, reformers tried again and Massachusetts voters again pushed them back, urged on by an archdiocesan-funded effort, with a billboard and radio campaign, emphasizing that “Birth Control Is Still against God’s Law.” Sermon outlines distributed to all priests in the Boston Archdiocese explained that “the prohibition of birth control is not a law peculiar to the church any more than are the laws against murder, theft, perjury, or treason.”

The Boston Archdiocese won this battle only to lose the war. Leslie Tentler’s Catholics and Contraception (Cornell University Press), now required reading for any bishop, priest, or layperson opining on this subject, details how confidence in church teaching on birth control collapsed over the next two decades. The causes included the increasing frustration of married couples, especially married women, wed in their early twenties after World War II and bearing six, seven, eight, or more children; the conviction of priests, especially priests listening to their most idealistic and loyal parishioners in the confessional, and becoming convinced that obeying church teaching and the sexual abstinence it required damaged as many marriages as it helped; and the unease among theologians about a natural-law teaching presumably accessible to reason that only Catholics found reasonable. By the mid-1960s many bishops hoped for a change in church teaching, and priests knew that their parishioners, some after agonized soul-searching, had abandoned it.

In 1965, a young Massachusetts Democrat named Michael Dukakis introduced a measure in the state legislature to legalize contraceptive use for married couples. Advised behind-the-scenes by Jesuit John Courtney Murray, Boston’s archbishop, Richard Cushing, declined to oppose the measure. Then laboring over the Declaration of Religious Freedom at the Second Vatican Council, Murray composed a statement for Cushing insisting that it is not “the function of civil law to prescribe everything that is morally right and to forbid everything that is morally wrong.” Given that contraceptive devices had “received official sanction by many religious groups within the community,” Cushing, channeling Murray, urged Catholics to respect the religious freedom of their fellow citizens. Two years later, just before his death in 1967, Murray regretted that church teaching on contraception “went too far,” reaching for “too much certainty too soon.”


From a prolife perspective, this debate over birth control, and the widespread rejection of Humanae vitae on its release in 1968, could not have been more ill-timed. As early as 1965, theologians such as Richard McCormick, SJ, were privately alerting their colleagues that “there is going to be a strong play for widening acceptable indications for abortion” and asking for assistance in distinguishing, in both the public and the Catholic mind, between contraception and abortion. A few Catholic conservatives, such as William F. Buckley Jr., even (briefly) advocated a liberalization of abortion laws for the same reason, respect of conscience, articulated by Murray in regard to contraception.

The alienation of Catholic women from church teaching on contraception also provided prochoice organizations with an opportunity. Groups like the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) self-consciously promoted Catholic women as spokespersons in the state battles over abortion in the late 1960s and early 1970s, exploiting the reputation of a church perceived as incapable of acknowledging women’s experiences. Even the bishops’ point man on the abortion issue, Bishop James McHugh, privately conceded that the credibility of the Vatican on sexual and gender issues, in large part because of the debate over contraception, was such that official statements on abortion risked aggravating “the problems of Humanae vitae.”

There matters stood until the election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II in 1978. Over a generation, John Paul II’s passionate prolife stance did shape the American abortion debate, as did his opposition to capital punishment. Most Americans still support legal abortion in some circumstances, but since the early 1990s, remarkably, support for the position that abortion should be legal in all circumstances has declined, while support for making abortion illegal in all circumstances has increased. That George W. Bush, in his tribute to John Paul II on the pope’s death, sounded more like a Catholic bishop than a non-Catholic president, with references to his support for a “culture of life,” reflected the late pope’s influence as much as Karl Rove’s ongoing effort to sway Catholic voters.

In retrospect, John Paul II’s conservative views on abortion and sexual ethics generally mirrored a wider withdrawal from 1960s-style liberalism in American intellectual life, certainly in its Catholic variant. At the level of ideas, philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre attacked the “Enlightenment project” and a liberalism predicated on a false sense of moral neutrality. At the level of policy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mary Ann Glendon, and James Q. Wilson cast jaundiced eyes on liberal social-welfare policies and no-fault divorce. In the narrow world of Catholic polemics, neoconservatives such as Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, and George Weigel pushed Catholic liberals to acknowledge the achievements of market capitalism, the importance of the two-parent family, and the unstable foundations of liberal church-state jurisprudence.

That some of these Catholic neoconservatives tied themselves to the Republican Party, attracting extraordinary financial support from conservative foundations as part of the bargain, made liberals understandably suspicious of neoconservative motivations. Still, the neoconservatives made empirical, not just ideological, arguments and provided an important check on liberal pretensions.

The moment passed. Trolling much of the Catholic press now means drowning in screeds. Sermons on the “crisis of fatherhood,” the “decay of family life,” and the need to check the “deceptive charm” of a culture unwilling to cultivate the virtue of “obedience” substitute for empirical analysis. We “slouch toward Gomorrah” in Robert Bork’s heated phrasing. In retrospect, the 1996 imbroglio at Neuhaus’s First Things over the “judicial usurpation of politics” marked a sectarian warning shot. (The magazine’s editors warned that recent Supreme Court decisions on abortion, especially, meant that matters “have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.”) More recent attacks by the neocons on the Jesuits, on those Catholics, including some bishops, who upheld traditional end-of-life teaching during the Terri Schiavo melodrama, and on the new archbishop of San Francisco as overly sympathetic to gays are only the most recent volleys.

Part of this rhetorical overkill stems from disappointment. John Paul II, despite his extraordinary charisma, did not stem the drift away from official church teaching on most of the hot-button sex and gender issues. More Catholic couples now use birth control than at the beginning of John Paul II’s papacy, and the Greenberg/Hogan polling data highlight the sympathy of Catholic voters, even practicing Catholic voters supporting President Bush, for same-sex civil unions.

Within the church, John Paul II’s frequent condemnations of contraception, his fiat against discussion of women’s ordination, his refusal to appoint as bishop any priest not willing to defend Humanae vitae, and his characterization of the modern United States as a “culture of death,” fostered a more sectarian mood. Just this August, Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Illinois, solemnly (and offensively) listed the “sacraments” of the Democratic Party as “abortion, buggery, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, feminism of the radical type, and genetic experimentation and mutilation.” These Democratic positions, Doran cheerfully informed Rockford Catholics, “place us squarely on the road to suicide as a people.”

More politely, Denver archbishop Charles Chaput described Catholics as “timid” in a “culture that grows more estranged from the gospel with every year.” Or, as Chaput explained last year to the New Yorker’s Peter Boyer: “We’re at a time for the church in our country when some Catholics—too many—are discovering that they’ve gradually become non-Catholics who happen to go to Mass. That’s sad and difficult, and a judgment on a generation of Catholic leadership. But it may be exactly the moment of truth the church needs.”

To Chaput and other like-minded Catholics, the primary obstacle to a new evangelization is a “liberal culture” entrenched in the media, the universities, and, crucially, within the church itself. In an eerie echo of the 1960s, these spokespersons urge their coreligionists to reject not just the mainstream media but the Catholic mainstream as well: Protect your children at Steubenville, instead of throwing them to the wolves at Boston College (or Notre Dame). Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum even blamed Boston liberalism—instead of, say, Cardinal Bernard Law—for that archdiocese’s implosion during the sexual-abuse crisis, a dubious claim given what the Philadelphia district attorney has recently told us about sexual abuse in that archdiocese.

This more apocalyptic ecclesiastical mood blended with the waning of the Catholic subculture over the past thirty years, and the felt need of a significant minority of young Catholics for more familiarity with the faith they professed. Catholic leaders of the 1970s and 1980s, to their shame, ignored the plight of these young people, and never solved the larger puzzle of what serious catechetical education might entail in a mobile, fragmented society. (See John Cavadini’s April 9, 2004, Commonweal cover story, “Teaching Theology: What Young Catholics Don’t Know.”) At Notre Dame, where I teach, one colleague claims that some of her advanced students, almost all Catholic, cannot identify Pontius Pilate. The most committed of these Catholic young people now lurch between an attractive (even brave) love for the faith and the church, and a defensive circling of the wagons. Who can but admire young Catholics immersing themselves in serious study of Catholic intellectual traditions and choosing service to the church through volunteer programs? Who can but sigh when reading the following headline in a conservative Catholic student newspaper: “Can Women Be Priests? A Full Defense of the Authoritative Church Position, and Why It Cannot and Will Not Change”?


Given these three contexts: the relationship of Catholics to the Democratic Party, the partisan cast of the abortion debate since Roe v. Wade, and the more sectarian tone in recent Catholic life, perhaps the real surprise is that the priest from Minnesota didn’t insist on escorting John Kerry to hell himself.

Still, a new political moment and a new papacy do contain hints of change. Emily’s List, the prochoice fundraising operation, remains the most important source of independent funds in the Democratic Party—raising $84 million this past year. But Robert Casey Jr., a prolife Catholic Democrat, has received the enthusiastic backing of chastened party leaders in his Pennsylvania senatorial race against Rick Santorum. Democrats for Life now claims thirty-two Democratic congressional representatives as prolife, many of whom have endorsed the organization’s 95–10 initiative, aimed at reducing the number of abortions in the United States by 95 percent in ten years. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, chair of the bishops’ task force on Bishops and Catholic Politicians, recently cautioned against importing the “intense polarization and bitter battles of partisan politics” into the church, and commended off-the-record discussions with and information sessions for Catholic politicians.

Pope Benedict XVI’s view about the relationship between religion and politics will become more clear over time. His record suggests (an entirely appropriate) skepticism about Catholic politicians claiming personal opposition to abortion but recording 100-percent NARAL voting records. Still, the first year of his papacy also suggests a willingness to engage rather than merely admonish fellow Catholics about contested issues. Cardinal William Levada’s plea at the Synod on the Eucharist last year for more discussion of the problem of Catholic politicians, abortion, and Communion also reminds us that the abortion question is not simply an American problem. Instead, it is a case study for the universal church of how Catholics vote and work within societies which do not embody the norms of Catholic moral or social thought.

None of this denies the hypocrisy of many Catholic Democrats (and some Catholic Republicans) on the abortion issue. It simply recognizes that the hothouse ecclesiastical climate created in the last decade of John Paul II’s papacy, which endures in the bishops he appointed and some of the young people he inspired, nurtures a kind of romantic purity, a prophetic denunciation of an American society for which Catholics are, after all, in large part responsible.

The Italian priests standing with John Kerry in St. Peter’s Square did not, one imagines, admire Kerry’s almost inarticulate position on abortion. Instead, they opposed the American invasion of Iraq, or the mores of a society that allows economic inequality to reach unprecedented heights. These issues, too, admit of no easy solutions. But engaging the nitty-gritty of, say, what just-war theory requires of Congress and the president, or how we evaluate the relationship between economic growth and inequality, remains more consonant with the most enduring strains of Catholic social thought than issuing partisan manifestoes (see Eduardo Moisés Peñalver, page 20).

Can we do better? How should we actually decrease the abortion rate, given that federal policies on access to abortion matter less than the socio-economic plight of women seeking abortions? How should we understand low abortion rates in Western Europe (where abortion is legal) and high rates in putatively Catholic Latin America (where it is not)? These questions signal realism, not evasion, certainly for anyone hoping to decrease the actual number of abortions occurring in the United States. Perhaps this campaign season, and the presidential election cycle in 2008 for which it is an inevitable warm-up, mark a test. If so, here’s the final exam question: Can Catholics and other people of goodwill agree to make abortions rare, and mean it, or will the issue remain a rhetorical ploy Republicans exploit and a moral scandal to which Democrats are blind?

Let’s hope we pass.

Published in the 2006-09-22 issue: 

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

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