In 2015, when Pope Francis came to the United States for the first major trip to the country in his papacy, 31% of Congress was Catholic. Considering the history of anti-Catholic rhetoric in United States politics that rose to its peak in the 1950’s with the “Know-Nothing” Party, this was a significant improvement in terms of establishing a Catholic voice in Washington.
Having a similar faith by no means places all of these lawmakers on one end of the ideological spectrum. Current Catholic lawmakers span from the far left to the far right, with names like Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan (both self-declared Catholics) demonstrating exactly how much modern Catholic politicians can differ. How can church doctrine, so clearly laid out in the Catechism, result in such differing politics?
In order to answer that question, one must understand where each politician is drawing the line between their politics and personal faith.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy gave a striking speech on his Catholicism, right on the heels of the anti-Catholic sentiment of the 50’s. In the context of this era, he emphasized that his religion was not relevant to his politics, and that, if elected, Rome would have no say in the ongoings of the United States.
Times have changed since then, as many Catholic politicians openly profess that their faith informs their politics. Still, the extent to which faith informs politics differs on various issues and from politician to politician.
The gay marriage question is one where a divide can be seen clearly. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law.” It also states that people with homosexual inclinations “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” For someone like Senator Marco Rubio, the disordered nature of homosexuality leads him to be oppose gay marriage and gay rights. For another Catholic Senator, Bob Casey, Jr., the Catholic doctrine of compassion leads him to support certain gay rights such as civil unions but not gay marriage.
Another topic where two Catholic politicians diverge is on questions of economic and poverty policies. Catholic Democrats vocally criticized inconsistencies between Paul Ryan’s previous budget proposals and the Catholic “preferential option for the poor.” Furthermore, Catholics come down on both sides of the universal healthcare debate. Someone like former Vice President Joe Biden claims the Catholic belief in the necessity of solidarity, compassion, and human dignity in our politics means that a public option for healthcare is important. Yet it takes little effort to find practicing Catholic politicians who disagree with Biden’s assessment of the need for public healthcare options.
Ultimately, there is no single image of the modern Catholic politician. While the evangelical voting bloc is a consistently socially conservative political body, Catholics seem to understand Church teachings as allowing for nuanced political views. In an article published by the Catholic Herald in 2018, Dan Hitchens summed up the conflicting natures of Catholic politicians by saying, “Which is worse: ‘left-wing’ Catholic politicians who contradict the Church on marriage and abortion, or ‘right-wing’ Catholic politicians who neglect the Church’s teaching on immigration and on the state’s duty to correct some of the injustices of the market?”
Hitchens seems to be hinting at a larger issue: is there truly a Catholic politician who follows the doctrines of the Church to a T?
From a close examination of modern politicians right now, the answer to Hitchens’ proposed question is no. The modern Catholic politician, then, poses a difficult dilemma for the Catholic voter, and can explain why the Catholic vote is not as cohesive of a voting bloc as one would assume for a faith with a strict doctrinal tradition. Catholics right now are forced to decide for themselves which doctrines of the Church are the most important in politics.
According to the 2016 American National Election Study, a plurality of Catholics voted for Hillary Clinton (48 percent to 45 percent). Perhaps that statistic can answer the question of which doctrines Catholics consider most salient in contemporary times.
Claire Marie Kuhn is a senior majoring in political science with a minor in Peace Studies. She enjoys long afternoon naps and iced green tea lattes. To talk with her over one of those lattes, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.