The Struggle for the Political Soul of American Catholicism

Timothy A. Byrnes



As a Political Scientist, rather than a theologian or even a dedicated student of religious studies, I have become more comfortable over the years with examining the politics of religious institutions, particularly the Catholic Church.  But I began my professional life with a commitment to study the role of religious institutions in politics, and that is the focus of this article.  My reflections here will be based on two arguments I first made in a book I published over 25 years ago, Catholic Bishops in American Politics.  First, the role of the Catholic hierarchy in US politics is shaped and constrained by the nature of US politics at least as much as by the agenda and activities of the Catholic hierarchy.  It is important in this case and in other similar cases to emphasize the political side of the relationship between religion and politics.  Second, in order for the Catholic bishops to preserve and advance their important and unique role in US politics, the bishops need to understand the political system in which they are operating.  This is not because they should tailor their activities to the passing emphases and conflicts of partisan politics – indeed I will argue here that they should not do so – but rather because if they do not understand the context in which they are operating, they run the very real risk of doing themselves and their church significant institutional damage.


Let us begin with a few fundamental facts about the US political system that powerfully shape the roles that any religious leaders, including Catholic bishops, play in US politics.  The first is that the US is solidly, enduringly, permanently a two party system. Two parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, compete for political power in the United States.  Minor parties exist and are engaged in other activities – issue evolution, interest group mobilization, etc.  However, only the Democrats and the Republicans compete in any meaningful sense for power defined as holding public office.  This is not because we lack the imagination or diversity required for a more multifaceted party system.  We are a remarkably diverse and imaginative people; both Walt Disney and Steve Jobs were Americans, after all.  Rather, it is because we conduct our politics according to the dictates of a plurality system of elections.  In any given contest, one candidate wins and all the others lose.  This seems obvious to most Americans, but many other democracies find these outcomes too limiting.  These other democracies operate their elections according to the dictates of Proportional Representation (PR); wherein the percentage of seats in the legislature a party receives is roughly equivalent to the percentage of votes it receives in a national election.


These PR systems allow for much more of what we call “interest representation” through party politics, and it is why many other democracies feature multi-party systems. PR allows voters and institutional leaders to associate themselves with much narrower parties that more nearly mirror their particular interests and preferences.  In the United States, however, our plurality system actively militates against this kind of multi-party competition. Therefore, voters are “stuck” with choosing between two large, internally diverse, and even fractious parties on Election Day.  This dynamic is sharpened significantly at the national level by the fact that the presidency is decided by an electoral college, which greatly minimizes the prospects and success of 3rd party candidates.  Ross Perot got 19% of the popular vote in 1992 and zero electoral votes.


This means that all Americans – very much including Catholics and their bishops – are faced with less than optimal choices on Election Day. Simply put, in the United States there is no “Catholic party” that could faithfully reflect the Church’s positions on the wide array of policy issues related to the Church’s teachings. We can imagine a party that opposes abortion and euthanasia while also opposing the death penalty and pre-emptive war.  Or one that calls for tuition tax credits for parochial schools and also for more aggressive government support for the needy.  Or one that demands that the US open its doors to more refugees while also demanding that marriage be restricted to unions between members of opposite sexes.  We can imagine such a party, but no such party exists in the United States, and no such party is likely to ever exist in the future.  The US system is too limited by the two party straitjacket.  American parties are too large and diverse to allow for such a consistently “Catholic” emphasis.  As a result, Catholic teaching creates what we call “cross-cutting cleavages,” meaning that the policy-relevant teachings of the Catholic Church cut across or dissect the partisan division rather than run parallel to it.  The Catholic “line” intersects with both party platforms in ways that cause short-term challenges for Catholic voters.  However, those crosscutting intersections also provide long-term advantages when it comes to defining the role that Catholic bishops can play in the public square.


How does an individual Catholic respond in these circumstances?  She or he has to do what all US voters do: make value judgments and choose candidates – and perhaps even a political party – on the basis of a determination that one electoral outcome would be more congenial to her or his interests than the other.  Many voters believed that they were faced with choosing the lesser of two evils during the 2016 presidential election. Yet that is always the case in the United States.  Rare, indeed, is the voter who finds that he or she agrees with the entire platform of a given party or with everything a candidate – especially a candidate for President – says.  But choose we must, and millions of us enter voting booths every year and cast our votes with relative confidence and relatively clear consciences.


But what about religious leaders?  What about the Catholic bishops?  How should they respond to this inevitable compromising of their religious teachings and moral principles?  As voters, they are no different than anyone else and frankly, I sympathize for the balancing act that an individual bishop might have to conduct in the privacy of the voting booth.  Still, in their public pronouncements and in their “official” characterization of the relationship between their church’s teachings and electoral judgments, I would caution them in very strong terms to stay far away from political parties and from party platforms.  The fact that their “Catholic” agenda cuts so dramatically across the party divide in the US is actually a very positive thing that needs to be treasured, and even nurtured.  It means that bishops can speak meaningfully to all voters about the issues facing the country, and it means that the bishops’ role in policy debates will outlast any particular set of issues or set of partisan commitments.  When bishops forget this long-term consideration and explicitly link their own statements of priority to those of a given political party at a given moment in time, that inevitably leads to the bishops’ agenda being artificially trimmed to accommodate the competition between the two major parties that the country happens to feature at that particular (fleeting) moment.  This position is an institutionally dangerous one for bishops to allow, much less to actively encourage.


Such an approach reifies certain value judgments about moral priorities into defined Church teaching about complex political choices.  To say that abortion is the central Catholic issue of a given election for example – as many bishops have said – is to necessarily downgrade all other moral issues in political terms.  Central pillars of New Testament teaching concerning the Church’s care for the poor, or its welcome to the displaced, or the Church’s stewardship of creation, become relegated to negligible considerations in an electoral context in which one party opposes legal access to abortion while at the same time advocating a form of economic Neo-Darwinism, rejecting refugee asylum claims out of hand, and loudly proclaiming that climate change is a global conspiracy perpetrated by radical environmentalists in league with the Chinese government.


Many bishops respond to this critique, of course, by reminding us that not all evils are equally, well, evil, and that Catholics are called to make distinctions between unambiguous moral absolutes with direct policy application – direct termination of pregnancy is wrong in all cases, for example – and prudential judgments about complex policy debates concerning the best way, say, to alleviate poverty.  These arguments have been around for ages and have been expressed with particular force since 1976 – the first election after Roe v. Wade effectively legalized abortion across the country. These arguments represent an institutional mistake, however, even if one is inclined to accept the claim that the Catholic Church and its episcopal leadership ought to limit itself in electoral terms to being an anti-abortion lobby group.  These arguments assume that all other moral evils pale in comparison with abortion, and therefore that all other electoral considerations should be squelched in favor of anti-abortion voting.  However, even if one believes all of this, as many bishops clearly do, one still has to contend with another danger that such an approach poses to the Catholic hierarchy: it runs the great risk of connecting the bishops and their Church with a particular coalition of political forces, a particular iteration of a political party, that is absolutely assured of being short-lived in historical terms.  It runs the risk, in other words, of limiting the Church’s institutional influence to an ephemeral political vehicle that will, in time, likely be an embarrassment – or if you prefer Catholic terminology – a scandal to the Church.


And that brings us to our second crucial fact about American political parties so important to the nature of the political role of the Catholic hierarchy. As large, constituent-based parties of diverse coalitions, brought together for the sole purpose of winning elections, US political parties are always in the process of change and development.  Just as the plurality electoral system militates against the presence of a “Catholic party” on the political scene, this other foundational aspect of the American party system militates against any political party maintaining its ideological coloration or coalitional membership over the long term.  In a way that often is misunderstood, American political parties stand for nothing more or less than winning elections.  And they will morph and change when that fundamental imperative challenges them to do so.  This is why “the Party of Lincoln” now receives less than 10% of the African American vote in national elections while the party of the southern courthouse and white supremacy produced Barack Obama as the country’s first African-American president.  This is why the nascent right-to-life movement shifted so rapidly from Ellen McCormack’s symbolic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976 to a mainstay of the Republican Party in 1980 and beyond.


This process of constant and profound change poses real challenges for religious leaders who decide to hitch their religious wagons, as it were, to a particular political star.  For one thing, it places them under enormous pressure to accommodate themselves to the elements of the party’s platform with which they might not otherwise find agreement.  It is one thing to say in rhetorical terms, for example, that one’s agreement with the modern Republican Party is strictly restricted to one or two crucial “life” issues while maintaining disagreement, even if only on prudential grounds, with everything else that that party stands for.  But experience tells us that it is much more difficult to do that if one is at least implicitly encouraging one’s flock to vote over an extended period of time for one party’s candidates over the other, especially, in other words, if one offers oneself as a kind of embodied religious bona fide for that party’s candidates. Through persistent support for that party’s candidates, religious leaders become to a significant degree publicly associated with the party per se, rather than with the two or three issues on which they formally agree with the party’s platform.


Admittedly, this dynamic has been much more prominently on display in terms of Evangelical Protestant leaders than it has in the case of Catholic bishops.  I can still remember the surprise I felt when I picked up a Christian Coalition voting guide in 1992, and “learned” that Jesus of Nazareth surely would have supported a cut in the capital gains tax rate if he walked the earth today!  Compromise after compromise after compromise has led large swaths of the Evangelical movement to become little more than the religious auxiliary of the contemporary Republican Party.  And year after year some of us have watched, in something approaching horror, as men such as Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson have stretched and distorted the Christian message to fit it into the Republican platform or to accommodate individual candidates. A recent poll, for example, indicated that 72% of self–identified Evangelicals would be willing to accept their president committing “immoral acts” so long as he advanced their policy agenda.


Catholics can point with some pride to the fact that their own Church’s leadership has been relatively less craven and somewhat less willing to engage in such problematically partisan gymnastics.  To be sure, there have been times when the argument that Catholics were free to disagree on prudential judgments concerning economic policy has come close to an endorsement of unfettered capitalism.  And there have been many other times when criticism of pro-choice Democratic candidates – particularly pro-choice Catholic politicians – came along with rhetoric that sounded like endorsement of their opponents and the Republican Party those opponents represented.  But the US Catholic hierarchy as a collective entity has been at least more attuned to this danger than their Evangelical brethren. And it would be a harder argument to make that the bishops have completely subverted the complexity of their moral agenda to the exigencies of Republican partisan politics than to argue that that is exactly what has happened with a number of Evangelical leaders.


However, my intention here is not only to point out that religious leaders might be incentivized to become little more than party operatives within religious communities, even though some have clearly done just that.  My intention is also to point out that it is not good for the long term health and viability of any given religious moral agenda or body of Church teaching to associate itself closely with any political party which – to repeat – is sure to change and morph before one’s very eyes.  It would be bad enough to follow the lead of Jerry Falwell Jr. and become little more than a party apparatchik.  But it might even be worse, and more counter-productive in the long-term, to sell one’s soul to a particular, time-specific iteration of a political party when that iteration is in the process of ceasing to be.  Here, many Catholic bishops have been less careful or attentive than they should be to their unique position and to the nature of the political party system in which they live.


When we talk about Catholic teaching, after all, we are talking about a timeless tradition whose moral values will never be encapsulated by a political party – not in the US two-party context anyway.  And we are talking about that timeless tradition existing within a time-bound party system in which individual parties are always and enduringly undergoing dramatic shifts and change. Some Catholic bishops – probably the clear majority in the 21st century – have come perilously close to squandering what is their unique position in the American political firmament, a position grounded in great breadth and complexity that dramatically straddles the policy agenda of the country. If understood and enacted properly, the bishops’ political position, grounded in that unique breadth, complexity, and timeless principle holds the potential of affording the bishops the equally unique opportunity to play a prophetic role on the American political stage – today, tomorrow and in the future.


The modern Republican Party began to come together in 1964 when Barry Goldwater of Arizona wrested the GOP nomination from Nelson Rockefeller of New York.  Doctrinaire conservatism replaced urbane moderation, and the partisan map shifted dramatically as the Democratic Party’s long-delayed embrace of Civil Rights and Voting Rights for African-Americans drove the White South’s epoch-making accommodation with the Party of Lincoln.  Goldwater lost in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but the more important slide was five southern states into the GOP’s electoral column.  Richard Nixon eschewed the more strident aspects of Goldwater’s rhetoric during his 1968 comeback, but as George Wallace’s racist candidacy escorted the entire south out of the two-party Electoral College competition in 1968, Nixon and his publicists – people like the Catholic Pat Buchanan – noted the possibility of an “emerging Republican majority.” They saw that this could be made up of traditional Republican voters, joined in coalition with the Wallace vote, joined in time by formerly Democratic voters who could be mobilized by the so-called “social questions” of abortion, crime, gay rights etc.  This was the Reagan GOP – a complex coalition of voting groups, pairing economic conservatives and social conservatives, linked together around a protean but potent collective identification as “conservatives.”  These were the self-styled “real Americans,” fighting a millennial battle against liberals who had tattered the fabric of American community and familial life, collectivized an economy no longer able to tap into the unique dynamism of American entrepreneurialism, and feminized American foreign policy in a nearly traitorous refusal to celebrate American exceptionalism and assert American influence abroad.


It was an enormous feat of political skill to form this GOP on the ashes of Democratic decay.  And this set of commitments and priorities won presidential elections for over 30 years – either explicitly under the banner of Reagan and the two Bushes or implicitly under Slick Willie Clinton who triangulated his way to Democratic victories while governing in favor of Republican priorities across the policy spectrum: ending welfare as we know it, balancing the budget, enacting free trade deals, and filling American prisons with the “super predators” whom the First Lady imagined were terrorizing American cities.  Into this coalition came the bulk of the US Catholic hierarchy, attracted predominantly, but not exclusively, by President Reagan’s promise to oppose legal access to abortion.  That support was always attenuated – for most bishops though not all – by deep concerns about the moral implications of Republican economic and foreign policy.  But you would need to be willfully obtuse to not pick up the message that Catholic bishops, in their bulk, preferred Reagan over Carter and Mondale, Bush 41 over Dukakis and Clinton, Dole over Clinton, and Bush 43 over Gore and Kerry.  You would be safe in coming to the conclusion, in other words, that when it came to deciding whom to vote for, when it came to choosing one set of moral priorities over another in a limited two party system, Catholic bishops encouraged their flock to side with the Republican Party.


Again, this was not quite the ludicrous prostration before electoral Gods engaged in by some other religious leaders.  The Catholic Church still maintained a wide policy agenda and the bishops still communicated that agenda in at least a formally non-partisan way.  But the breadth of that agenda and the constructive way that it intersected with late 20th century and early 21st century partisan politics was muted if not lost.  And the problem, once again, is that this dynamic associated the Catholic hierarchy with a form of the Republican Party that soon will no longer exist.  Just as the GOP of Lincoln morphed into something new, just as the Democrats’ New Deal coalition frayed and came apart, so Reagan’s Republican coalition is experiencing its inevitable internal tensions and its inexorable institutional decline.  Holding together a single party that includes within itself Barbara Bush and Pat Buchanan, Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan and Donald Trump is a very difficult task.  Indeed, as history shows us repeatedly, it will prove impossible.  The Republican Party will change, it will be transformed, and it will emerge as something different from what we know today.  However, in the meantime, which of its warring factions will carry the banner of Catholic teaching into electoral battle?  The Paul Ryan GOP with its fiscal austerity, opposition to economic regulation, and a worldview based in the radical individualism of Ayn Rand?  Will opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage really be a mobilizing issue for that kind of Republican, the kind of Republican who always has had access to reproductive services through private medical care anyway?  The kind of Republican who is trying to retain and recruit young people to their message of “freedom” among an age cohort that supports equal rights for their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters by over 80% in polls?


Or how about Trumpism?  A definition of conservatism named for a man who has taken every possible position on abortion over the last decade and who took three positions on reproductive rights over the course of a single hour during his presidential campaign?  A vehicle for white nationalist resentment led by a thrice married New Yorker whose top campaign surrogate was the also thrice married former Mayor of New York who moved out of Gracie Mansion and into the apartment of a gay couple when his second marriage was breaking up?  That version of the GOP will give limited lip service to a socially conservative agenda and many Catholic bishops have joined other religious leaders in believing that it holds the best chance of preserving power on the Supreme Court.  But the agenda that actually energizes this faction of the party is not based in Catholic teaching.  It is instead based in policy positions on issues such as immigration, refugees, the conduct of war, stewardship of the planet, and religious tests that are actually diametrically opposed to Catholic teaching.  In short, Catholic bishops who signed on for the Reagan deal – agreement on abortion in return for prudential disagreement on economics – were faced in 2016 with the Trump echo: implicit support for a candidate who didn’t just hold positions that Pope Francis has called inconsistent with the fundamental teachings of Christianity, but for a candidate who based his entire candidacy and his entire electoral appeal precisely on those “un-Christian” positions.


The analogy may be overstated, but these circumstances put me in mind of the political role of the Catholic Church in France before the French Revolution.  One of the reasons that the Church has struggled so mightily in France in the modern era is because it was so closely associated with the ancien regime in pre-Revolutionary days in the first place.  When the king’s head toppled into the basket in the Place de la Concorde, the institutional credibility and viability of the Church toppled in with it.  As Alexis de Tocqueville argued 180 years ago, the Catholic Church is much better off – much better off – in a circumstance like the American constitutional order where religious institutions are kept separate from the state, where over the long run they are much freer to advocate for the social and political implications of their moral teachings within civil society rather than from behind the ramparts of an ephemeral state.  Instead of learning this lesson and insulating their Church’s cross-cutting, complex agenda from the relative health and vibrancy of any given political party, however, a number of Catholic bishops in the US have insisted on tying their teaching, their credibility, and their political viability to a political party and political movement that is in the political equivalent of the back seat of Thelma and Louise’s car as it races towards the rim of the Grand Canyon.


Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, for example, pointed out the “astonishing flaws” in both presidential candidates in 2016.  But he also pointedly criticized Catholic Democratic leaders Tim Kaine, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden by name for turning away from genuine Catholicism in favor of devotion to a church of “ambition and appetite.” He praised Donald Trump for “twisting the knife in an American elite leadership embodied in Hillary Clinton.”  And in the context of discussing voting priorities for Catholics, Archbishop Chaput declared, that “the right to life undergirds all other rights and all genuine progress.”  Or consider Archbishop Aguila of Denver, just one of many other prelates who reminded his flock that they had a responsibility as Catholics to vote in 2016, and directed them to consider when deciding for whom to vote “how each party platform supports human life from conception through natural death.”  There was no way to read these statements other than as unambiguous calls for Catholics to vote for Donald Trump, the presidential nominee of a Republican Party that had organized itself in 2016 around aggressive national resistance to refugees, explicit denial of climactic dangers to the planet, and still. . . still . . . economic policies designed to exacerbate a level of income inequality that is unique in the developed world.


Or better yet, consider the Catholic Bishops’ collective insistence that “religious liberty” was on the ballot this past election, not in the person of a candidate who called for spying on religious institutions and communities and loudly called for making religious identity a consideration for entrance into the United States.  No, rather in the person of a candidate who through her support for the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act was somehow oppressing the Little Sisters of the Poor and forcing them to “violate their conscience.”  In fact, of course, the ACA included within it an opt-out provision for employers who deem the contraception mandate to be a violation of their religious liberty.  What the Little Sisters were actually litigating was their refusal to check a box on a government form declaring that they would not provide contraceptive coverage to their employees.  The limits of this imposition would not be evident if you took the time to watch the dramatic video that the bishops released during the campaign in support of their “Fortnight for Freedom.” In this presentation, the bishops claimed that the good sisters were being “harassed” by the government and being forced to explicitly violate their religious convictions.  Through imagery and rhetoric, the bishops unambiguously associated the requirement to opt out of the ACA’s contraception mandate with threats to Christianity in the Middle East.  They drew parallels to “governments who try to squash and destroy religious liberty,” and even to the specter of ISIS beheading those it considers apostates to its faith.


I want to be clear that I am not criticizing the bishops – individually or collectively – for articulating Catholic teaching in the public square. Neither am I quarreling with them for pointing out the ways in which their Church’s teachings lead them to clear positions on various policy positions. Bishops have every right to do all of those things, and indeed Catholics have every right to expect this kind of guidance and input from their Church’s magisterium.  Instead, my argument – a “prudential judgment” grounded in the very nature of US party politics – is that it is much better for Catholic bishops to articulate the breadth and scope of their Church’s teaching without dwelling on that teaching’s partisan implications.  Individual Catholics have to make difficult judgments in the voting booth.  But bishops should limit themselves to articulating their Church’s teachings and emphasizing the policy implications of those teachings. . . and then leave it at that.


In the long run, it will be much more effective if bishops insulate their Church and its teachings from candidates and political parties who are, after all, pursuing their own political agendas and partisan interests.  It will be much more effective for the bishops to distance themselves from candidates and parties whose agreements with the Church are certain to be incomplete and fleeting, in large part because the coalitions that define those parties and produce those candidates are sure to be in the process of internal division and decay.  Association with these partisan ancien regimes is tempting in all sorts of ways, and one can well imagine a bishop deciding that retaining a prohibition on public funding of abortions justifies support for today’s Republican Party.  But bishops should be wary of such a judgment.  Today’s Republican Party is not an appropriate or reliable vehicle for the advancement of Catholic teaching in the medium and long run because of the simple but profound fact that no American political party ever is such a vehicle or ever will be.


If the bishops want to keep their Church from drifting to the margins of public debate when the contemporary version of a given political party inevitably crumbles and falls, then they should stay away from that party institutionally in the first place.  Bishops should preach the full complexity of the Church’s agenda, but in doing so they should acknowledge and actually celebrate the ways in which their teachings will always cut across the US partisan divide.  This is not a call for a muted Catholic hierarchy.  This is an acknowledgement that avoidance of organic identification with ephemeral political institutions is the best way to preserve the Church’s access to public debate, and to ensure that its influence on the country’s social, moral, and political life will endure far into the future.


Timothy A. Byrnes is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science at Colgate University. His most recent book is Reverse Mission: Transnational Religious Communities and the Making of US Foreign Policy.