By Katelyn McCarthy
Catholics seeking political office in America have historically been viewed with suspicion by their political competitors. Fears that Catholics would take orders from the Pope prevented them from making gains in the political world. Catholic Al Smith lost the 1928 presidential election to Herbert Hoover by almost 6.5 million votes in large part due to apprehension of Smith’s Catholicism. The Ku Klux Klan and the Know-Nothing Party both held anti-Catholicism as an aspect of their bigotry.
This bigotry in American politics seemed to have evaporated. John F. Kennedy was elected to the presidency in 1960, after having overcome a clandestine scheme led by his opponent, Richard Nixon, to convince Protestant Americans that Kennedy’s policies would be tainted by Romish ideas and interests. Today, 17 governors, 163 members of Congress, and two-thirds of the current Supreme Court are Catholic. The House minority leader is a Catholic. The House majority leader is a Catholic. The president-elect is a Catholic.
This shift swung into full force when JFK, addressing the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in a speech largely credited with widening public acceptance of Catholic politicians, stated, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic.”
Kennedy’s statement was to become the basis for the philosophy of Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York. In a 1984 speech at the University of Notre Dame, Cuomo devised a template for the political character of the modern Catholic politician. If Kennedy described himself as a politician who happened to be Catholic, Cuomo described himself as a Catholic who happened to be willing to (politically, not personally) support policies contrary to the faith which he professed. This finagling philosophy has proved to be a boon for Catholic politicians in garnering support.
But to claim that anti-Catholicism has faded into the mists of history would be false. Catholic politicians who cede their Catholic beliefs to secular thought are acceptable in the American political realm. Catholic politicians who believe Church teaching privately and profess it publicly are not.
Take pro-life Democrat Dan Lipinski as an example. Lipinski, a former member of Congress, was ousted from his House seat for refusing to accept his party’s support of abortion. Another example is Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was informed by a disapproving Senator Dianne Feinstein during the former’s hearings for an appeals court judgeship that “The dogma lives loudly within you.” For some reason, I can’t see Senator Feinstein making the same complaint about certain Catholic politicians in her party.
Why not? The answer is simple. Many prominent Catholic politicians have discovered that the way to be Catholic and to ensure their election is to tout their private devotion to their faith while publicly behaving out of accord with it.
Joe Biden will be the second Catholic president we have ever had. In my opinion, he will also be the most anti-Catholic president we have ever had.
I don’t mean that I question his personal faith. Nor do I mean that he harbors animosity towards Catholics. I do think, however, that he will enact anti-Catholic policies. He has said that he intends to sue the Little Sisters of the Poor to require them to provide birth control to their employees. He chose as his running mate a woman who imposed an unconstitutional religious litmus test on a candidate for federal judgeship, Brian Buescher, asking him whether he was aware that the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization of which he is a member, is opposed to abortion and supports traditional marriage, positions which are precisely those of the Church. Biden supports abortion access and has promised to overturn the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from paying for abortions. Essentially, he would make it so that his fellow Catholic taxpayers pay for abortions.
The Catholic governor of California, Gavin Newsom, supported in 2019 a (now-withdrawn) bill that would have required priests to break the seal of the confessional, an act that would inflict automatic excommunication upon the priest. He signed into law SB24, which requires California public colleges to provide medication abortions. In 2019, as a response to pro-life legislation passed in Alabama and Georgia, he invited America’s women to have their abortion procedures performed in California. Clearly, even Cuomo’s line between a Catholic politician’s private disagreement with but public permission of an act has been blurred.
As a final example, Andrew Cuomo, the Catholic governor of New York and son of the aforementioned Mario Cuomo, expanded abortion access in the third trimester of a pregnancy and lit the Empire State Building pink to celebrate.
All three of these politicians possess high levels of support. They do not face anti-Catholic bias in their political careers. Catholics have learned that to win in politics all they have to do is to contradict the deeply held precepts of their faith.
Some may say that it is necessary for Catholic politicians to disregard the teachings of the Church in policy decisions, as we in America practice the separation of Church and state. I think that this statement misunderstands where Church teachings come from. A Catholic politician should not impose moral standards which are binding only upon Catholics (like to go to confession at least once a year or, if one is going to be married, to be married in the Church). This would indeed be an interference of Church and state. But there are other standards which the Church preaches but which she does not make up herself. These standards are based upon natural law, meaning that they are binding upon everyone, regardless of their religious affiliations. Such standards include actions like telling the truth in court, not murdering, and not stealing. A society which permits a plurality of practices in these areas is not a society—it is an anarchy. None of these truths need be expressed religiously. To say that they are explicitly Catholic because the Church teaches them would be like saying algebra is explicitly “Jonesian” because Mrs. Jones teaches algebra.
A Catholic politician who does not implement natural law into his policies is not practicing the separation of Church and state. Really, he is enforcing the separation of humanity from law. To disregard natural law is for him to do a disservice to his fellow men and to fall prey to the idea that algebra can only be true for Mrs. Jones’ pupils. It is for him to confuse the teaching with the teacher. Unfortunately, many of our Catholic politicians do make this conflation.
Bigotry against Catholic politicians has not disappeared. It only seems like it has, seeing as so many of our Catholic politicians have it easy in American political life, choosing to call themselves Catholics without acting like they are. Discrimination against Catholic politicians and judges, like Dan Lipinski, Amy Coney Barrett, and Brian Buescher, who behave as they believe remains in full force. But such Catholic politicians have a consolation. Cracking them open, you’d find that their inner is the same as their outer. They might have harder battles to fight, but they have one thing that the other Catholic politicians do not: conviction, integrity, courage, and obedience to Christ. So far as I’m concerned, that’s where the real gold lies.
Melanie Moyer '22,