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Rick Santorum greets Catholic nuns at a rally on February 24 in Lincoln Park, Mich. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Will Catholic Bishops Be GOP Pawns?

The Church and evangelicals are finding common ground.

BY Theo Anderson

What’s at stake for the GOP is, of course, political power: The alliance broadens its coalition of the embattled. What’s at stake for the Church is the nature and depth of its moral authority.

The GOP’s base consists of five key constituencies bound together by a sense of being under siege – culturally, economically, religiously or demographically.

The first is the “silent generation” of seniors who preceded the Baby Boomers. Within their adult lifetimes, they’ve witnessed transformations in gender and racial relations, in attitudes about homosexuality and abortion, and in many other realms of American life. They live in a different country than the one they were born into, and many of them long for the old one.

White males are the second key constituency. While they still hold a disproportionate share of power in the United States, their relative position has declined as women and people of color fill jobs and roles that were once off-limits. White males’ siege mentality is rooted in their loss of privilege and in the disappearance of many jobs that were once the foundation of America’s middle class.

Southerners and business interests are the third and fourth constituencies. An odd pairing, on the face of it; it’s a shared hostility to the intrusions of the federal government that makes them simpatico. For Southerners, the idea of mandates imposed by Washington, D.C., still hits a raw nerve for all kinds of historical reasons, and makes them receptive to business interests’ complaints about excessive taxation, overregulation and government gone wild.

The GOP has limited room for growth within these four constituencies, since their numbers are already so strong. Only the fifth group offers hope for expanding the base: the religiously devout.

The recent brouhaha over the Catholic Church and contraception healthcare coverage has solidified and dramatized one of the most important U.S. political developments of the last two decades: the alliance of evangelical Protestants and Catholics. It’s a startling turn of events, given that just a generation or two ago the Catholic Church was, in the minds of many evangelicals, the Whore of Babylon. The GOP’s recent rhetoric about religious liberty being under assault is aimed at this broad, relatively new alliance.

What’s at stake for the GOP is, of course, political power: The alliance broadens the Republican coalition of the embattled. What’s at stake for the Church is the nature and depth of its moral authority.

Economic justice can wait

In 1986, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a pastoral letter titled “Economic Justice For All,” in which it argued that the highest priority in any economic system must be human well-being rather than profits. “The life and dignity of millions of men, women and children hang in the balance,” it read. “Decisions must be judged in light of what they do for the poor, what they do to the poor, and what they enable the poor to do for themselves. The fundamental moral criterion for all economic decisions, policies and institutions is this: They must be at the service of all people, especially the poor.”

Within a few years of that document’s release, the USCCB’s emphasis on economic justice had been eclipsed by culture-war battles. Newly appointed bishops tended to be conservatives, and while the USCCB continued to issue statements and letters that addressed the question of economic justice, they were most vocal and energetic in their opposition to abortion and homosexuality. That trend has intensified over time. At their annual meeting in Baltimore last fall, the bishops focused on strategies for opposing gay rights and abortion and defending religious liberty – but couldn’t find any time to discuss economic justice, not to mention the priestly penchant for pedophilia. Also last fall, they established a new “committee for religious liberty” that is intended to “shape policy in the face of accelerating threats.” And in November, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, made headlines by declaring that the nation has entered an era of unprecedented hostility toward religious belief. “It’s not a question of when or if it might happen,” he said. “It’s happening today.”

The near-disappearance of economic justice as a priority for American Catholic bishops is an aberration, both historically and in the current global context. Though rarely mentioned by current U.S. bishops, “Economic Justice For All” was very much in keeping with orthodox Catholic theology and practice, and leaders and laypeople were integral to the early progressive movement.

Most notably, the work of John Ryan – a Catholic theologian and activist of boundless energy – was instrumental in preparing the way for the New Deal reforms of the 1930s. In A Living Wage, Distributive Justice and many other works, Ryan argued for the critical role of labor unions and an activist state in relieving poverty.

Ryan’s bedrock belief that ethical theory and economic practice are inseparable is still honored and articulated by the Catholic hierarchy worldwide. In a document released just last fall, the Vatican argued that “to function correctly the economy needs ethics; and not just of any kind, but one that is people-centered.” It also called for an international institution invested with the authority to tame the excesses of capitalism.

The battle has been joined – and partly lost

Naturally, political conservatives dismissed the document as irrelevant. The curious thing is that U.S. bishops did the same – with their silence, at least – at a time when the Catholic Church in the United States is desperately seeking to re-establish its moral authority, and during the rise of the Occupy movement last fall.

Why have the bishops had so little to contribute to the movement, despite the abundant historical and theological resources they have at their disposal?

The Church is still preoccupied with resisting reforms that would acknowledge and respond to the cultural and social upheaval since the 1960s. Reproductive rights are one battle in that war. But the issue that’s most troubling for the leadership right now is gay rights. Abortion remains deeply divisive: Americans are about evenly split on the question. But there is no doubt that conservatives are being routed on the question of homosexuality. On that front, the culture war has been decisively lost.

That fact poses all kinds of headaches and legal challenges for the Church. State agencies and Catholic institutions have begun to part ways over the provision of foster care and adoption services, for example, since Catholic institutions refuse to place children with same-sex couples. Illinois is the most recent state to cut ties with the Church over the issue. Similar clashes in other states seem inevitable.

Their culture war obsessions make the Church’s leaders welcome, if odd, political bedfellows with the rest of the GOP’s embattled base. When Catholics talk about losing their religious liberty, they’re really talking about feeling alienated for adhering to beliefs that, just a generation ago, were perfectly within the mainstream.

For the Church, the alliance with the GOP creates a much-needed ally in the culture wars. For the GOP, the alliance has the potential of expanding its base to include more Catholics.

And the potential benefits are large, since Catholic voters are about evenly split and constitute a quarter of the electorate. Barack Obama won the Catholic vote by a margin of nine points in 2008; George W. Bush won it by a margin of five points in 2004; and Al Gore won it by three points in 2000. A shift of just a few points can swing a presidential election, and Catholics tend to be concentrated in electorally crucial states.

If there are large potential benefits to the alliance, though, there are even greater risks. The best-case scenario for both parties is that the Church’s moral authority will buttress the GOP’s political prospects, and vice versa. But moral authority is a nebulous and fleeting thing, and the U.S. bishops have been passive in the one area – economic justice – where they possess a deep wellspring of authority. Instead they seem prepared to go to the wall over sex, an area where the Church has lost all credibility over the past decade.

So it’s possible that the alliance will become less a virtuous cycle than a death spiral. The bishops continue to erode their moral authority with their silence on economic issues, while the GOP’s resistance to gay rights, in deference to its religiously devout voters, becomes an increasingly extreme stance. In other words, it might turn out to be a devil’s bargain. Made with good intentions, of course.

The bishops should know very well where that path leads.

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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