In the News 2009
Dick Polman

The American Debate: Catholic Hierarchy Finds the Flock Isn’t So Easily Led


Catholic church leaders had a very bad election in 2008. They assailed Barack Obama as “anti-life” and hence unacceptable. But the flock didn’t listen. Fifty-four percent of Catholic voters cast ballots for Obama, the most decisive Catholic endorsement for a presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan drew the same share in 1984.

A similar disconnect between hierarchy and the rank and file is happening now. Church leaders and traditional Catholic groups are incensed about Kathleen Sebelius, the Kansas governor tapped by Obama to run the agency that guides abortion policy, because she’s a Catholic who defends abortion rights. But the church has again failed to galvanize the flock; in fact, a well-organized Catholic left is pushing back for the first time, insisting that one can be tolerant of the “pro-choice” stance and still be a good Catholic.

Meanwhile, conservative Catholic bloggers and many prominent bishops are upset that the University of Notre Dame has invited Obama to deliver the spring commencement address. But, again, there is considerable resistance from the rank and file, who insist that a Catholic institution should be open to the free exchange of ideas.

Sebelius, currently slated to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, was quizzed last week in two confirmation hearings, yet most Americans were barely aware of this. Not that long ago, Sebelius’ nomination might have become the latest drama in our long-running culture war; her home-state archbishop, Joseph Naumann, might have caused a ripple with his declaration that Sebelius should not receive the sacrament of communion.

But we’re in a different era now; the old “values” debate doesn’t resonate at a time when most middle-class Americans, Catholic, and otherwise, are fixated on watching their retirement savings disappear. Economics is the new politics. And, just as important, traditional Catholic groups – such as the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and the Cardinal Newman Society – no longer have the political terrain all to themselves.

During the ’04 campaign, when church leaders condemned John Kerry for being Catholic and “pro-choice,” and declared that he, too, should be denied the sacrament, there was scant pushback from the Catholic ranks. The opposite is true today. Sebelius had not even been formally nominated when Catholics United, a new voice on the emergent Catholic left, leapt to her defense Feb. 28, praising her “deep Catholic faith” and “her commitment to living out the church’s call to building a more just society.”

This was basically a pre-rebuttal to whatever concerted attack the church was primed to launch. Pro-Sebelius Catholics argue that she has actually reduced the Kansas abortion rate 10 percent during her tenure, largely via policies designed to encourage adoption, and that, while she as a Catholic views abortion as morally wrong, she considers it bad policy to criminalize women and their doctors.

These talking points will help smooth Sebelius’ path to the post. But the newly emboldened Catholic left (which also includes Catholics for Choice and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good) argues that its underpinnings are philosophical, not tactical – indeed, that its opposition to the church hierarchy is grounded in the tenets of the church itself, starting with the role of conscience.

Two years ago, America’s Catholic bishops adopted a document titled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” It basically argues that Catholics should not vote on the basis of a single issue; rather, they should “form their consciences and make prudential judgments about complex matters of good and evil.” For Catholics who support abortion rights, the language in that document provides plenty of wiggle room.

True, the document also decrees that abortion is an “intrinsic evil,” but Catholics for Choice has researched church history and found to its satisfaction that theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine never decreed the fetus to be a person during the early stages of pregnancy. The Catholic left insists that the Vatican doesn’t know, either – as evidenced by an official Vatican statement on abortion in 1974, which said, with respect to the personhood issue: “There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement.”

Obviously, conservative thinking within the faith remains strong; polls show that weekly churchgoers, as opposed to more sporadic attendees, are most likely to hew to those traditions. But what’s most striking, in a new Gallup survey that looks at aggregated data from 2006 to 2008, is how the moral views of Catholics are pretty much the same as everybody else’s – on abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, divorce, you name it. In fact, far more Catholics (67 percent) than non-Catholics (57 percent) believe that sex outside of marriage is morally acceptable.

No wonder the church hierarchy’s campaign against Sebelius has collapsed like a bad souffle. There appears to be little appetite in the ranks for the old-style culture war, not with new groups asserting the heterogeneity of the Catholic community, not with Americans so focused on their fizzling 401(k)s. It’s no longer possible for the Catholic League to frame the Sebelius nomination as “an insult to Catholics” and presume to speak for a voting majority.

Orthodoxy is out. Open dialogue is in.

The article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Catholics for Choice