Partisan politics aside, this year’s Republican and Democratic vice presidential candidates, Mike Pence and Tim Kaine, between them reflect two of the biggest problems now facing the Catholic Church in the United States.
With the GOP’s Pence, governor of Indiana and a former U.S. congressman, the problem is attrition — loss of members to other religious groups or to religious non-affiliation. Pence was raised a Catholic but has switched to evangelicalism.
With the Democrats’ Kaine, a former governor of Virginia who is a U.S. senator, the issue is the separation of faith from life practiced by Catholic politicians who say they’re personally opposed to abortion and other things condemned by the Church while supporting those same things in the public policy arena.
To note these concerns as they apply to Pence and Kaine isn’t passing judgment on the character of either man. Nor is there any reason to think either wishes ill to the Catholic Church. But things both have said and done are in conflict with the Church, albeit in different ways.
A break from the Church
Pence, 57, was one of six children in a devout Irish-American family, and he and his three brothers were altar servers in their local parish. While the process by which he moved away from Catholicism is not known in detail, it appears to have begun during his student years at Hanover College in Indiana.
Even so, Pence worked after graduation as a Catholic youth minister and, it’s said, thought about becoming a priest. But along the line he started describing himself as an “evangelical Catholic.” An acquaintance of those years told the New York Times he was increasingly eager to have “a very personal relationship with Christ.”
A Catholic might reply that it’s hard to imagine a relationship with Christ more personal than the one that comes with receiving Communion. The Church teaches that Christ is really present — body and blood, soul and divinity, an old formula says — in the consecrated Eucharistic species. Admittedly, though, the Eucharist is celebrated in the context of a stylized liturgical rite, the Mass, which often is performed in a more or less matter-of-fact manner.
Whenever it happened, Pence’s break with Catholicism apparently was definitive by the mid-1990s. By then he and his wife were regular attendees at an evangelical church. Today, they are said frequently to worship at an Indianapolis “megachurch” where there are three giant video screens, colored lights and Christian bands. The Times described the Pences there the Sunday after the GOP convention “standing and clapping in time with the music.”
Pence is scarcely the first Catholic to leave the Church. According to a major study of religion in America published by the Pew Research Center in 2014, fully 41 percent of Americans who were raised Catholic no longer identify themselves as such, while only 2 percent raised in some other tradition have become Catholics. By no means all the Catholics who’ve left the Church have taken up evangelicalism, but some have.
Pence’s nomination for vice president was greeted enthusiastically by pro-lifers who consider him to be a solid friend. In Congress, he worked to cut off federal funds to Planned Parenthood. Last March as governor he signed a bill banning abortions for fetal disability. A federal judge has barred enforcement of the law.
But this year Pence also received criticism from social conservatives for backing away from support for a bill allowing commercial firms to refuse on conscience grounds to provide services to same-sex couples. The governor changed his position after several large companies threatened to boycott the state.
Last year Pence was one of two dozen governors reacting to terrorist attacks who opposed the admission of Syrian refugees to their states. Catholic Charities of Indianapolis was then preparing to bring a Syrian family to Indiana, and after a meeting between Pence and Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin of Indianapolis brought no agreement, the archdiocese went ahead. Although Pence’s office said he disagreed, plans to cut off public assistance to the family were dropped.
Personally opposed, but ...
Kaine’s story is different, but like Pence’s it also is one in which religion plays a big role.
Born in Minnesota, Kaine, 58, was raised in Kansas City, Mo. where he attended the Jesuits’ Rockhurst High School. Between college and Harvard law school, he was a volunteer at a Jesuit vocational school in Honduras. When, years later, he and his wife moved to Richmond, he became active in a predominantly African-American Catholic parish. Kaine was elected mayor of Richmond in 1998, lieutenant governor of Virginia in 2001, and governor in 2005. He was elected to the Senate in 2012.
He has said repeatedly that he is personally uneasy about abortion but opposed to efforts to prevent or restrict it. He is a co-sponsor of a bill called the Women’s Health Protection Act, which pro-lifers say would nullify nearly all state and federal limits on the procedure and prohibit enactment of meaningful state laws in the future.
For years Kaine supported the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal tax funding for abortions. But although he told CNN after becoming the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee that he still supports it “personally,” the campaign of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said her running-mate is “committed to carrying out Secretary Clinton’s agenda” including the elimination of Hyde.
Kaine also describes himself as a supporter of legalized same-sex marriage, adoptions by same-sex couples, and the ordination of women as Catholic priests. As with abortion, so with the death penalty, he has said he is personally opposed, but in his years as governor 11 people were executed in Virginia.
Accepting the Democrats’ nomination for vice president, Kaine called faith his “north star in orienting my life.” But others see pro-choice Catholic politicians like him and current Vice President Joe Biden as examples of the walling-off of faith from secular life that the Second Vatican Council called “one of the gravest errors of our time.”
In a Facebook comment after Kaine’s nomination, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, noted the candidate’s assertion that faith is central in his life. “But apparently, and unfortunately, his faith isn’t central to his public, political life,” the bishop said.
There is also a catechetical aspect in all this. It is that other Catholics with no special connection to politics are influenced by the politicians’ message that rationalizing behavior in conflict with moral norms upheld by the Church is as much an option for them as it appears to be for the politicians.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.