Why pro-life and social justice Catholics are increasingly at odds

Returning to the United States after spending several weeks out of the country last summer, a Catholic political scientist who teaches at a non-Catholic university was troubled by what he found.  

“There are many offensive things about the campaign,” he emailed a friend, “but I am distressed about what now seems to be almost a formal division between two groups of Catholics here: ‘social justice’ Catholics and ‘conservative’ ones.” 

He isn’t the only one to be distressed by that. Expressing varying degrees of alarm, many people have remarked on the divisions among Catholics that became visible in this year’s political wars. Passing beyond the conventional division into Democrats and Republicans, the split appears to involve large questions of Catholic identity. 

Divided groups

On one side are those the political scientist calls “conservatives” (others call them “pro-life Catholics”). As participants in the political debate, these people stress social issues setting them in opposition to the administration of President Barack Obama. Among others, that means abortion, same-sex marriage, and the Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring Church institutions to provide contraceptive and abortifacient coverage in employee health plans. 

Cardinal Dolan
New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan speaks to an audience of John Carroll Society members Sept. 10 in Washington, D.C. CNS photo by Christopher Newkumet

On the other side are the “social justice” Catholics. Taking their reading of Church social doctrine as the touchstone of an authentically Catholic approach to politics, they say Republican views on fiscal reform, as embodied in the budget proposals of Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, conflict with Catholic values by hurting the poor. 

Each group contends its position is the genuinely Catholic one. 

Not so visible, and not so easily defined, is a third group, probably more numerous than the other two combined. Composing it are Catholics whose political opinions appear unrelated to their religious identity and instead seem shaped by factors like party loyalty, calculations of personal and group interest, and the apparent likability of the candidates as filtered through the media. 

It’s likely that for the most part members of this third group are the true Catholic swing voters, year after year and election after election, flip-flopping between support for the Democrats and support for the GOP. 

Still, it’s pro-life Catholics and social justice Catholics — and the split between them — that have been the big Catholic story thus far in 2012. 

The split was underlined this year by the fact that the vice presidential candidates of both major parties are Catholics. The Democratic incumbent, Vice President Joe Biden, is an old-line liberal who hews to his party’s support for legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. Ryan, his GOP opposite, is an outspokenly pro-life fiscal conservative. 

Stephen Schneck, a Catholic University of America professor and a national co-chair of an Obama campaign group called Catholics for Obama, says Ryan represents the over-assimilated wing of American Catholics that “bends Catholicism to accommodate right wing causes.”  

As conservative Catholics see it, of course, it’s pro-choice Catholic politicians such as Biden who have done the really heavy bending and accommodating. 

Complicated morals

Extending beyond politicians, the fallout from this intra-Church split extends also to churchmen. Here Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has been a lightning rod for criticism from sources on the Catholic left like the National Catholic Reporter. 

Promoting Well-Being of All
“What faith teaches about the dignity of the human person and about the sacredness of every human life helps us see more clearly the same truths that also come to us through the gift of human reason. At the center of these truths is respect for the dignity of every person. This is the core of Catholic moral and social teaching. Because we are people of both faith and reason, it is appropriate and necessary for us to bring this essential truth about human life and dignity to the public square. We are called to practice Christ’s commandment to “love one another” (Jn 13:34). We are also called to promote the well-being of all, to share our blessings with those most in need, to defend marriage, and to protect the lives and dignity of all, especially the weak, the vulnerable, the voiceless.” 

The left howled that Cardinal Dolan was guilty of partisanship when it was announced that he would give the closing prayer at the GOP convention. But it was the right’s turn to howl a few days later when the announcement came that he’d do the same at the Democratic convention. Giving aid and comfort to the enemy was the charge. 

The cardinal also came under fire — this time largely from the Church’s conservative wing — for inviting President Obama to the New York archdiocese’s annual Al Smith Dinner, along with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But not all conservatives were upset. “If Catholics want to change the culture, they need to engage it,” remarked Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. 

The Catholic split has many causes, but at its heart is the rise among American Catholics during the last half-century of a pick-and-choose approach to Church teaching, often called cafeteria Catholicism. Cafeteria Catholics typically point with pride to their adherence to Church doctrine in accepting teachings they agree with — whether it’s condemning abortion or lambasting capitalist excesses — even though they dismiss teachings they don’t like — on capital punishment or same-sex marriage, for instance. 

Moral equivalency further complicates the problem. It’s the error of imagining all moral values carry the same weight or, at least, can be applied in much the same way.  

This fallacy passes over the difference between norms that allow no exceptions and those calling for “prudential” judgments — which admit of differences — on how to achieve agreed-upon good ends. The teaching that direct abortion is always and everywhere wrong is an example of the first, while finding a way to provide quality health care for everyone while holding down soaring health care costs is an instance of the second. 

“Even on economic issues,” say veteran political activists Frank Cannon and Jeffrey Bell of the Washington-based American Principles Project, “this is a morally tinged, values-laden election, the closest thing to political Armageddon since … 1860.”  

The split among Catholics reflects that state of affairs in the religious context. What Church leaders will do about it after the election — or realistically can do, for that matter — is impossible to say. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.