Since their not-so-quiet arrival on the U.S. political scene, the tea party has garnered a great deal of attention and found growing support among disgruntled Americans, many of whom are Catholics. 

A study commissioned earlier this year by the National Review Institute found that 28 percent of tea party supporters identified themselves as Catholic. Yet while the movement may include aspects that are attractive to practicing Catholics, there are also serious questions about whether the at times radical views and controversial practices seen from tea party protesters fit with the teachings of the Church. 

Rooted in frustration 

Although the tea party movement lacks a centralized leadership, with its divergent branches representing an array of different interests and viewpoints, the group’s common focus is on limited government and reduced taxation, creating a political ideology that combines elements of libertarianism and populism. 

While populist movements have a long track record in the United States, Catholic historian David O’Brien told Our Sunday Visitor that they have generally been associated with Midwestern or Southern Protestants and, in some cases, have been fueled in part by anti-Catholic sentiment. But the tea party movement has grown out of a shared frustration over the nation’s current economic situation — something Catholics are not immune to — giving it a strong appeal. 

“People are either out of work and don’t think they are ever going to get a job again, or they are very fearful of losing what are not very good jobs to begin with,” said O’Brien, the University Professor of Faith and Culture at the University of Dayton. “There’s this huge anxiety, and that cuts across religions, races, even classes.” 

But among Catholics, he said, the support for the tea party movement has been unique. 

“I don’t recall a broad-based Catholic populist upsurge of anything of this variety,” O’Brien said.

Conflict for Catholics? 

Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, said that Catholic voters have been known for their propensity to switch party allegiance, but their strong show of support for the tea party comes as a surprise. 

“What strikes me is that even though Catholics are attracted to this movement, there really is a pretty sharp tension between some of the basic teachings of the Church in regards to politics, the role of government and what we owe to the poor, and what these tea party advocates are promoting,” Schneck told Our Sunday Visitor.  

Church teaching, he explained, has an inseparable link between rights and responsibilities for both the citizen and the government, with both having an eye toward promoting the common good. The tea parties, however, have argued for rights based on liberty, not responsibility. 

“From that perspective it’s all about getting the government out of our lives and about citizens being free from the demands and needs of the country as a whole,” Schneck said. “Much as we might like otherwise, the Catholic argument is that government and citizen are equally expected to be our brother’s keeper.” 

While the U.S. bishops have supported the idea of universal health care, tea party activists have commonly called for the repeal of Congress’ health care legislation. And positions argued by tea party activists on issues such as immigration, Social Security and the government’s regulation of racial discrimination by businesses don’t fit within the principles of Catholic social teaching, Schneck said. 

“That kind of thinking is at odds with Catholic thinking about solidarity, about the common good and about the role that the political order should be playing in regards to the dignity of the human person,” he said. “So there’s actually quite a distance between what the tea party is advocating and the Church’s general understanding of how politics and governance should work.”

Common ground 

Not everyone agrees, however, that there is a divergence between the views of the Church and tea party ideals.  

According to Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, the radical extremists in the tea party represent only a small percentage on the fringes of the movement. At its heart, Father Sirico said, the tea party and its view of government are very close to the Church’s social teaching on the principle of subsidiarity, which favors doing things on a simplified level rather than leaving them to a more complex, centralized organization. 

“I think the majority of the people who are involved in the tea party movement prefer things to be done at the most local level possible,” Father Sirico told OSV. “They are not against government in principle, they are against the excessiveness of government that we see, and that’s expressed in the principle of subsidiarity.” 

Many of the stances tea party activists have taken on political issues also would resonate with Catholic voters, Father Sirico said. For example, many practicing Catholics would likely agree with the tea party’s concern about the overreaching involvement of government in schools and health care, he said, and though the movement has hesitated to identify itself as pro-life, the majority of tea party activists appear to be in agreement with the Church’s stance on abortion. 

But while he doesn’t feel that there is a conflict for Catholics to join the tea party, Father Sirico said, he does think tea party advocates could benefit from a greater understanding of Catholic teaching. 

“The thing Catholics could teach the tea party is that not every social obligation needs to be viewed with suspicion,” he said. “We recognize that human nature is social as well as individual, and we balance these things out. To say I have an obligation to the poor is [to say] society has an obligation to the poor.” 

“It is not to say that the government should be the first resort for those problems,” he said. “But I think some of the tea party are a little too quick to just dismiss social justice out of hand.” 

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.

Catholic support for the Tea Party (sidebar)

A poll conducted earlier this year by McLaughlin and Associates for the National Review Institute posed a number of questions to Catholics about their views on current political issues and party affiliation. Questions regarding the tea party indicated that among Catholics who regularly attend Mass, there is a fair amount of support for the movement, but that support won’t necessarily translate to votes for tea party-backed candidates at the polls. A sampling of the study’s findings: 

59% say the tea party is driven by legitimate concern over the U.S. economy’s future, 21% say it is driven by anger 

58% sympathize with the tea party protests, 25% do not 

8% would vote for a congressional candidate fielded by the tea party, while 28% say they would vote Republican, 28% Democrat and 36% undecided