Politicians in the pews

It seems clear. Religion was not the factor that dominated the selection of either of the major party’s candidates for vice president, but religious considerations of both say very much about the present state of religion in this country and more specifically about Catholicism in this country.

Take the candidates one by one, beginning with the first to have been nominated, Republican Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana. A New York Times story reported that Pence was born into, and reared in, a devout Irish-Catholic family. As did his siblings, he attended Catholic parochial schools. He was a faithful and regular altar server. As he matured, he assisted with a Catholic youth group, and it is said that he considered the priesthood.

Then things changed. He went to college, where he connected with fervent evangelical Christians. The Times said Pence stated that he never found Jesus Christ in his Catholic associations, but when he and his wife started attending an evangelical church, it happened.

A priest, pastor of his family’s parish, told the Times that Pence’s Catholic mother always yearned for her son’s return to the Catholic Church, but this has not yet occurred.

Speaking statistically, Americans who describe themselves as Catholics are the largest religious group in the country. The next biggest group is not a denomination of Protestants. It is former Catholics.

In other words, Pence is hardly the only American with Catholic roots who has chosen another way in religion.

The Democratic nominee for vice president, chosen a week after Pence’s nomination, Sen. Tim Kaine from Virginia, identifies himself as a “traditional” Roman Catholic. Never has Kaine claimed to be anything but a Catholic. Catholic educated, he worked as a young adult with Jesuit priests among poor people in Honduras.

Then there is each man’s stated opinion regarding values taught by the Catholic Church. Pence rejects abortion. He favors public policy that protects the right to life of the unborn. He opposes same-sex marriage. Critics note, on the other hand, that not long ago, he had a well-publicized disagreement with Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph Tobin about accepting Muslim refugees in Indiana.

“My faith teaches life is sacred,” Kaine is quoted as saying, so he says that he personally believes that abortion destroys innocent human life. He supports legal same-sex marriage. He opposes, but as Virginia’s governor enforced, capital punishment. He supports other positions that correspond with Catholic teaching.

He insists that he cannot impose his own personal religious beliefs upon others.

Kaine hardly is alone in his approach. Even while attending Mass regularly, and identifying with the Church, millions of Catholics quietly tolerate, compromise or openly deny some teaching of the Church, artificial birth control, divorce, cohabitation or another.

These two candidates reveal strong trends in modern American Catholicism. It is about me, my interpretation. Once unknown among Catholics, “cafeteria Catholicism” now reigns, accept this teaching but not that teaching.

No one should belittle the religious sincerity of anyone who has left the Church or holds a view different from that of the Church. “Judge not,” Jesus said. Life is complex. Religion is very personal.

Looking at Catholics overall, polling indicates that, for so many, the Church as an institution is the basic issue, its divine character, its place in salvation.

It raises questions for all Catholics. Fundamentally, what is the Church? Why is the Church so important? Do others see in each of us trust in the Church, unity with the Church?

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.