Catholicism in America
A contentious flock
America’s Catholics are becoming more polarised and diverse
Two days later another extended flexing of Catholic political muscle ended, this one in a ringing of church bells across the country. July 4th capped the “Fortnight for Freedom”, called by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in response to what they see as “the incursion of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) into the realm of religious liberty”. Dozens of Catholic organisations (though not yet the USCCB) are suing the HHS over a part of Barack Obama’s health reforms requiring Catholic institutions, like all other employers, to offer their employees health-insurance plans that pay for birth-control coverage. The reforms exempt explicitly religious entities such as churches, but the groups suing the HHS think that the exemptions are too narrow.
Pope Benedict XVI may favour a smaller, more obedient church, but American Catholics remain a large and politically heterodox group. Official church doctrine opposes birth control, yet American Catholic women use it at similar rates to non-Catholic women. Despite the church’s opposition to homosexuality, a 2010 Pew Forum poll found that more American Catholics favour than oppose gay marriage. Both the Catholic priests who served in Congress were Democrats, as were all three Catholic big-party presidential nominees (Al Smith, John Kennedy and John Kerry); yet five of the six Catholics on the Supreme Court were nominated by Republican presidents. American Catholics mostly supported Barack Obama in 2008, George Bush in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000.
Around one in four American voters is Catholic. That proportion has held steady for decades, largely because of immigration, but there has been a shift in American Catholicism’s centre of gravity, from its traditional bastions in the urban north-east both southward and westward.
All of this suggests two things about American Catholics. First, there is no coherent “Catholic vote” that coalesces around distinct issues and cuts across ethnic lines. White Catholics largely display the political preferences of white Americans, and Hispanic Catholics of Hispanics. Catholicism contains teachings that find a natural home on America’s left (opposition to capital punishment) and on the right (opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage). Catholics of either party can find doctrines to justify their position.
Second, religious Catholics are increasingly finding common cause with other religious Christians. Several of the plaintiffs suing the HHS are represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-partisan law firm that defends all forms of religious expression. The plaintiffs have also found strong support among evangelical Protestants. Conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants may disagree on papal infallibility and transubstantiation, but they share a common enemy. He is in the White House.