Saturday, November 29, 2008

On the Republican Captivity of American Catholicism

Interesting to see the emergence of a post-election discourse by right-leaning U.S. Catholics, which refuses to engage the culpability of Catholics who have sold the soul of American Catholicism to the Republican party. This shielding, dodging discourse also continues to refuse to engage the damage these Catholics and many of the U.S. bishops have done to Catholics who refused to participate in the Republican-Catholic political alliance of recent decades.

I have already discussed one facet of the new shielding, dodging discourse emerging from right-leaning Catholics who have been unable to imagine a political world in which Republicans did dominate and did not have Catholic support. I noted some weeks back John Allen’s wistful musings about the “homelessness” of “serious” Catholics in America today (,

As that posting notes, while I welcome John Allen’s insight that the growing political divide among American Catholics represents a serious threat to the communion of the American Catholic church, many of us who did not endorse the Republican domination of American Catholicism have experienced the problems of broken communion and homelessness for some time now. We have virtually been read out of our church by many of our bishops and many of our co-religionists.

By bishops and co-religionists who take for granted that their view of the church and its relation to American political realities is the only possible view, “the” Catholic view . . . . For those of us who have questioned the capitulation of the American Catholic church to the Republican party and its ideology, the signal given us by many of our bishops and co-religionists has been quite clear: we do not belong. We are not adequately Catholic, not “serious” Catholics, to use Mr. Allen’s phrase.

Why is the problem of the homelessness of many American Catholics becoming evident to these right-leaning brothers and sisters only now—only now that the Republican dominance of American politics (and of the American Catholic church) has been broken? Where has the concern for broken communion been in these years in which many American Catholics with different political (and ecclesiological, and moral) views have been virtually expelled from communion by those who claim unilateral ownership of the label “Catholic”?

What kind of pastoral concern have bishops and fellow Catholics shown for those Catholics who have been implicitly and explicitly tagged as less than Catholic during the reign of Republican politics in American Catholicism, because their political and/or religious views differ from the “orthodoxy” being enforced by right-leaning Catholics? How is it possible for bona fide pastoral leaders to ignore the needs of millions of American Catholics who have refused to toe the party line and have been made homeless for decades now—both politically and ecclesially homeless?

I applaud John Allen’s recognition that broken communion may be a serious challenge in American Catholicism after the Obama election. I wonder why that recognition has been so long in coming, however—and what Mr. Allen and others who have not seen the deep damage inflicted on American Catholicism by its Republican captivity propose to do about all of us who have long been read out of communion.

On that theme of the Republican captivity of the American Catholic church, this past week’s issue of National Catholic Reporter carries a powerful reflection by Nicholas Cafardi ( Cafardi is one of the big-name Catholics who broke ties with the Republican party in the last election. He’s a lawyer, both civil and canon, and teaches at Duquesne University’s School of Law.

Cafardi compares the captivity the American Catholic church endured during the decades of Republican dominance in the second half of the 20th century with other periods of captivity of the people of God, in which “civil authorities captured God’s people and used them for their own advantage.” These include the Babylonian Captivity, the Constantinian Captivity, the Carolingian Captivity, the Holy Roman Empire Captivity, and the Avignon Captivity.

As he notes, the recent meeting of the U.S. bishops underscores the damage the Republican captivity has done to American Catholicism. Cafardi proposes that the extreme statements some vocal bishops made at the Baltimore meeting against the administration made them “sound like Republican ward heelers.” He asks, “How did this happen? Why are these bishops acting like functionaries of the Republican Party?”

These are important questions to ask. They are necessary ones to ask for any of us who hope to see a viable future for American Catholicism in this period of national political realignment. They are unavoidable questions for those trying to assess the damage that many bishops’ one-issue politics and captivity to the Republican party have done to the American Catholic church. As Cafardi observes,

Every time in the past that the People of God have been held captive by civil power, it has benefitted civil power and hurt God’s people. This time is no different. It is time to end the Republican captivity of our church so that, no longer enthralled to one political party, our bishops can recapture their entire prophetic voice.

Unfortunately, those who continue to hanker nostalgically for alliance with the Republican party, these are unpalatable questions, ones not to be asked. To entertain these questions would be to admit that the mindless alliance with one party has done serious damage to American Catholicism. It would be to admit that the theological basis for any alliance of the church with a single party is shaky at best, and dangerously vapid at worst.

Pilgrim people seeking the reign of God as they move through history never idolize a single political option or bless a single political structure. To do so is to settle down in history as if the reign of God has already arrived. It is to sell the church and the vision of the reign of God that drives the church short.

Rather than asking the probing questions Nicholas Cafardi asks, some American Catholics now wish to ask in the post-election period whether anti-Catholicism is on the rise in America today. This is a question Mark Stricherz poses recently on the blog of the Jesuit journal America (

Stricherz is a D.C.-based reporter and author of Why the Democrats Are Blue. He is a vocal critic of the left-leaning Catholicism of some post-Vatican II Catholics. A California native, he supported proposition 8 (banning gay marriage in California) (see e.g., and blogs frequently at the America site about the need for Catholics to make overturning Roe v. Wade a priority

Stricherz is clearly unhappy about the turn of the American Catholic church from Republican dominance. His Why the Democrats Are Blue envisages the Democratic party as controlled by “secular liberals” who are antithetical to Catholicism ( The book, unfortunately, apparently did not foresee that in the 2008 election, a majority of American Catholics would break the alliance of the U.S. Catholic church with the Republican party.

In the wake of this significant 2008 political realignment of a majority of American Catholics, Mr. Stricherz now wonders if anti-Catholicism is on the rise. In my view, this is a diversionary question for Catholics who allied themselves with the Republican party in the recent past to ask. Asking that question won’t get us far down the road as we try to understand and cope with the new political alignment a majority of Catholics called for in the recent election.

There is a longstanding defensive rhetoric of persecution among American Catholics. Anti-Catholic prejudice has certainly been a fact of life of American Catholics. It is not, however, the overriding fact of life in contemporary American Catholics that right-leaning Catholics wish to make it.

Buried in these Catholics’ cries that the majority culture is anti-Catholic is the implicit assumption that only the kind of Catholicism endorsed by right-wing Catholics is real Catholicism. When the majority of Americans, including a majority of American Catholics, reject the political and/or moral views of the right-wing minority, we are not engaging in anti-Catholicism: we are simply taking another path, calling for an alternative understanding of Catholicism.

Among right-wing Catholics, the anti-Catholic war cry is a defensive call to return to the Catholic ghetto, to lock arms and shut the threatening godless world out. This is the battle cry of true believers who can envisage no future for an American Catholicism that is not dominated by the crusade-mentality of Catholic Republicanism, with its overweening focus on abortion and gay marriage as the most serious ethical challenges facing us today.

The inability of right-leaning Catholics who were sold on the Republican captivity of the church in recent decades to imagine a future beyond that captivity—a future in which Catholics positively engage secular culture and do not stand in constant combat with it—reflects a colossal failure of American Catholicism at the end of the 20th century. This is a failure of failure of imagination, of faith, and of hope. It is also a failure of pastoral leadership on the part of the American bishops, who worked hard to bring the American Catholic church into the dead end of Republican captivity.

When, I wonder, will those Catholics who so strongly allied themselves with the Republican party in recent years wake up to these realities, and stop trying to claim unilateral ownership of Catholicism and of the political future of the American Catholic church? When will they begin to pay attention to the millions of American Catholicism whom their “orthodoxy” has made political and ecclesially homeless for decades now, many of whom refused to toe the party line in the last election?

These strike me as far more important questions to ask than questions about anti-Catholicism in the wake of a Democratic victory . . . . That is, unless Mr. Stricherz wants to hear from millions of Catholics whose recent experience of anti-Catholicism has come primarily from our right-wing brothers and sisters, as they tell us we are not serious Catholics . . . .