The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor has caused no small bit of wonderment that a high court that was once the province of a couple of mainline Protestant churches could soon be two-thirds Roman Catholic. (Half of all previous appointees came from two denominations: the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches.) Yet there are Catholics and there are Catholics: "Here Comes Everybody," as James Joyce described the universal church. And if you want to know the truth, we'd probably need all nine seats on the Supreme Court to get a real sense of the spectrum of Catholic life in the United States.
But that's also because the public profile of Catholicism has been unusually skewed in recent decades as the political face of the church came to be dominated by conservatives who are so right-wing they give the Middle Ages a bad name. As Newt Gingrich said in explaining his recent conversion to Rome
, "Part of me is inherently medieval." (Medievalists could rightly protest.) The other part, he said, was drawn to the church out of repulsion for liberalism. And Gingrich is not alone. Other recent right-tilting Beltway denizens to swim the Tiber
include columnist Robert Novak, Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, free-market economist Larry Kudlow, and conservative book publisher Alfred Regnery.
They joined an already impressive lineup of Catholic neo- and theocons, such as Michael Novak, Deal Hudson, Leonard Leo and George Weigel, along with the Dogmatic Duo of the Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. George W. Bush, an Evangelical, then added John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the high court cast (swing Catholic Anthony Kennedy was already there), and in his own speeches Bush invoked Pope John Paul II so often that former Sen. Rick Santorum began selling him as "the first Catholic president." (Requiescat in pace, JFK.)
Add to that the fact that the "Catholic left" has been the Catholic "left out" as far as the church hierarchy is concerned, and it's easy to understand why many Americans have come to see the church as a wing of the Republican Party.
But times are changing, and for conservative Catholics, not for the better. The theocon chaplain, Father Richard John Neuhaus, has passed away. Michael Novak
and Deal Hudson
are so angry at the Vatican daily, L'Osservatore Romano
, for being nice to Obama that some worry for the editor's job security (as if the media industry needs more layoffs). And Weigel
is accusing Obama of using politics to divide Catholics. That's rich. One leading conservative Catholic legal scholar, Mary Ann Glendon, refuses to appear on the same Notre Dame platform as Obama, and another leading conservative Catholic legal scholar, Doug Kmiec, actually went over to the Democratic Dark Side during last year's campaign, causing virtual apoplexy on the right.
On the other side of the aisle, it's a different story. Fifty-four percent of Catholic voters backed Obama last November -- despite his strong pro-choice bona fides -- and his support is even higher today as those voters agree with his agenda far more than they do that of the GOP. Joe Biden is the first Catholic vice president in American history, Nancy Pelosi is next in the succession line, and the 2008 Obama Tide brought some remarkable new Catholic talent to Capitol Hill, such as Tom Perriello of Virginia, while pre-existing talents, including Sen. Bob Casey, Jr., of Pennsylvania -- who crushed Santorum in 2006 -- are emerging as players. Fully one-third of Obama's cabinet is comprised of Catholics, also a historic high, and now we have not only Sonia Sotomayor but also Miguel Diaz, a progressive Catholic theologian who Obama named ambassador to the Vatican in a surprise move. Sotomayor herself is arguably the first progressive Catholic nominated to the Supreme Court since William Brennan in 1956, and she is shaping up as a cinch to share the bench with the likes of Antonin Scalia. Does anything else say "New Catholicism" more than a divorced Latina with strong opinions?
These progressive, social-justice Catholic politicians are not a new phenomenon. Rather, they hark back to an American Catholicism that was historically on the side of the working man, the poor, the immigrant, the marginalized. Only back then, both church and political leaders were on that same side. As recently as the 1960s, and even up to the 1980s, the likes of Robert F. Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, Sargent Shriver, Joseph Califano, Mario Cuomo, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Geraldine Ferraro could count themselves part of a coherent Catholic social-justice cohort.
Then came the Pill, the social churn of the Sixties, and legalized abortion in 1973. The hierarchy increasingly railed against those trends, and bishops became increasingly conservative, starting with appointments by John Paul II (elected 1978). Many Catholic Democrats (like most liberals) also distanced themselves from overt identification with a church whose leadership and policy priorities weren't going to win them votes in the party or, so they thought, the electorate. In effect they severed their social-justice policies from their religious roots. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and subsequent efforts by the GOP to rally conservative Catholics to their cause further split the church, and turned the gap between many Catholic politicians and the church leadership into a chasm across the altar rail.
That, too, is changing. Some Democratic Catholics (not all, by any stretch) are able and willing to talk eloquently about how their faith informs their views -- and to win plaudits from voters for doing so.
In their 2006 Senate battle, for example, Casey cited his faith as informing his pro-life views, as well as policies supporting families and workers. He defeated Santorum 59-41 percent--a stunning reversal.
And the other irony is that having been shut out from the corridors of church power for the past three decades, it is an African-American Protestant who as president is giving these Catholics a renewed prominence and influence (though in the public square, not the sanctuary). Not since Eugene McCarthy, who died in 2005, has there been a paladin to carry the Catholic social-justice banner. Now there may be an entire phalanx, and one whose sensibilities are in tune with Obama and the nation. Is this the liberal Catholic moment? And what role will the church leadership play?
Way back in 1997, Chicago Cardinal Francis George -- who has since risen to become president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops -- famously declared that "liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project." Today it is conservative Catholicism that looks like it could use a breather. And if those conservatives don't get their act together, they could get a good long rest.