For a long time, Catholics have struggled with the question of whether it is appropriate for Catholic politicians to draw upon Church teachings in the conduct of public life. The Church has a lot to say about the way laws are made and executed. Are Catholic politicians required to act on these principles when crafting policy or selecting personnel? Can they trade one teaching of the Church off against another?
Such questions have animated the debate about what it means to be an American Catholic politician for at least the last half century and probably longer. There can be no doubt that certain privileges accrue in the public mind to those who self-identify as members of a faith community or who present themselves as adherents to a religious tradition. Yet, perhaps out of fealty to the traditional notion of a separation of church and state, many American politicians who identify as Catholics have perfected the art of the split personality, deploying the I-would-never-impose-my-beliefs-on-others expedient at the first hint of association with an unpopular position championed by the Church. Vice president Joe Biden, one of the more prominent Catholics in American politics, has said, “I accept my church’s position that life begins at conception…[but] I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that women can’t control their body.”
Boy, if I had a nickel…
In Connecticut, where I live, the state legislature last week approved the appointment of Andrew J. McDonald to the state supreme court. McDonald, a former state senator and general counsel to Governor Dannel P. Malloy, achieved national notoriety in January of 2009 for introducing a bill in the state legislature to “revise the corporate governance provisions applicable to the Roman Catholic Church.” The bill, which proposed stripping the Church hierarchy of control over parish finances, was widely criticized as a targeted attack on the Church’s constitutional rights. The Diocese of Bridgeport called it “a thinly-veiled attempt to silence the Catholic Church on the important issues of the day, such as same-sex marriage.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement:
Although the proponents of the bill appear to know little about the U.S. Constitution, they appear to know much about the history of the Church in the United States, and especially what laws have been used to make it suffer. Laws of precisely this sort have a well-established, yet shameful, pedigree in our country. In the Nineteenth Century, similar laws were used to foment schism in the Church, often with the encouragement and support of notoriously anti-Catholic groups, such as the Know Nothing Party.
In March of 2009, as the measure was about to be considered by the legislature, thousands of protesters converged on the state capitol in Hartford. The uproar led to the withdrawal of the bill, but for most Connecticut Catholics, Andrew J. McDonald is a name which lives in infamy.
For most Connecticut Catholics, that is, except Governor Dan Malloy.
Newspaper profiles of Malloy invariably reference his large family—he is one of eight children—and his Jesuit education at Boston College as evidence of his deep-rooted Catholic identity. In 2012, much to the delight of Connecticut’s Catholics, Malloy signed a law abolishing the state’s death penalty. He told the Washington Post’s Lisa Miller at the time, “I don’t want to overemphasize my Catholicism here…[b]ut I know my religion. I know religions in general.”
It was probably wise of Malloy not to “emphasize his religion here,” because, according to paragraph 2267 of the Cathechism of the Catholic Church, “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty.” The question, therefore, is not a matter of Catholic doctrine but is left to the prudential judgment of individual policymakers—a subtlety which is often conveniently ignored by Catholic politicians of the political left such as Malloy and his New York neighbor, Governor Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo—whom The New York Times called “a practicing Catholic,” the product of a family and childhood “steeped in Catholicism”—outlined in his recent state of the state address a plan to enact what he called a Reproductive Health Act but that many have called an unprecedented expansion of access to late-term abortion. To the wild applause of those in attendance, Cuomo, the “devout” Catholic governor, chanted his reasoning: “Because it is her body, it is her choice. Because it’s her body, it’s her choice. Because it’s her body, it’s her choice.”
While the Church leaves room for reasonable and well-meaning people to disagree on how best to achieve a host of desirable social goals, she leaves no room for reasonable people—politicians or otherwise—to disagree on abortion. This is not a trifle. This is serious business in the eyes of the Church. Catholics are not obliged to march in lockstep with one political party or the other. But as Peoria, Illinois, Bishop Daniel Jenky has warned, Catholic politicians who “callously enable the destruction of innocent life in the womb…are objectively guilty of grave sin. For those who hope for salvation, no political loyalty can ever take precedence over loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ and to his Gospel of Life.”
On the question of same-sex marriage, which New York archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan has called “irreconcilable with the nature and the definition of marriage as established by Divine law,” both Catholic politicians are equally out-of-communion. Furthermore, Malloy has showered political rewards on a man, Andrew J. McDonald, whom the USCCB has compared to a Know Nothing and who authored what then-Bridgeport bishop William Lori called an “irrational, unlawful, and bigoted bill.”
Politically, Malloy and Cuomo are standard-issue East Coast liberals. As such, their positions on a host of issues ranging from immigration to taxation and, yes, the death penalty, are not particularly noteworthy. What is noteworthy, however, is the frequency with which the media refers to Cuomo and Malloy as Catholics, and the willingness of these politicians to cloak their policy agendas with the mantle of Catholic social teaching. As far as I am aware, Connecticut’s bishops made no statement on the nomination of Andrew McDonald (the Bridgeport Diocese is currently without a bishop). The bishops are nonpartisan and need to preserve the ability to dialogue with and influence all of our leaders, regardless of party or creed. Understandably, they don’t want to get into the business of questioning the sincerity of someone’s stated religious beliefs. It’s awkward.
But at a certain point, someone has to hold these “Catholic” politicians to account. Someone has to be willing to ask: Is it possible to be a faithful Catholic in public life? Or are politicians like Cuomo and Malloy merely Catholics of convenience, happy to wear the label when the media approves but disinclined to the point of defiance when the Magisterium of the Church conflicts with the party platform?
In fairness, this disease is not merely the product of blind party loyalty. My representatives in Hartford, Senator Toni Boucher and Representative Tom O’Dea—both Catholics and both Republicans—voted to confirm McDonald’s nomination. I’m not entirely sure what the point of being a Catholic politician is—of calling yourself a Catholic, of representing yourself to voters as a faithful Catholic—if not to publicly oppose those who would strip the Church of its Constitutionally protected rights. It’s as if the author of a bill banning hunting rifles was nominated and all the NRA-endorsed legislators stepped up to support him. Moreover, McDonald’s confirmation was assured—the senate vote was 30-3 in favor and the house vote was 125-20 in favor. A “no” vote would have achieved the same result while allowing Boucher and O’Dea to maintain credibility with their Catholic constituents.
It’s almost as if they didn’t care.