With the presidential campaign heading into the homestretch, the partisan divisions that have roiled the country are now heartbreakingly evident within the Roman Catholic Church. Both party conventions showcased the rifts.
The Democratic gathering featured invocations by Fr. James Martin and Sr. Simone Campbell. Fr. Martin is an outspoken advocate of building a bridge to gay Catholics, while Sr. Simone has organized the “Nuns on the Bus” tours calling for social justice. While both have long expressed their anti-abortion views, the pushback was powerful. Speaking at the Republican National Convention, former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz declared that Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race On The Money: Democrats get to the hard part Health Care — GOP attorneys general warn of legal battle over Biden's vaccine mandate MORE was “a Catholic in name only,” while Sr. Deidre Mary Bryne extolled President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE as the “most pro-life president this nation has ever had.” Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, snidely posted on Twitter that this was “the first time in a while the Democratic ticket hasn’t had a Catholic on it.” Meanwhile, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, endorsed Fr. James Altman’s video that one “cannot be a Catholic and a Democrat.”
These back-and-forths highlight the importance of the Catholic vote. Only four Catholics have ever been nominated for president by a major party. In 1928, Democrats courted Catholics by choosing the son of Irish immigrants, New York Gov. Al Smith. Smith lost to Herbert Hoover in a landslide, but he helped bring newly enfranchised Catholics into the Democratic Party for a generation.
In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower found support from staunchly anti-communist Catholics (many from Eastern Europe). The Republican Nationalities Division distributed “I Like Ike” buttons in ten languages along with 500,000 pamphlets titled “The Republican Policy of Liberation.” These tactics were effective as pro-Democratic margins among Catholics were reduced from 70 percent in 1948 to just 49 percent.
Cognizant of Eisenhower’s success, Democratic Party boss John M. Bailey saw political dividends by nominating a fellow Catholic, John F. Kennedy. In 1960, Kennedy’s religion became the preeminent issue: “Democrats Hit Back on Religion” (New York Times) and “Johnson Blasts ‘Haters’ Attacks +on Catholics” (Washington Post). That year 78 percent of Catholics supported Kennedy, while Richard M. Nixon carried 63 percent of the white Protestant vote.
But beginning in the 1970s, Catholics began moving toward the Republican Party. One reason was that “have-not” New Deal Catholics became “haves.” Income differences between Catholics and white Protestants narrowed when Catholics left big cities for sprawling suburbs.
At the same time, cultural issues became more pronounced. Abortion, the death penalty, gay rights and other “social issues” upset many faithful Catholics already shaken by the liturgical changes instituted by Vatican II. What were once old verities were suddenly called into question. As Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Michigan, recalled: “When I grew up you had two choices: go to Mass. . .or go to hell. Most of us chose Mass.” But the dwindling pews stood in silent testimony to a bygone era.
Republicans saw political opportunities. In 1971, Richard Nixon promised federal aid to parochial schools, saying, “We must see to it that our children are provided with the moral and spiritual and religious values so necessary to a great people in great times.” In 1984, Ronald Reagan extended full diplomatic recognition to the Vatican, declaring, “[T]he United States holds Pope John Paul II in high esteem. . .[and] we admire the courageous stands he takes in defense of Western values.” Both won the Catholic vote.
In 2004, Democrats nominated another Massachusetts Catholic, Sen. John F. Kerry. But this time Kerry’s ascension exposed fissures within the church. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement saying “the Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles,” adding there should be “no awards, honors, or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” During the campaign, the pro-choice Kerry was either denied communion on several occasions, or told by some Catholic prelates to stay away. Charles Chaput, the then-bishop of Denver, Colorado, equated support for Kerry with “cooperating in evil.” When the votes were counted, Methodist George W. Bush received 52 percent of the Catholic vote — marking the first time a Protestant had defeated a Catholic presidential candidate.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s nomination marks the fourth time a Catholic has headed a major party ticket. His candidacy should appeal to blue-collar Catholics in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — states won by Donald Trump. In 2016, Trump captured 50 percent of the total Catholic vote. Hoping to secure majority Catholic support once more, Trump has portrayed Biden as “following the radical-left agenda. . .no religion, no anything, hurt the Bible, hurt God.” Earlier this year Trump told Catholic bishops that his support for the pro-life movement has been “at a level that no other president has seen before.”
Unlike the two JFKs, Joe Biden’s Catholic faith is essential to his persona. Biden has suffered unspeakable tragedies, having buried a wife and two children. Jill Biden writes that while she suffered a crisis of faith after the loss of her son, Beau, her husband “drew from his deep Roman Catholic faith,” adding, “It’s such a big part of who he is.” It’s a story Democrats repeated at their convention as Biden promised to restore “the soul of America.
This is quite unlike the religiously reticent New Englanders John F. Kennedy and John F. Kerry. In 1960, Kennedy sought to transcend his religious identity into an all-American one. Appearing before Protestant ministers in Houston, Texas, Kennedy noted that the military never applied a religious litmus test during World War II either for himself or his brother, Joe, who died in combat. Kennedy declared that the separation between church and state should be “absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act.” For his part, Kerry rarely spoke publicly of his religious faith, even when encouraged to do so.
In 2020, both sides see the Catholic vote as vital. But the partisan polarization afflicting the nation has split the Catholic Church in two. On one side are those who see abortion as the paramount voting issue and are deeply upset that Biden has changed his long-standing support for the Hyde Amendment, which limits federal funding for abortion. Catholic cultural conservatives prefer a smaller, more homogenous church, and they denounce those whom they view as being “Catholic lite.” Meanwhile, social justice Catholics are appalled at the separation of immigrant children from their parents, the not-so-subtle racism of Donald Trump, a health care crisis during a pandemic and a lack of support for LGBTQ Catholics. The split is evident in recent polling in the all-important state of Pennsylvania. Among those who say they are practicing Catholics, 69 percent support Trump. However, 60 percent of those who are non-practicing Catholics back Biden.
Americans long for the comfort of family, friends and even food. We do the same with politics, often seeking out those who ratify our pre-existing views. But the role of the Catholic Church is not to provide a politics of comfort, but to make both parties uncomfortable. Pricking the consciences of the powerful, while at the same time seeking the common good, must be a task undertaken by the Catholic hierarchy and the laity alike.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. He is the author of “What Happened to the Republican Party?” The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent those of The Catholic University of America.