Where some marginal, but not inconsequential, difference along this scale might show itself on November 6 is among those less-than-regular Catholic Mass–goers who might normally incline Democratic but who in this instance will react against “my Church” getting muscled by the administration (as in the HHS mandate) and will thus vote Republican. That this could make a considerable difference is illustrated by the 2004 election in Ohio, where several hundred thousand angry Evangelicals registered to vote in order to cast a ballot against gay marriage and, while they were at it, voted for George W. Bush — decisions that explain, in retrospect, why we are not living at the end of the second John Kerry administration. Might Catholics who are unhappy over the administration’s ham-handedness with the Catholic Church make the difference in Ohio? Wisconsin? Other battleground states?
They will if they’ve been paying attention. There is little room for doubt, now, that a continued Obama administration — however agenda-free it might otherwise seem at the end of October 2012 — would be the most aggressively secular in American history. With Obamacare set in concrete, the current “HHS mandate” battle (which the Church may well win in the courts, thanks to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act) would almost certainly be a preview of distractions to come as the administration used the incredibly loose language of the Affordable Care Act to “mandate” any number of other “services” that would jeopardize the integrity of Catholic institutions and the consciences of private-sector Catholic employers. Obama Supreme Court nominees would certainly take a gimlet-eyed view of the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment, further whittling away the free space in American civil society for religious communities and their institutions. Those same Obama Supreme Court nominees could lock in a pro–Roe v. Wade Court majority for the next quarter-century, thus dealing a severe legal blow to the pro-life cause. And does anyone seriously believe that an administration that runs the Lolita ad would do anything but accelerate the toxification of American culture?
Catholics who are still pondering their presidential vote will have heard, endlessly, that no political party fully embodies the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. That is certainly true. And it is also largely irrelevant. For the choice in 2012 is not between two parties that, in relative degrees, inadequately embody the Catholic vision of the free and virtuous society. The choice is between a party that inadequately embodies that vision and a party that holds that vision in contempt, as it has made clear in everything from the “HHS mandate” through the Charlotte convention votes against God to the Lolita ad. Catholics who do not like their Church, or their vote, or themselves to be held in contempt could make the decisive difference in 2012 — not so much as a “Catholic vote” bloc, but as a community of American citizens determined to restore the decencies to public life and American culture.
A Changed Catholicism Whatever happens on November 6, though, the Catholic Church in America has been changed, likely in irreversible ways, by the experience of this campaign year.
A critical mass of U.S. bishops now understands the challenge of this cultural moment, and these bishops are prepared to exercise their pastoral office in the prophetic way that the challenge of the culture requires.
The utter incoherence of the Pelosi/Biden/Sebelius form of Catholicism has created a situation that those prophetic bishops will not likely fail to address. For while it is true that the Catholic Church is big enough for Paul Ryan and Joe Biden (and Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius), it is also true, and far more urgently true from a pastoral point of view, that there are different pews within Big Church Catholicism. Many of those in the more distant pews are grievously uncatechized, which causes them to lead lives of spiritual and moral incoherence. That situation will not be tolerated indefinitely.
As the Catholic Church once became the lead Christian community in intellectually formulating the pro-life position, it has now become the lead church in articulating, through the arts of public reason, the defense of America’s first freedom, religious liberty. In both of these exercises, Catholics have found common cause with evangelical Protestants; and in the religious-freedom battle (and the battle to defend marriage rightly understood), Catholics have found new allies among Mormons. And as the Catholic-Evangelical alliance in the American culture war led unexpectedly to new and rich theological exchanges, so, it may be expected, will the partnership in battle alongside Latter-day Saints. The ecumenical landscape in the 21st century will thus look nothing like the ecumenical landscape when the Second Vatican Council opened 50 years ago.
“Progressive” Catholicism in America once claimed the Church’s Vatican II defense of religious freedom as its proudest accomplishment — as well it might. Yet that, too, has changed. The abandonment of the religious-freedom issue by far too much of the Catholic Left in 2012 was a further indicator of what Francis Cardinal George announced years ago: the death of liberal Catholicism from what had become, in the post–Vatican II decades, its spiraling intellectual implausibility.
Should the Republican ticket prevail, Vice President Paul Ryan will be the new face of public Catholicism in America, and a bracing new debate will unfold about embodying the principles of Catholic social doctrine in American public policy, and in joint work by the public and private sectors, to empower the poor, reform health care and education, and build a cultural and legal architecture of life. This debate will set the intellectual pace for the Catholic Church throughout the Western world.
Should the Democratic ticket prevail, the Catholic Church in the United States will be compelled to confront the federal government as it has never done before in the history of the Republic. The Church will do that to defend its own. But it will also do that for the sake of American constitutionalism. For what prickly John Adams once facetiously referred to as “Grandmother Church” has, in 2012, become the lead church in the defense of the constitutional order for which Adams and his contemporaries argued, fought, and bled.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.