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Deal W. Hudson: What Awaits a Catholic Entering Politics

By Deal W. Hudson
3/25/2014 (3 years ago)
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Any earnest Catholic who either runs, or holds political office, deserves both our admiration and our prayers.

If you are pro-life and pro-family expect the biggest challenge to come from Catholics: At least half of those voters who identify themselves as Catholics will be disposed to oppose you. I can't remember all the times I have talked to Catholic candidates who are completely bewildered by the antagonism they have encountered among various parts of the institutional Church, from the parish and chancery to the bishops and their conference.You will lose count of the times that Catholic politicians and activists  will stand Catholic moral teaching on its head.

WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - Any earnest Catholic who either runs, or holds political office, deserves both our admiration and our prayers. Because a Catholic politician, from day one, faces some long-standing hostilities and deeply rooted prejudices among his prime constituency, the Catholic voter. These volatile crosscurrents, if not surveyed in advance, can drown a candidacy.

A Catholic politician who has practiced the faith for years will know much of this ahead of time but will be surprised at how quickly the point of contact between Catholicism and politics becomes white hot. Knowing and affirming the fundamentals of the Catholic faith has not boded well for candidates entering the fray.

The chronicle of Catholics in Congress over the past fifty years is a sad one. Far more pro-abortion Catholics have served in the House and Senate than pro-life. The positions taken on life issues by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D, CA) and Rep. Chris Smith (R, NJ) could not be  more dissimilar.  But it's the model of a Catholic legislator handed down by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, rather than that of the late Rep. Henry Hyde that predominates among our members of Congress.

Catholic politicians need to know their faith, of course, but will be surprised by how their basic principles are challenged both in the election and, even more, in the office itself. There are some practical measures, like those taken by Catholic politician Rep. Chris Smith, to encourage Catholic politicians not to cave in to the pressures of the secular establishment and Catholic "progressives."

1. If you are pro-life and pro-family expect the biggest challenge to come from Catholics: At least half of those voters who identify themselves as Catholics will be disposed to oppose you. I can't remember all the times I have talked to Catholic candidates who are completely bewildered by the antagonism they have encountered among various parts of the institutional Church, from the parish and chancery to the bishops and their conference.

2. You will lose count of the times that Catholic politicians and activists  will stand Catholic moral teaching on its head. Life issues become just one more issue, no more important than prudential matters such as immigration and healthcare policy. The legacy of the "seamless garment" is real and remains a matter of constant vigilance in Catholic voter outreach.We only hope that Pope Francis can help to heal the deep division among Catholics who consider themselves pro-life and those who embrace the moniker of "social justice."

However, for a Catholic politician it's fatal to assume this division can be ignored. Those two ways of self-description are reliable predictors of how Catholics will vote, assuming they are not missing any important information or have been deliberately misinformed.  Pope Francis is teaching by word and example that social justice begins with respect for the unborn and vulnerable lives. May it heal this division in our Church!

3. Some who refer to themselves as "Social justice" (many Catholics who embrace the Social Doctrine take offense at the the co-opting of the term) or "Progressive" Catholics, as they now like to be called, will go to incredible lengths to find fault with pro-life Catholic politicians. They will go even further to invent pro-life credentials for Catholics who are pro-abortion or, as they prefer, "pro-choice."

Under the assumed banner of caring about human life "from birth to death," this "progressive" Catholic crowd will elevate any and all of their political priorities to the pro-life category. For example, if a Catholic member of Congress suggests an entitlement program does not need to be expanded by, say, 5%, the Catholic "progressives" will scream and yell about "abandoning the poor," and the pummeling will begin. It's not just any loss of funding that sounds the alarm, it's the unwillingness to increase entitlement spending year by year.

4. "Progressives," however, are constantly giving Catholic politicians bad advice. They recently led President Obama into the briar patch of denying religious liberty to Catholic institutions by demanding they pay for contraception and sterilization in their health insurance plans. The argument was that most Catholic women use contraception, therefore, Catholics will accept this historical encroachment on religious liberty. The Vatican has made it clear, most recently under Pope Francis, that Obama is seen as hostile to Catholic values.

It never occurred to any of Obama's religious advisers to consider that the Catholic woman who does use contraception may cringe at the thought of the federal government demanding the Catholic Church pay for her birth control pills! A big distinction here, evidently lost on the Obama administration. Not to mention the fact that Catholic tax dollars are now being spent on abortifacient OTC "day after" pills.

5. Pro-life Catholic politicians will get a warm reception from evangelical voters, but that same politician should remember that Catholic voters, for the most part, do not like to be talked to like evangelical voters. What gets a rousing "Amen" among Baptists can cause Catholics' eyes to roll.

Catholic politicians who adopt an evangelical style will win some Catholic support for their "bold" tone, but much more support will quietly edge away in discomfort. It's not complicated, just follow the first rule of rhetoric: Know your audience!

Catholic politicians should avoid the self righteous, moralizing tone of evangelical leaders, unless their goal is a radio talk show.   The commitment to life and marriage should be made clear while extending that concern to those in society who need the maintenance of the government's "safety net."

These are the essential pieces of practical advice needed by a Catholic entering politics. The past two Congressional elections saw a new generation of pro-life, pro-family Catholics elected: these new members of Congress immediately became the target of "progressives" who, for example, attempted to twist their concern for the budget as "anti-life."  Whether or not they survive will depend on how successfully this freshman class responds to the attack, or, even better, inoculates themselves in advance.

© Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D

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Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor and Movie Critic at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, is heard on the Ave Maria Radio Network.

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