By Robert A. Sirico
July 28, 2016 7:24 p.m. ET

The dinner reception celebrating my ordination as a priest 27 years ago brought together friends and family, some of whom I had not seen for a long time. While I was speaking with my brother, an aunt came by and remarked to him, “You didn’t go up for Communion at your brother’s first Mass? What’s that about?”

My brother, who hadn’t practiced his faith for years, simply replied, “Because I didn’t go to confession.”

I told my brother, with admiration, “You’re the last bad Catholic in America.”

It made me proud that, despite not practicing his faith, my brother understood and respected Catholic doctrine and discipline. While reception of Holy Communion is a great joy, church teaching says that it is not a “right” that Catholics are entitled to. Rather, the faithful must be “properly disposed” to receive Communion. If someone’s beliefs and choices don’t accord with Catholic teachings, they should not receive the sacrament.

I’ve been thinking about that moment while surveying this year’s political landscape. If only today’s Catholic elected officials—many of whom advocate policies that directly conflict with the church’s teaching—had my brother’s understanding.

Catholicism was once so distinct from mainstream culture that most Americans viewed its followers with suspicion. Consider the Democratic Party’s candidate for president in 1928, Al Smith. His landslide loss to Herbert Hoover is typically attributed to the strength of the economy under the incumbent Republicans. But overt anti-Catholic attacks were also a salient feature of the race, leaving many Protestants uneasy about Smith. Fears that he would be loyal to the pope, not the Constitution, might have damaged his chances as much as the low unemployment rate.

Decades later, President John F. Kennedy overcame similar innuendo, and a new era for Catholics in public life began. Today, about 30% of Congress is Catholic. The Supreme Court has a Catholic majority, and Vice President Joe Biden is a Catholic. It appears that the integration of Catholics into the fabric of American life has become reality. Or has it?

Has the U.S. accepted Catholics, or has it merely accepted Catholics who, when their progressive politics conflict with church doctrine, simply subordinate their religious beliefs? This is the key question for modern Catholic engagement in civic life. Unfortunately, it seems that many Catholics have abandoned the distinctive contributions they bring, in favor of blending in with modern progressivism.

Consider Gov. Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Kaine. The two vice-presidential candidates are white men born in the 1950s, with deep Catholic and Democratic roots. They’ve been described by colleagues as kind and thoughtful, but they still diverge in significant ways.

Messrs. Pence and Kaine have, for example, quite different policy ideas. Mr. Pence is a free marketer. Mr. Kaine describes himself as a “ Pope Francis Catholic,” presumably to underscore his identification with the pope on social, environmental and economic matters. But these issues are mostly prudential.

Catholics can and do exhibit a wide range of views on many, if not most, political and economic issues. There isn’t a church-supported position on the ideal corporate income-tax rate, nor must the faithful hold specific views about climate change. That said, a Catholic’s political views must be consistent with the faith. Catholic politicians should advocate policies that help the needy and care for the planet, but the church leaves it up to policy makers to debate the best way of achieving those goals.

That doesn’t mean that the church welcomes all political views: Surely Mr. Kaine can’t claim to be a “Pope Francis Catholic” on abortion. The notion that a Catholic can be “personally” opposed to abortion while supporting laws that legalize the procedure is simply inconsistent with Catholic teaching. It conflicts not only with Pope Francis but with 2,000 years of tradition. The Virginia senator’s recent decision to reverse his longstanding support for the Hyde Amendment, which limits public funding for abortion, puts even greater distance between him and the pontiff.
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Key doctrinal and moral rules apply to all Catholics in all contexts—in business, at home, or in elective office. One cannot “personally” oppose something while making a living advocating it.

By contrast, Mr. Pence made a more dramatic decision to leave the Catholic Church during his college years. While painful for me to hear as a priest, it represents a certain honesty. Having found himself in disagreement with some of the church’s fundamental teaching, Mr. Pence accepted that he was no longer in communion with it. He didn’t pretend that he was, nor did he twist the church’s rules to conform to his own worldview.

There was an old joke that made the rounds in seminaries some years ago: What’s the difference between a dissenting Catholic and a Protestant? The Protestant has integrity.

Father Sirico is president of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.


Gordon J. MacRae
Gordon J. MacRae
1 day ago

Father Sirico has articulated well the state of the Catholic Church as it appears on the trophy shelves of American politicians. That empty spot upon Senator Kaine’s shelf is where he parks his Catholicism when it no longer serves his politics. Pope Francis would be the first to shake his head at the smarmy claim of any politician who self-describes as “a Pope Francis Catholic.” What exactly does that mean? What it means to Senator Kaine seems clear, and clear-thinking American Catholics should treat it as the hypocritical pretense that it implies. The Catholic Church in America was better off when it found itself just outside the good graces of this nation. That cozy bed in which we have dozed since the 60s has left us in a stupor. Catholics should not go so gentle into that good night:

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I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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