There are lots of ways to be a Catholic public leader in the United States. But the only path that’s impossible, it seems, is to advocate policies that fully follow the Church’s teachings on Jesus. Politicians of both parties have to pick and choose their theology, sticking to party lines that defy the United States Conference on Catholic Bishops’ guide to faithful citizenship. For their part, lay Catholics have largely blended into the general electorate. Far from taking positions that are distinctive to their faith, many hold views that reflect their partisan allegiances.
Meanwhile, American politics has shaped the way Church leaders talk about their faith. While bishops theoretically adhere to the same set of social teachings, “there are people who become engaged on particular issues,” said Robert McElroy, the bishop of San Diego. “Some become very involved in the immigration question. Some become very involved on the question of abortion; others on poverty; others on the environment; and others on religious liberty.”
This is a relatively new dilemma for American Catholicism. Half a century ago, when John F. Kennedy ran for president of the United States, his fellow citizens feared he might prove more loyal to the bishop of Rome than the American people. The whispers of doubt were so widespread that he addressed them in a major 1960 speech on faith: “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish,” he said, “where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope.”