Why Only Cafeteria Catholics Can Survive in American Politics

What Tim Kaine and Mike Pence say about the diluted identity of the American Church

The Democratic vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine stands, speaking, before a stained-glass window at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Virginia in July.
The Democratic vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine speaks at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Virginia in July. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)

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.”

Today, it would seem ridiculous to accuse someone like Tim Kaine, who is Catholic and a nominee for vice president, or his rival Mike Pence, who was also brought up Catholic, of trying to give Pope Francis unseemly power over the White House. On the contrary, they might welcome the association: The pontiff is almost twice as popular in the United States as the Democratic or Republican presidential nominees. But while non-Catholic Americans are much more comfortable with the Church than they used to be, their changing attitudes say less about acceptance than assimilation. The price of Catholics’ admission into public life was a loss of distinctiveness. And the political records of this year’s two vice-presidential candidates—both of whom have openly defied the Church on different issues—illustrate why.

Tim Kaine has touted his Catholic identity on the presidential campaign trail, dropping Bible-verse burns and references to his Jesuit education. On Friday, he spoke in a conference call to a group of Catholic leaders around the country, talking up his faith background and Hillary Clinton’s commitment to empowering families and kids.

At times, though, he has directly challenged the Church’s positions, particularly on social issues. At a September dinner hosted by Human Rights Campaign, the LGBT-rights advocacy group, he said the Church will eventually come to accept same-sex marriage, just as he has; the comment prompted a rebuttal from his bishop. In 2015, as Pope Francis made his way to the United States, Kaine challenged him to ordain women, which is forbidden by the Church.

On other issues, Kaine has been more conflicted than defiant. During his time as governor, he presided over 11 prisoner executions, despite the Church’s strong opposition to the death penalty. In an interview with C-SPAN this summer, Kaine said the decision to approve the killings was “the hardest thing I had to do … It’s still painful to talk about.” He’s also shifted positions on abortion. When he first got into politics, he spoke openly about his “faith-based opposition to abortion.” Now, he’s largely supportive of pro-choice policies. While he says he personally agrees with the Hyde Amendment—a policy that prohibits federal funding for most abortion procedures—he understands that Clinton is explicitly calling for the repeal of Hyde, and he fully endorses her platform.

For these reasons, Catholic leaders have publicly questioned Kaine’s Catholicism, marking a radical change in how Catholics’ public lives are evaluated. “For most of our nation’s history, [for] Catholics in public office, the question was: Could they be American enough?” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, an associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. Now, “the question centers on how Catholic the candidates are.”

This isn’t just a challenge for Democrats. Mike Pence now identifies as an evangelical, but he was raised in the Catholic Church; he met his wife at St. Thomas Aquinas, a parish in Indianapolis, and his grandfather was an Irish-Catholic immigrant. Yet Pence publicly sparred with Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph Tobin over Syrian refugees. When the local Catholic Charities agency agreed to help resettle a family last December, Pence asked Tobin to put a stop to it. The clergyman did not oblige. “For 40 years the Archdiocese … has welcomed people fleeing violence in various regions of the world,” he said in a statement. “This is an essential part of our identity as Catholic Christians and we will continue this life-saving tradition.”

“Political leaders … often don’t reflect the spectrum of Catholic social teaching to a great degree.”

Pence’s other positions similarly illustrate the challenges of being a Catholic Republican. The governor is a global-warming skeptic, in contrast to the environmentally conscious pope. While the Church has called for immigration reform “with a special emphasis on legalization,” Pence has struggled to reconcile his past moderate positions on immigration policy with the Trump campaign’s strongly anti-immigrant rhetoric. A Pence spokesman recently told me that all immigrants and refugees from countries and territories “compromised by terrorism” would be sent to “safe havens” instead of receiving welcome in the United States if Trump and Pence were elected in November.

“The central issues of Catholic social teaching that our society faces at the present moment really bifurcate the partisan divide in our nation,” said McElroy. “The Democratic Party emphasizes certain of those teachings and embodies them more fully, and the Republican Party embodies others. Because political leaders are forced into those partisan molds, particularly during partisan campaigns, they often don’t reflect the spectrum of Catholic social teaching to a great degree.”

This division extends to lay Catholics, as well. An estimated 66 percent of Catholic Republicans think it’s sinful to have an abortion, compared to 48 percent of Catholic Democrats; those are only slightly higher numbers in each party than among Americans generally. Thirty-one percent of Catholic Republicans and 57 percent of Catholic Democrats think the Church should recognize gay marriages; almost a year after same-sex marriage became legal in the United States, Catholics were on average more enthusiastic about the unions than other Americans, despite the Church’s staunch opposition. Only about half of Republican Catholics said there’s “solid evidence” that global warming exists in a June 2015 poll, compared to 85 percent of Catholic Democrats. And only 43 percent of Catholic Republicans said they agree with Pope Francis on immigration in 2015, compared to 54 percent of Catholic Democrats. The whole flock is openly defiant of their Church on the death penalty, with 63 percent of all Catholic Americans supporting the policy.

“Catholics have, in a sense, come out of their ghettos,” said Steve Schneck, the director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. “They engage in political life less tribally than they have in the past.”

Two factors in particular help explain this change. First, white Catholics are no longer newcomers in the United States. When waves of Irish and Italian immigrants arrived in the United States in the late 19th century, they realigned partisan politics, said Sprows Cummings—“specifically Irish Catholics and their overwhelming alliance with the Democratic Party.”

“Catholics have, in a sense, come out of their ghettos.”

Decades later, that long-standing coalition was deeply shaken. “U.S. Catholics have had no political home since around the Kennedy election,” Sprows Cummings said. “The emergence of abortion as a central issue … was part of a migration of some Catholics to the Republican Party.” (Others switched parties in the 1960s over issues of race, crime, and civil rights.) Over time, the Democratic Party has become almost exclusively pro-choice: Even by 1992, the Catholic, pro-life Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey Sr. was shut out of speaking at Bill Clinton’s Democratic National Convention, allegedly because of his efforts to restrict abortion in Pennsylvania.*

This sense of ideological homelessness is arguably responsible for the loss of distinctive Catholic identity among politicians and voters—and for division within the Church itself. “There’s almost a kind of crisis for the Catholic Church in America today associated with the polarization that comes from our political culture, that’s insinuated itself into our pews,” said Schneck. “What it is that’s Catholic is being lost as a result of the [politicized] … way in which individual Catholics think about their faith.”

Catholic clergy have been voicing their worry about this divisiveness in their flock—and their polity. At a speech at Notre Dame last Thursday, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said that, in all the time he has voted, “the major parties have never, at the same time, offered two such deeply flawed presidential candidates.” He believes “each candidate is very bad news for our country … One candidate, in the view of a lot of people, is a belligerent demagogue with an impulse-control problem. And the other, also in the view of a lot of people, is a criminal liar, uniquely rich in stale ideas and bad priorities.”

The consequences of this division won’t end in November. “My great fear is that no matter who wins this election, we’re going to be left with a very fractured nation and a new president who is greatly resented by almost one-half of the American people,” said McElroy.

Like the country, American Catholicism itself is going through period of great change: Once again, it’s becoming an immigrant Church. The share of Hispanic-American Catholics has risen to one-third over the past decade or so, according to Pew Research Center, and more Catholic Millennials are Hispanic than white.

These demographics are part of a larger pattern of growth in the U.S. Hispanic population—a change that will likely reconfigure old voting blocs. If Donald Trump’s rhetoric is any indication of what’s ahead from the Republican Party, the increasingly Hispanic Catholic population could once again line up as solidly Democratic. “I don’t think anyone can watch this [election] process and not be concerned,” said Mark Seitz, the bishop of El Paso, in an interview. “What I hear from my community here, which is over 80 percent Hispanic, and many of them relatively recent migrants, is certainly concern. It’s almost as though they can’t believe what they’re hearing.”

“I was getting tired of the Catholic worship I was used to—big suburban parish, 45-minute mass because you had to empty the parking lot.”

On the other hand, demographic changes within the Church might also bring out a new spiritual language among Catholics—and, perhaps, a chance to reclaim Catholicism’s distinctive voice in American public life. The lives of the two vice-presidential candidates help explain why. Although Kaine and Pence made different choices about how to relate to the Church in their adult lives, their stories are similar in one distinctive way: Both sought out more charismatic, spiritual engagement with religion as they got older. For his part, Pence wanted what he called a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Although he has said in interviews that he “[cherishes] my Catholic upbringing and the foundation that it poured in my faith,” he didn’t find that in the Church. He eventually gravitated toward evangelical Protestantism. At times, he has tried to split the difference, calling himself an “evangelical Catholic,” but he and his wife reportedly don’t go to mass—they often attend a megachurch in Indianapolis.

Kaine also searched for deeper spirituality as he got older, and he found it in the Latin American Catholic tradition while he was working with the Jesuits in Honduras during law school. “I was getting tired of the Catholic worship I was used to—big suburban parish, 45-minute mass because you had to empty the parking lot,” Kaine said in his June interview with C-SPAN. “Here, mass was 2.5 hours long and it was so vibrant and chaotic and fun.” After Kaine returned stateside and met his future wife, Anne Holton, they joined St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church in Richmond, which was then predominantly African American. He even did something very un-Catholic: He joined the choir.

Kaine and Pence’s adult spiritual lives seem to symbolize the failings and the potential of the Catholic Church in American political life. While partisan divisions have arguably made Catholicism less vibrant, the faith also has a long history and tradition to draw from, including these more charismatic strains. The difficult part is fusing the two sides of the Catholic tradition back together, uniting social and economic issues in the “seamless garment” the Church teaches them to be.

“If we want a society in which public policy defends the life and dignity of all, supports marriage and family, promotes the common good, recognizes objective right and wrong and religious freedom, personally and institutionally, then of course the Church must be involved,” wrote Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, in a recent editorial for the Catholic Standard, an online publication of the Church. “Especially, the lay faithful must speak out and become ‘salt and light’ in our democracy.”Chaput said something similar in his speech at Notre Dame. “Christians are not of the world, but we’re most definitely in it,” he said. “Augustine would say that our home is the City of God, but we get there by passing through the City of Man. While we’re on the road, we have a duty to leave the world better than we found it. One of the ways we do that, however imperfectly, is through politics.”

Augustine seems to have the right lesson for Catholics in American public life: There’s probably never going to be a this-worldly system that perfectly fits a Catholic interpretation of the gospel. So for all those Catholic voters whose views leave them feeling at odds with the American politics—pro-life Democrats, for example, or pro-immigration Republicans—a friendly bishop has some advice. “Imagine, as you’re standing in the voting booth, that Christ is beside you,” said McElroy. “And ask yourself, facing this candidate or that candidate, ‘Who do I think, in the end, Christ would be for?’”

* This article originally misstated that Bob Casey Sr. was a U.S. senator. We regret the error.