Hey Washington Post editors: Rick and Karen Santorum are (still) Catholics

A decade ago, the editors of Time magazine decided -- during one of the many "Who the heck are these born-gain people?" moments in the recent life of the mainstream press -- to do a cover story focusing on the 25 most influential evangelical Protestants in American life.

It was an interesting list. However, one name in particular raised many eyebrows -- Sen. Rick Santorum. The issue? Santorum was and is a very conservative Roman Catholic.

This struck me as interesting, so I did some background research on this issue. The consensus was that the Time team realized that Santorum was not a Protestant -- and thus, not an evangelical -- but the larger truth was that he, well, "voted evangelical."

Frankly, I have no idea what that means -- in terms of doctrine. The point seemed to be that "evangelical" was a political term, these days. Moving on.

This brings me to an article that has been in my "GetReligion guilt file" for some time, a stunning recent Washington Post story about Rick and Karen Santorum and what they have learned about marriage, family and faith during the life of their daughter Bella, who was born with Trisomy 18, a usually lethal condition also known as Edwards syndrome, which is caused by a error in cell division.

It's complicated. However, most infants born with this condition -- many parents choose abortion when this defect is detected -- live a few days, weeks or at most months. Bella will soon turn seven.

There is much to praise in this very human and even raw story. However, it is obvious that at the heart of the piece is -- to be blunt -- the right-to-life beliefs that anchor this family. Thus, while dealing with faith issues in many ways, it is very strange that the piece never mentions that the Santorum are, you guessed it, Catholics.

What is the message there? That pro-abortion-rights Catholics in national political life remain Catholics, but those who actual embrace church teachings on several hot-button moral and cultural issues are, well, honorary "evangelicals" and no longer Catholic? This puzzles me.

Again let me stress that this is a fine story in many ways. Note this overture:

Over and over, Rick Santorum has watched the old video of himself at a presidential candidate forum in Iowa. He can read in his strained expression the struggle that was going on in his mind as he tried to figure out how to answer a challenge put to the Republican contenders: “Bare your soul.”
The shadow on Santorum’s soul was the memory of a time when he hadn’t loved his own child as a father should. Could there be a more grievous sin for a champion of the pro-life movement?
When his turn came to speak, the former senator from Pennsylvania choked on tears and described the birth of his youngest, Isabella Maria Santorum. She has an extra 18th chromosome in every cell of her body, a condition deemed by doctors to be “incompatible with life.”
Until Bella was 5 months old and near death on a gurney in an emergency room, Santorum said, he had deluded himself into believing that “the best thing I could do was to treat her differently and not love her” as he had his six older children. He had put up his guard, convinced “it wouldn’t hurt as much if I lost her. I remember holding that finger, looking at her and realizing what I had done,” he said. “I had seen her as less of a person.”
The 2,500 religious and social conservatives who were in that Des Moines church three years ago sat in silence, captivated.
Which was not the reaction at his home in Virginia, where his wife was nursing Bella through another harrowing weekend.
Karen Santorum was livid that Rick had violated their agreement to keep the details of their disabled daughter’s condition out of the glare of his 2012 presidential campaign. Worse was the clumsiness with which he had done it.

Karen and Rick Santorum have written a book about all of this called "Bella's Gift" that sounds like an open-a-vein and write confessional on what the life of Bella has taught them about marriage and, yes, the realities of their Catholic faith.

The Post story notes:

The Santorums each started with a different interpretation of God’s will. Hers was a conviction that providence had put a challenge before them, one that they should fight to overcome. His was an acceptance that it was out of their hands, and that they should come to terms with that.
He was out of step with others in his family as well. There was the time that Rick and his teen daughter, Elizabeth, were putting together a crib for newborn Bella. Rick told Elizabeth to save the box, in case they needed it to send the bed back to the store, because “we just don’t know how long Bella is going to be here.”
He wrote: “I wish I could take those words back, because I’ll never forget the way she looked at me, as though I had not only hurt her but condemned Bella myself. My feisty Lizzie grabbed the box and tore it up as she started to cry.”

Some GetReligion readers have been offended that the Post feature spends so much time focusing on the political implications of all this, including Santorum's opposition to key parts of Obamacare. And, yes, "Bella's Gift" is not your normal pre-White House campaign volume.

Folks, this is The Washington Post and Rick Santorum is a figure that millions of people love to hate. Do NOT Google search for his name. This is an unusually low-key and sympathetic mainstream news piece on this man and his family.

For me, the larger question is why the faith element of the story is framed in a completely nondenominational manner. Yes, editors may have thought that this approach might be a plus, for some readers. But there is only one name for the doctrinal and intellectual foundation underneath the actions of this particular family -- Catholic.

Nevertheless, let me leave readers with one other fine passage that captures the tone of this feature story:


... The moment when Bella almost slipped away in the emergency room, the one Rick recounted in Iowa, was an epiphany for her husband.
“He saw that, although he had gone through the motions of fatherhood, he had hardened his heart out of fear,” Karen wrote. “Ever since that day, Bella has had Rick wrapped around her little finger.”
He has learned CPR, how to feed her with a pump and syringes, how to work the nebulizer that delivers drugs by mist to her lungs. She squeals when she sees her father arrive at home, and he tosses her into the air.
“Bella is this little love sink,” he said. “She loves to be loved, and it is so joyful when you give it to her, and she gives it right back, and that just turns me into mush.”

Read it all. It is a fine human story, yet in so many other ways it is also a Catholic story.

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