For reporters looking ahead: How politics will impact the Catholic church in 2019

Elections matter. That’s the mantra you hear from both Republicans and Democrats — usually from the side that won said election — every time a piece of legislation being pushed finds legislative obstacles and serious opposition.

The recent midterm elections saw a split decision (Dems took the House, while the GOP held the Senate), leaving the nation polarized as ever heading into the what is expected to be a political slog heading into the 2020 presidential race. With the Catholic vote split down the middle again following these recent elections, it’s worth noting that Catholics, as well as the church itself, will be tested starting in January with the start of a new legislative session from Congress down to the state level.

Indeed, elections matter. Here are three storylines editors and journalists at mainstream news outlets should look out for that will impact the church in the coming year:

Clergy sex abuse: As the scandals — that mostly took place in past — continue to trickle out in the form of grand jury reports and other investigations, look for lawmakers to try and remedy the situation for victims through legislation on the state level.

With very blue New York State voting to put Democrats in control of both the state Assembly and Senate (the GOP had maintained a slight majority), look for lawmakers to pass (and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Catholic, to sign) the Child Victims Act. The Empire State isn’t alone. Other legislatures in Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey and New Mexico are considering similar measures.

The New York legislation would allow victims of abuse suffered under the age of 18 to seek justice years later as adults. Removing the statute of limitations on cases involving private institutions, like the Boy Scouts and Jewish yeshivas, is at the heart of the battle.

New York law currently prevents victims from proceeding with criminal cases once they turn 23. As we know, many victims don't come forward until years later. The church has opposed past attempts at the legislation — along with the GOP — after successful lobbying efforts by Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The ability to sue the church, even many years later, could bankrupt parishes, while public schools would be immune to such penalties. Another source of contention in the legislation is the one-year “look back” window that would allow victims to bring decades-old cases to civil court.

Expect this to play out in the coming session and during what are usually tense budget negotiations in Albany. The way opposition to the legislation is put forth by the church will go a long way in swaying public opinion and the way state lawmakers ultimately vote. Media coverage has not been favorable in the recent past. This is one very important bill that could impact the church in America’s largest city.

Abortion: An issue of great importance to devout Catholics (and faithful adherents of other religions), anti-abortion candidates won 17 of the races selecting governors, while nine were won by the abortion-rights candidate.

In addition, two of the three states that had ballot initiatives protecting the rights of the unborn, they won: deep red states such as Alabama and West Virginia affirmed the right to life of children in the womb and banned public funding of abortion. Oregon, part of the deep blue Pacific Northwest, went the other way on the issue. Like the midterms as a whole, both parties are claiming victory on this issue.

Where this will matter most, however, is in the Senate, the body that approves federal judges as nominated by the president. President Donald Trump, with help from the Federalist Society, has consistently appointed conservative judges. Look for more of that over the next two years, something the church hierarchy supports on issues such as abortion. 

Trump focused his rallies in the weeks leading up to the midterms on the recent appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and the circus that ensued during his confirmation hearings, to solidify a conservative majority (and a largely Catholic one) that largely energized faithful Catholics to go to the polls.

Immigration: Recent voting data shows that there are two Catholic Americas — one largely white and Republican; the other mostly Latino who pull the lever for Democrats.

Trump tried to make the recent election about the migrant caravan making its way to the border, but that issue largely failed to stick. The church has largely stayed away from the issue, although Pope Francis has spoken extensively, even as recently as this past summer, in favor of migrants around the world and the need to help them. This is where the Catholic electorate appears to be most split. The church is generally pro-immigrant, but the Catholic laity is largely against illegal immigration.

With Catholics spilt ideologically, they are likely to be on this issue as well. As the caravan continues to make its way through Mexico, expect this to become a bigger issue and one that will force all Catholics — from the clergy to the laity — to have to take a public position on. This could severely impact how Catholic voters decide to go in 2020 as Trump tries to win a second term.

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