We live in a politically polarized nation. There’s nothing new in stating that. The internet has fueled the divide and hyper-partisan cable news outlets haven’t helped. For American Catholics, this means having to reconcile their partisanship with church teachings.
It is also true that Catholics are almost evenly divided when it comes to their support of either major political party.
While many Christians of various denominations have had to reconcile church teachings with that of who they prefer at the ballot box, the issue has not been fully explored in the mainstream press. At a time when pandering to one side is better for the bottom line, such journalistic discoveries of this grey zone are left underreported. Is covering both sides fueling political polarization? I’d argue it’s not. Some argue it is.
In an essay, published on April 1 by Robert G. Christian III, writing in Church Life Journal, examines the subject very well. Christian is the co-founder and editor of Millennial and a Ph.D. candidate in politics at the Catholic University of America. The journal is part of Notre Dame’s theological education and faith formation development.
Christian uses a term seldom used in the mainstream press to describe some Catholic voters in the age of President Trump — the alt Catholic — who he writes “claim to be orthodox and more Catholic than the pope.”
So as the Church faces the problem of overcoming the big divide in American Catholicism between conservatives and liberals, it must now also contend with a small group of militant, pope-hating far right dissenters that distort and damage the U.S. Church on a daily basis.
The piece goes on to make several key points regarding Catholic social teaching, which is a doctrine on matters regarding human dignity and common good in society. The philosophy focus on a range of issues — from oppression to economic issues — and its foundations are widely considered to have been laid by Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum. In it, the pontiff called for economic re-distribution. Its roots can be traced to the writings of Thomas Aquinas.
Catholic social teaching doesn’t neatly fit in the political philosophies of our time. If anything, they often contradict it, leaving Catholics — those on both sides of the political spectrum — having to figure out which issues are a priority to them and vote that way. This has been a problem even outside the United States — Italy and its present political situation are a good example — and will continue to be the case heading into the 2020 presidential race.
As many American Catholics take their cues from the ideology of their preferred party, a great deal of dissent from Church teaching exists on both the left and the right. Dissent on the left mirrors the dissent of others in the West, most notably in its support for legal access to abortion. Support for extreme free market beliefs and policies, meanwhile, are a far bigger problem in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. This is in part because laissez-faire theories and social Darwinism have done more to shape the conservative economic ideology of the Republican Party than more communitarian approaches. This is in contrast to conservative Christian Democratic parties around the world, which were instead heavily influenced by Catholic Social Teaching.
More specifically, the ongoing abortion debate and economic policies are two specific examples of how church teaching is often at odds with laws that are being passed at the state and federal levels.
Thus, Christian says Roman Catholics (both Democrats and Republicans) have run afoul of church teachings.
Various Catholic Democrats have sometimes tried to defend their support for abortion-on-demand by declaring their personal opposition to the sin of abortion, while claiming they do not want to push their religious beliefs on others by translating that into legal restrictions on access to abortion. This ignores the Church’s understanding that the protection of unborn life is a matter of social justice and human rights, rather than simply an effort to prohibit a sin (even if it is that too).
Numerous Catholic Republicans, meanwhile, have tried to relativize Church teaching on economic and social justice by distorting and stretching concepts like subsidiarity and prudential reasoning to justify an economic ideology that the Church has called a “poisoned spring.” They have tried to create new holes in our already incomplete social safety net, while redistributing wealth to the richest Americans by claiming that such transparently unethical and imprudent measures might somehow be prudent or by conflating subsidiarity with stripping the federal government of its ability to carry out responsibilities that only it can perform. Some go so far as to say Christianity requires only charitable giving, ignoring the need to create more just social structures.
Of course, the biggest battleground, as Christian rightly points out, is the Supreme Court nomination process. The hearings last fall to nominate Brett Kavanaugh were incendiary and exposed just how polarized we are as a nation.
There is a feeling among some, especially on the right, that their brand of Catholicism has come under fire. Whether or not one subscribes to the notion that this is even happening, there are those on the political right who do. After all, Catholics aren’t the only targets. There has been a heavy dose of rhetoric hurled against orthodox-minded Christians in general, while anti-Semitism has also seen a frightening revival.
Compare the Kavanaugh hearings to the situation in Virginia regarding the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general and you realize that a double standard is alive and well.
Journalists should take note of this troubling trend. When did being a member of the Knights of Columbus, for example, disqualify a candidate from being a federal judge? That means that news stories — especially when a candidate officially announces — need to have balance. It’s the only way to avoid mimicking a news release. The only way to properly do that is to get “the other side.” Alas, that is happening less and less these days and almost not at all when it comes to the 2020 presidential race.
Interestingly, Christian blames Catholic institutions and media for also fueling this polarization.
Like the secular press, the Catholic press is largely divided between left-wing and right-wing outlets. “Pro-life Catholics” can get their news and tailor their social media feeds from loyal Republicans and conservatives, while “social justice Catholics” can do the same from liberals and Democrats.
Likewise, the middle-of-the-road Catholic outlets have engaged in “both-siderism,” where all sides are treated as equally responsible, valid, and reasonable on a subject (when they are not). Certain approaches to civility and dialogue (often facilitated by vocal opponents of polarization) are actually intensifying polarization by providing yet another forum to ideologues and failing to maximize the influence of Catholics that put Church teaching above their party and ideological preferences. They reinforce and strengthen a status quo that has many Catholics feeling “politically homeless.
Christian says the Catholic press has engaged in “false balance” by “allowing right-wing dissenters to claim they are orthodox and giving them a forum to distort and discreetly attack Church teaching and spread their ideology. Left-wing dissenters, who are typically open about their dissent, are often excluded from these same panels, periodicals, and other forums. The result is that right-wing dissent is stronger in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world.”
That’s not necessarily true. Left-wing Catholics are often given a platform in mainstream news outlets and regularly in places such as America magazine and the National Catholic Reporter.
This issue often cuts both ways. The candidates I am specifically referring to are those who identify as “progressives” who sat on the Senate Judiciary Committee last year who thrust themselves into the limelight during the contentious Kavanaugh hearings. It became a flashpoint of the midterm elections and our polarized political system as a whole. For conservatives, it was a major battle in the ongoing “culture war.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, who sits on that committee, has since decided to run for president and is actively campaigning. Other committee members that have also announced 2020 bids include Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker. Of the Democrats in the race, three took part in the Kavanaugh circus. There’s also Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, another Catholic and a former Catholic, both with left-leaning views of the world. While Biden battles his #MeToo moment, Mayor Pete (now an active Episcopalian), who is pro-abortion-right, has gained traction, even calling out Trump’s politics as being anti-Christian.
In a recent New York Magazine piece, Andrew Sullivan points out that Buttigieg could be a “transformational candidate” that could attract both sides of the political spectrum.
More importantly, he would mitigate our current polarizing patterns. He’s not sanctimoniously woke, but woke enough to have the “social justice” left potentially buy in (if its members can get over their fear of white cis gay men as oppressors). He’s a left-liberal, but relatively unformed on policy, and has carved out a moderate place in a field careening leftward. Even his most daring ideas — expanding the Supreme Court to 15 — are designed to reduce polarization.
Lost in all the politics is the actual content of church doctrines.
For many, politics has replaced religion. As our political loyalties not only shape voting patterns and which candidates we choose to support, it also affects the way Catholics express their faith and what teachings become of paramount importance to them. Covering both sides isn’t fueling this divide. It’s media polarization, and the internet’s need for niche audiences, that’s doing so.