An Emerging New Catholic Right

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At the same time both the evangelical and Catholic Right are developing and promoting a long-term, fundamental approach to the practice of faith that links political involvement with faith itself. In this case, the Catholic Church is building on its own history and also benefiting from the Christian Right's recent efforts to create wider space for public expressions of religiosity in civil discourse. The success of these efforts was evident in the election year debates over expressions of religiosity by candidates for public office, sparked by the religious statements of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Al Gore's running mate. This could hardly have happened even a few years ago, but a shift in the political culture suggests that personal and unedited expressions of religious belief for political purposes are no longer considered unseemly. Indeed, the suggestion is that they are beyond reproach.

Historically, the Catholic Church in the U.S. has played a role in public life, but has been circumspect about that role for two reasons. First, the Catholic Church sought to avoid arousing nativist anti-Catholic bigotry and second, it has sought to avoid the appearance of serving as a monolithic and authoritarian voting bloc in a pluralist society. John F. Kennedy, while a candidate for president, emphasized that he did not take orders from the Vatican, and thus reassured voters that his loyalties would not be divided between church and state.

Catholic politicians no longer feel obliged to distance themselves from church teachings in this way and would not dare to do so for fear of a harsh church response. Indeed, some bishops now denounce Kennedy-style Catholic politicians as "accomodationists" who fail to advance the directives of the church. "Four decades after John Kennedy," declared Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver in October 2000, "too many American Catholics-maybe most-no longer connect their political choices with their religious faith in any consistent, authentic way."58

Conservative appointees of Pope John Paul II now dominate the American Catholic leadership. Their influence is reflected in the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' pronouncement in 1998 urging Catholics to give primary consideration to a politician's stances on abortion and euthanasia when voting, over the many other, sometimes-progressive public policy views of the church.59 Another dimension of the conservative trend in Catholicism is, according to The New York Times, that the social activist priests of the 1960's and 70's are retiring, and are being replaced by younger priests who far more conservative.60

These trends are accompanied by the growth of powerful right-wing interest groups in the church, such as the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; Opus Dei, a rightist prelature of the pope, which functions as an international order of priests and lay people; and Legionnaires of Christ, a Mexico-based rightist order that owns and publishes the conservative weekly newspaper, National Catholic Register, which has increased its visibility and ability to reach a far wider audience through convenience store newsstands like Dairy Mart and Seven Eleven. An Opus Dei priest was installed as auxiliary bishop of Denver in March 2001.61

The escalation of political intervention in the 2000 election reflects the new assertiveness of the Catholic Church hierarchy. For example, a pastoral letter from Archbishop Edward M. Egan urging the faithful to vote for antiabortion candidates for office at all levels was read from the pulpit in all 400 Catholic parishes in New York City on the Sunday before the 2000 election.62 Similarly, the Bishops of Massachusetts jointly declared, "Support and promotion of abortion by any candidate is always wrong and can never be justified."63 The impact of such statements is hard to measure, and exit polls indicated that Catholics favored Gore over Bush by 50-47 percent. Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Nebraska complained, "the majority of Catholic people still do not make abortion a priority."64

Meanwhile, Priests for Life, an action arm of the Pontifical Council on the Family, has emerged as a force in the antiabortion movement advocating a broad political agenda with abortion as its wedge, according to a study by the Institute for Democracy Studies.65 PFL and its leader Fr. Frank Pavone waged a media campaign during the summer of 2000 calling on Catholics to mobilize politically,66 but ultimately acknowledging the role of pragmatism in politics. Pavone told the conservative newsweekly Human Events: "Because voting is not a canonization, we may morally vote for a less perfect candidate who is actually electable at the present moment, rather than a better candidate who does not have the base of support to actually get into office... If both candidates support some abortion, it is not wrong to vote for the one who is less supportive of abortion."67 Pavone met with candidate George W. Bush and declared him to be "pro-life," while attacking candidate Al Gore as "an apostle for abortion." 68

These trends suggest that the church hierarchy will increasingly direct resources into political activism that will further the Catholic wing of the Christian Right. However, even as Catholic leaders escalate their engagement in public life their efforts may be undermined by trends in conservative Catholic theology. Theological tensions between Protestant fundamentalist factions and conservative Catholics inevitably surface when the alliance moves beyond a fairly narrow band of issues, notably abortion, homosexuality, and ending public education as we know it.

In 2000, the Vatican highlighted this tension when it issued a proclamation called Dominus Jesus that seemingly overturned four decades of ecumenical dialog and Catholic acknowledgement of the possible validity of other spiritual paths. It declared that Jesus and the Catholic Church were the only possible means of spiritual salvation, and that other Christian churches "are not `churches' in the proper sense."69 The decree denounces the "philosophy of religious pluralism," and emphasizes conversion over ecumenical dialog. The Vatican declared it a "definitive and irrevocable" doctrine of the church.70 The reaction ranged from disappointment to outrage among Protestants-including evangelicals.71 The Vatican soon thereafter invoked Dominus Jesus to denounce a book supportive of religious pluralism authored by a Jesuit theologian.72 Such official religious supremacism is also reflected in Fr. Frank Pavone's teaching that "it is not just the church that must obey God. So does the state. So does the government. Separation of church and state doesn't mean separation of God and state.... God and his law are the very foundation...of the state."73

Pavone's attack on church-state separation is consistent with the Christian nationalism that is integral to the theology of most if not all of the leaders of the Christian Right, from Bill Bright and Pat Robertson, to the Promise Keepers and the theologians of Christian Reconstructionism. All see religious pluralism and constitutional guarantees of separation of church and state, as a bulwark that must be breached if any of the sectors of the Christian Right are to accomplish their aims. While the Catholic and Protestant wings of the Christian Right are united in many areas of public policy, it remains to be seen whether competing versions of the true religion will eventually undermine their collaboration. Indeed, the public debacle in which Christian Right leaders and White House officials denounced one another over the role of the White House Office of Faith Based Initiatives is an excellent example of how religious supremacism interferes in any effort for equitable treatment for federal grand recipients and federal contractors.74

Similar political ecumenism among fundamentalist factions working in coalition against women's rights generally, and reproductive rights in particular, in the UN system also has similar points of potential fracture. As was detailed in the Summer/Fall issue of The Public Eye, this growing international alliance is comprised of Mormon institutions, the U.S. Christian Right, the Vatican, and certain elements within theocratic Islam.75

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