Revolt of the flock



My weekend print column, revised and expanded:

Catholic church leaders had a very bad election in 2008. They assailed Barack Obama as "anti-life" and hence unacceptable; one bishop, on the radio, even warned Catholics that if they voted for Obama, their "eternal salvation" would be at risk. But the flock didn't listen. Fifty four percent of Catholic voters cast ballots for Obama, the most decisive Catholic endorsement of a presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan drew the same share in 1984.

A similar tuneout - a disconnect between hierarchy and the rank and file - is happening now.

You may not be much focused these days on the Kathleen Sebelius story - understandably so, given all the attention paid to the economy, Obama's foreign itinerary, and the First Lady's wardrobe - but it's worth a quick telling, if only because it demonstrates that sometimes quietude is also newsworthy. 

Church leaders and traditional Catholic groups have been incensed about Sebelius, the Kansas governor tapped by Obama to run the federal agency that guides abortion policy, because she’s a Catholic who also defends abortion rights. Ideally, the church would love to see her nomination derailed by a grassroots revolt of rank and file Catholics, up in arms over her defiance of church doctrine.

Yet, when Sebelius testified last week, during confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill, there was nary a whiff of protest from the Catholic ranks. Basically, church leaders and the traditional groups have failed to galvanize the flock; moreover, they have received serious political pushback from within the faith, because a well-organized Catholic left is on the scene for the first time, insisting that one can be tolerant of the "pro-choice" stance and still be a good Catholic.

Meanwhile, there's the flap at Notre Dame over the school's decision to book Obama for the spring commencement address. Conservative Catholic bloggers and many prominent bishops are upset about this, contending (in the bishops' words) that the presence of pro-choice Obama will violate the religion's "fundamental moral principles." But, again, there is considerable resistance from rank and file Catholics, who insist that a Catholic institution should be open to the free exchange of ideas; that the church should be seeking common ground with Obama on shared values, such as the belief in social justice; and that, besides, Notre Dame has hosted six presidents of various political persuasions, dating back half a century. (The protest against Obama is hypocritical, by the way. There was no similar protest against George W. Bush's appearance in 2001, even though his pro-death penalty stance conflicted with a 20-year-old decree from the U.S. bishops that "the legitimate purposes of punishment do not justify the imposition of the death penalty.")

Anyway, I digress. Kathleen Sebelius was barely in the news last week. Not that long ago, Sebelius’ nomination to be Health and Human Services secretary might have became the latest dramatic episode in our long-running culture war; her home-state archbishop, Joseph Naumann, might have roiled the waters with his declaration that Sebelius should not receive the sacrament of communion.

But we’re in a different era now; the old "values" debate doesn’t resonate at a time when most middle-class Americans, Catholics and otherwise, are fixated on watching their retirement savings disappear. Economics is the new politics. And, just as importantly, traditional Catholic groups – such as the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, and the Cardinal Newman Society – no longer have the political terrain all to themselves.

During the ’04 campaign, when church leaders condemned John Kerry for being both Catholic and pro-choice, and declared that he too should be denied the sacrament, there was scant pushback from the Catholic ranks. The opposite is true today. Sebelius had not even been formally nominated when Catholics United, a new voice on the emergent Catholic left, leapt to her defense on Feb. 28, praising her "deep Catholic faith" and "her commitment to living out the church’s call to building a more just society."

This was basically a pre-rebuttal to whatever concerted attack the church was primed to launch. Among pro-Sebelius Catholics, the main argument is that she has actually reduced the Kansas abortion rate by 10 percent during her tenure, largely via policies designed to encourage adoption; and that, while she as a Catholic views abortion as morally wrong, she nevertheless considers it bad policy to criminalize women and their doctors.

These talking points will surely help smooth Sebelius’ path to the post. (Her confirmation has yet to move to the Senate floor.) But the newly emboldened Catholic left, which also includes groups such as Catholics for Choice, and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, is not merely focused on Sebelius. It claims, with some justification, to represent the views of many rank and file Catholics who refuse to take their cues from the church hierachy. These groups argue that their underpinnings are philosophical, not tactical – indeed, that their opposition to the church hierarchy is grounded in the tenets of the church itself, starting with the issue of conscience.

Two years ago, America’s Catholic bishops adopted a document entitled "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship." It basically argues that Catholics should not vote on the basis of a single issue; rather, they should "form their consciences and make prudential judgments about complex matters of good and evil." For Catholics who support (or, at minimum, tolerate) abortion rights, the language in that document provides plenty of wiggle room.

True, the document also decrees that abortion is an "intrinsic evil," but Catholics for Choice has researched church history and found to its satisfaction that neither theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, nor theologian St. Augustine, ever decreed the fetus to be a person during the early stages of pregnancy. The Catholic left insists that the Vatican doesn’t know, either – as evidenced by an official Vatican statement on abortion in 1974, when it said, with respect to the personhood issue, "There is not a unanimous tradition on this point, and authors are as yet in disagreement."

The argument these days, from traditional Catholic groups, is that there is no such thing as a Catholic left. There's no point dwelling on the details of this spat, but I'll give you a flavor.

Bill Donahue, who runs the traditional Catholic League, emailed me to assert that "Catholics for Choice has no members, is funded by foundations and has twice been condemned as a fraud by the Catholic bishops. Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good are a creation of George Soros. In other words, these three groups are not grass-roots organizations. Quite unlike, I might add, the Catholic League. Nor are they listed in the Catholic Directory. Quite unlike the Catholic League."

In an emailed response, Catholics for Choice president Jon O'Brien scoffs at Donahue's claim "that these people (progressive Catholics) don't exist." Yes, Catholics for Choice does receive foundation money - just as Donahue's group, in the past, has frequently received money from a menagerie of conservative foundations. More importantly, he says, the November vote for Obama, and the findings in national polls, are concrete proof that the Catholic rank and file is more socially tolerant than the church leaders would like.

Obviously, conservative thinking within the faith remains strong; polls show that weekly Catholic churchgoers, as opposed to more sporadic attendees, are most likely to hew to those traditions. But what’s most striking, in a new Gallup survey that looks at aggregated data from 2006 to 2008, is how the moral views of Catholics are pretty much the same as everybody else’s – on abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, divorce, you name it.

Here's what Gallup said, in its report issued one week ago: "Despite the Roman Catholic Church's official opposition to abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, a Gallup analysis finds almost no difference between rank-and-file American Catholics and American non-Catholics in terms of finding the two issues morally acceptable."

In fact, grassroots Catholics are actually more tolerant, on a range of social issues, than non-Catholics. Sixty-seven percent of Catholics believe that sex outside of marriage is morally acceptable; the figure, among non-Catholics, was 57 percent. Fifty-four percent of Catholics believe that homosexuality is morally acceptable (the church hierarchy must love that one); only 45 percent of non-Catholics feel the same way. Catholics are also more tolerant than non-Catholics about sex outside of marriage, having a baby outside of marriage, and gambling.

No wonder the church hierarchy’s campaign against Kathleen Sebelius has collapsed like a bad souffle (and it's noteworthy that Kansas Republican senator Sam Brownback, a conservative Catholic, has endorsed her). There appears to be little appetite in the Catholic ranks for the old-style culture war, not with new groups accurately asserting the heterogeneity of the Catholic community, not with everybody so focused on their fizzling 401(k)s.

It’s no longer possible for the old-style Catholic League to frame the Sebelius nomination as "an insult to Catholics" and assume that it is speaking for a voting majority. Othodoxy is out. Independent thought is in.

-- With research assistance from UPenn political writing student Emily Schultheis