The Catholic Church increasingly finds itself on the wrong side of history. Gone is the age when ecclesiastical authority reigned across the Western world. Gone is the age when emperors would kneel in the snow for days on end, praying for the pope to rescind excommunication. Gone is the age when men thought that obedience to the Church was necessary for living and leading in this world.
This presidential election is unprecedented in at least one respect: There is a Catholic on each ticket. However, if we look to the issues — abortion, for example — one candidate is more Catholic than the other. Vice President Joe Biden self-identifies as Catholic. Yet, he is publicly pro-choice, a position which he maintains in direct opposition to the Church’s teachings. If we take the long view of history (from the first to the 19th century), public “Catholic” figures like Biden would be excommunicated.
But Rep. Paul Ryan, too, is not as Catholic now as he was before the presidential race began. To agree with Romney’s platform, he has compromised his views on abortion, saying it should be legal in cases of rape and incest. This is not in line with the Church’s teachings, but should Ryan also be excommunicated? The fact is that Ryan’s newly found views represent the Church’s greatest opportunity to see its teachings put into, albeit restrained, practice. And the fact that Catholics have to make vast moral compromises in order to get even a shadow of their beliefs enacted into law should worry everyone in the Church.
To be clear, you can be a pro-choice Catholic, but you cannot be both pro-choice and a good Catholic. For, to be pro-Choice means either to oppose willfully the Church’s teachings or to be ignorant of the Church’s teachings.
Of course, everyone who is baptized Catholic is technically Catholic for life. But, it is nonsensical to be Catholic and also dispense fundamental Church teachings. Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski recently said, “the Church — clergy and laity — while agreeing to disagree on other matters of prudential judgment cannot but oppose the evils of abortion … In [this area], there can be no other legitimate Catholic position.” Meaning, there are some issues on which members of the Church can disagree; there are some on which members cannot. The latter are definite and clear Church teachings, values Catholics cannot disavow.
This year’s election is evidence of the fact that Catholic values as the Church teaches them are politically toxic. Consequently, Catholics must support Catholic candidates who have compromised on Catholic values (i.e. Ryan), or face a situation in which the winning candidate does not support Catholic values at all (i.e. Biden). The Church, too, does not risk excommunicating its members because the media fallout would be too great; it is already hemorrhaging members, and it does not want to lose any more. It would appear that in this political and cultural climate, the Church is simply trying to hang on for dear life.
For the past fifty years, approximately a quarter of the U.S. population has self-identified as Catholic. Additionally, the largest religious group in America is non-practicing Catholics. Catholics as a voting bloc have the political power to leverage Church teachings into federal law. So why don’t they?
That is not to say that Catholics should bully lawmakers to make everyone get baptized and follow the precepts of the Church. It means this: Enough Americans support abortion, for example, that any politician who wants to be elected has to be pro-choice to some degree. So too, there are enough Catholics, if they act as one body, to effectively lobby lawmakers and make it politically untenable for them to enact pro-choice laws and support pro-choice institutions.
If we inform and rededicate ourselves to Church teachings — uniting as one political power — there is every reason to believe that we can elect a candidate who supports Catholic values in their entirety.
Matthew Dernbach is a senior in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .