Since taking the helm of the Catholic Church in March 2013, Pope Francis has shown a clear willingness to make waves in the sea of the faithful. While American Catholics have historically been divided between liberal and conservative factions, Francis has introduced a new perspective that,
in theory, could reshape existing Catholic political alignments. Without proposing any changes to Church doctrine, Francis has de-emphasized gay marriage and abortion and refocused attention on economic issues. When asked about gay members of the clergy, Francis notably responded, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Meanwhile, his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), labels “the socioeconomic system … unjust at its root.” At a meeting of the World Economic Forum in January, Francis asked global leaders “to ensure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it.”
Francis is by no means the first pope to address economic issues, but he has been unique in the emphasis he has placed on the Church’s economic message. How this new focus will impact the political choices of American Catholics, a group that tends to split nearly evenly between Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, remains to be seen. According to Gallup figures compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, no candidate has taken a substantial majority of Catholic voters since Ronald Reagan won 61 percent in 1984. Despite Francis’ impassioned calls for action, subtle indicators from both priests and politicians suggest that this political division is likely to persist.
A church of over one billion worldwide members—including 75 million in the United States—is destined to have a wide range of opinions. Although Pope Francis has ushered in a new era of public fascination with Catholicism, his papacy has also highlighted persistent ideological dissent among its believers: on certain issues, a majority of American Catholics actually hold opinions that directly counter official Church teaching.
An October 2013 poll from Quinnipiac University found that among American Catholics who attend mass weekly, 53 percent said they would support legislation in their state allowing same-sex couples to marry, with 40 percent in opposition. Catholics who attend services less frequently were even more likely to support such legislation, with 65 percent in favor and 26 percent opposed. The same poll also showed that many Catholics break from Church teaching against abortion. Fifty-two percent of Catholic respondents indicated that they thought abortion should be legal in most or all cases. Only 21 percent took the position of official Church doctrine, which prohibits abortion in all cases.
Political divisions are also evident among Catholic advocacy groups. Although they tend to align on core beliefs, various organizations offer highly different priorities for action. In an interview with the HPR, Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the progressive Catholic lobby group NETWORK, emphasized her group’s promotion of economic justice, immigration reform, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. When asked if “pro-life” or “pro-marriage” concerns had any place in NETWORK’s work, she answered with a direct “No.”
These comments are a far cry from those of Dennis Poust, communications director of the New York State Catholic Conference, the official branch of the Church dedicated to shaping public policy in New York. “There are some issues that are more important than others,” he told the HPR, stressing that “first and foremost, of course, is the right to life, because that’s the right through which all other rights flow.” Poust, however, also highlighted his group’s other policy objectives, ranging from “care for the poor and vulnerable” to “issues of criminal justice.”
In an interview with the HPR, Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois (CCI), echoed Poust’s sentiments on controversial social issues. Indeed, the CCI website hosts a page for its Defense of Marriage Department, which “opposes policies that undermine marriage as a sacred union between one man and one woman.” Yet, like Poust, Gilligan also stressed the conference’s dedication to a variety of economic and social justice issues—work which often receives considerably less public attention than the group’s stances against gay marriage and abortion. As Gilligan observed, “Our involvement with [justice issues] doesn’t sell newspapers, doesn’t get people to watch television.” He argued that “the media is obsessed with [gay marriage and abortion] more than we are. It doesn’t take much for us to make the newspapers when we talk about those two subjects.”
It’s the Economy
Thus, it is not surprising that Francis’ apparent change of tone towards the gay community has sparked a flurry of public attention, perhaps capped by The Advocate, America’s oldest gay-rights magazine, naming him its “Person of the Year” in 2013. Yet Francis’ economic messages have also generated a surprising amount of public attention. A wide arena has weighed in on his exhortations, with several strident voices punctuating the crowded discourse. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said Francis offered “some statements that to me sound kind of liberal.” Meanwhile, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh remarked, “This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope.” However, American Catholics seem generally receptive to Francis’ economic outlook. A CNN/ORC International poll released in December found that nearly two-thirds agree with his stance on capitalism. Yet it is uncertain whether the sentiments of this majority will push a solid Catholic segment towards one party.
Members of both sides of the aisle have been quick to claim that their agenda aligns with the Vatican’s message. As reported by the New York Times, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hosted a meeting of Senate Democrats before the holiday recess to discuss income inequality. Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said, “You know, we have a strong ally on our side in this issue—and that is the pope.” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) later added, “He has given a number of us in the political ranks encouragement, and really a challenge, to step up and remember many of the values that brought us to public life.”
Some Republicans have also claimed that Francis’ messages resonate with their party. The New York Times notes that Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said the pope is “breathing new life into the fight against poverty.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was more blunt: “I think every Republican should embrace the pope’s core critique that you do not want to live on a planet with billionaires and people who do not have any food.”
Until one party more clearly embraces the teachings of Francis, Catholic voters may continue to vacillate between the two parties. With virtually no politician aligning with the Church on every social and economic issue, Catholic voters will continue to encounter ballots of imperfect candidates. Gilligan said Catholics must rely on “formation of conscience” when confronted with such decisions. However, voting data suggests that this may lead Catholics down vastly different paths.
Some of the United States’ youngest Catholics, those just entering voting age, might offer a vision of the Church’s future political direction. In interviews with the HPR, Matthew Colford, co-president of Stanford’s ESTEEM Catholic student group, and Father Bernard Campbell, pastor of Newman Hall-Holy Spirit Parish at the University of California-Berkeley, agreed that many college-aged Catholics appreciate the renewed interest in the faith furnished by Francis—including among their non-Catholic peers. Yet it remains uncertain how this pope-of-good-feelings could indirectly nudge young Catholics to a particular political identity. Father Peter Rocca, rector of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame, said Francis is showing “how we can be a more compassionate, more loving, more forgiving Church.” Students, he claims, admire that Francis “is not a theologian so much as a pastor.” However, Rocca added that Francis has called attention to a broad band of issues that should bear importance for the Church. His message cannot be neatly categorized along American political lines.
Indeed, Francis’ holistic mission is a blend of elements that in American politics may be considered mutually exclusive: he oversees a Church that is staunchly against abortion and gay marriage, but he assigns special significance to issues of economic and social justice. This platform integrates elements of both social conservatism and economic progressivism, emerging as an outlier in the crowded field of American politics. To characterize Francis as turning “left” or “right” would oversimplify a mission rooted in faith and service, not politics. The immense symbolic importance of a changing papal message should not be denied. Nevertheless, Francis and his Church seek no political office; alliances with Democrats and Republicans seem to occur coincidentally and on a topic-specific level. To American voters, the pope is a paradox. Despite the changing message, no Catholic coalition will emerge from this complicated Church to become a serious new force in the electorate.
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