Since JFK’s historic breakthrough in 1960, only one Roman Catholic (John Kerry in 2004) has headed a national ticket. So politically “normal” has Catholicism become, however, that, since 1964, seven running mates have been Catholics. First, the Republicans nominated William Miller (with Barry Goldwater) in 1964. Then, the Democrats nominated Ed Muskie (with Hubert Humphrey) in 1968, Sergeant Shriver (with George McGovern) in 1972, Geraldine Ferraro (with Walter Mondale) in 1984, and Joe Biden (with Barack Obama) in 2008. Now in 2012, the Republicans are set to nominate Paul Ryan (with Mitt Romney). So 2012 will see a Catholic VP candidate on each party’s ticket. (Also, for the first time ever, neither candidate on the Republican ticket will be a Protestant).
All of this has little to do, in my opinion, with courting some real or imagined Catholic voting bloc. It reflects rather the reality of what I call the political “normalization” of Catholicism. This “normalization” is also reflected in the other branches of our government. Catholics (who constitute approximately 24% of the national population) are 29% of the current 112th Congress (156 of the 535 senators and representatives), and include both the Speaker and the Democratic leader (and former Speaker) of the House. Six Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are Catholics. (And there are now no more Protestants on the Court).
Demographically, Catholics are a good electoral barometer - not because they vote as a bloc but rather because they represent the country so well. Not only do they represent a quarter of the national population, but unlike many other denominations they effectively span the entire socio-economic spectrum. That is what makes them – and, by extension, the “Catholic vote” – so representative.
That does mean, however, that the more explicitly religious dimension to this phenomenon of Catholic political prominence gets lost in the discussion. This concerns not demographic voting patterns but rather the Church’s public presentation of itself as a moral voice (and hence a political player) in American society. Unlike some more sectarian religious bodies which aspire to avoid active engagement with secular society, the Catholic Church has historically seen itself as having a responsibility to form citizens’ and statesmen’s consciences according to the principles of the natural moral law. One result has been an accumulated body of principles commonly called “Catholic Social Teaching.” The U.S. Catholic Bishops have identified seven key themes at the heart of this tradition. These include the defense of human life and the dignity of the human person (opposing such intrinsic evils as abortion and euthanasia), a commitment to community (recognizing marriage and family as central social institutions), the reciprocal relationship of individual rights and responsibilities to society, a special priority for the needs of the poor and vulnerable, emphasis on the dignity and rights of workers, national and international solidarity, and care for the created world including stewardship of the environment. What part, if any, do these principles play in the political choices of Catholic citizens and policy-makers?
On October 11 in Danville, Kentucky, there will be a 90-minute debate between the two VP candidates. Imagine instead of the predictable exchange of slogans and soundbites a debate focused on the above principles and on whether and how to implement them in practice in the United States!