The Decline and Fall of Catholic Democrats?
Sister Simone explains: Abortion issues are above my pay grade, but Ryan’s budget is immoral.

Sister Simone Campbell at the 2012 DNC



Sister Simone’s words captured with almost perfect clarity the bizarre moral inversion that has taken place among so many of the American Left, including the Catholic Left: moral absolutism on matters that should allow for prudence combined with near-infinite plasticity when it comes to fundamental moral norms.

Here is a woman who, because of her Catholic faith, embarked on a cross-country bus tour to proclaim Paul Ryan’s budget anathema — not just imprudent, mind you, but fundamentally incompatible with Catholic morals. Yet this same woman cannot bring herself to admit so much as the possibility that legal sanction for the intentional killing of innocent human beings might be unjust.

If this is the expression of Catholicism most aligned with today’s Democratic party — and it seems to be, at least at the national level — then the decline of Catholic support for the Democratic party may well continue. Why? Because, just like Sister Simone, today’s Democrats are malleable on those moral issues where the Church is firm and they are rigid where the Church is open to debate.

It’s not news that Democrats began to lose their advantage in the Catholic vote about the same time they began embracing abortion. Despite high-profile Catholic defenders of the abortion license (Kathleen Sebelius, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden), millions of Catholics, especially observant Catholics, have left the Democratic party because of its willingness to compromise with what Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death.” One result of this is that the Catholic vote — once overwhelmingly Democratic — is now split fairly evenly between the two parties.

Despite continued losses of Catholics on social issues, Democrats have maintained a certain “Catholic advantage” on economic issues and entitlements, an edge based largely on the premise that the policies Democrats promote better protect those on the margins. But just as the moral flexibility of Democrats on social issues has driven away millions of Catholic voters over the last few decades, the inflexibility of Democrats on government spending and entitlement reform may prove equally unappealing.

With a stubbornly bad economy, massive government expansion, and a president who refuses to reconsider his party’s tired orthodoxies on entitlements or to offer any plausible solution for this nation’s fiscal woes, Catholic support for Democrats on those issues may begin to erode. In fact, it may already be happening.

A Pew study from early this year showed a shift in party affiliation among Catholic registered voters away from Democrats and toward Republicans that outpaced (+6 percent) the rightward shift in the general population (+4 percent). A more recent Pew study showed Democratic affiliation among white Catholics, hugely important voters in swing states such as Ohio and Wisconsin, at a record low of only 28 percent.

The reasons for this shift are complex and varied, and no single explanation — not abortion, not gay marriage, not religious liberty — can account for the decline of Catholic support for Democrats in recent decades. Certainly the cultural assimilation of Catholics has greatly reduced the degree to which they vote as a bloc. But for the first time in history, the GOP has a Catholic on the ticket willing and able to make the case to Catholic voters that the common good, including the good of the poor and marginalized (to say nothing of the unborn) is better served by policies on offer from Republicans than from Democrats.

That case is compelling. Burying future generations under a mountain of debt — only to watch the social safety net unravel anyway — serves neither the interests of the poor nor the common good. On the contrary, it’s a gross offense against what Pope Benedict XVI has called “inter-generational justice” and an abdication of our responsibility to care for those at the margins of society and provide a future for the next generation.

It is clear that the Democrats are intent on painting this election as a choice between individualism and shared responsibility, a theme that resonates deeply with Catholics as it does with many Americans. But so long as the best Democrats have to offer is an unyielding refusal to reconsider the wisdom of Big Government — despite the disaster of the last four years — then Republicans have an opportunity to gain Catholic ground on those fiscal and economic issues once considered safe Democratic turf.

“Catholic” and “Democrat” were once nearly synonymous in this country. As Paul Ryan said earlier this year at Georgetown, “I suppose there are some Catholics who for a long time have thought they had a monopoly of sort . . . not exactly on heaven, but on the social teaching of our Church.” If Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are able to win over Catholic voters on fiscal and economic issues and — this is crucial — able to deliver reform that actually creates greater opportunity for the nation’s poor, then moderate Catholics whose votes are deeply influenced by their faith may move the Catholic vote from a virtual wash to a slight Republican advantage.

With Catholics accounting for more than a quarter of American voters, that should have Democrats worried.

— Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.