Politics & Policy

Catholics for Clinton: What Are They Thinking?

Clinton on the campaign trail in New York in April. (Reuters photo: Eduardo Munoz)
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Catholics favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a wide margin, according to a few polls from earlier this summer. The state of the presidential race has fluctuated since they were taken, but even if the political sympathies of the Catholic electorate have changed proportionally, we would still be looking at a marked shift since 2012. Departing sharply from the voting patterns they have established in recent elections, Catholics appear to have gravitated decisively toward the Democratic nominee, in the direction opposite the one in which their Evangelical neighbors have tacked.

Here at NRO two weeks ago, Alexandra DeSanctis considered some of the possible reasons, and other writers have done likewise across the Internet. Much of their speculation is thought-provoking, but none of it has been slam dunk. “Despite a veritable cottage industry of scholars who have studied religion and politics among American Catholics, a single theory that explains the dynamics of Catholic political behavior has eluded their grasp,” as Steve Wagner, a Republican pollster, summed up the problem many years ago.

Quaeritur: Why do Catholics as a whole prefer Clinton to Trump?

Objection 1: Most Americans who answer to the label “Catholic” neither attend Mass regularly nor consider their Catholic identity to be strong, and so the assumption that their religion significantly affects their candidate preference in the aggregate seems dubious.

Objection 2: When we therefore examine the U.S. Catholic population according to conventional categories of ethnicity and educational attainment, we find, first, that Hispanics constitute a greater share of U.S. Catholics (35 percent) than of total Americans (17 percent). And so the question “Why do most Catholics say they’ll vote for Clinton?” gives way to the question “In recent presidential elections, why has the Hispanic vote been lopsided for the Democrat?”

Objection 3: As for the 59 percent of U.S. Catholics who are white, they lean toward Clinton or Trump by single digits, depending on the poll, while the white Evangelical electorate falls in the latter camp by a whopping margin, but the white Catholic population has a higher share of college graduates than does its white Evangelical counterpart. Therefore, we again leave off the question about Catholics. Rather, we ask, what is it about college whites? Or, conversely, what is it about Trump that repels them?

Respondeo: Catholics who attend Mass weekly have been found to support Clinton over Trump by a slightly wider margin than do Catholics who attend less frequently or not at all. It is reasonable to assume that the candidate preference reported by those who invest at least an hour of their time every weekend to fulfill their Sunday obligation reflects the influence not only of their ethnicity and education but also of their religion. In June 2012, this subset of Catholics, those who are at least minimally observant, split for the Republican, Romney, by three percentage points; in June 2016, they split for the Democrat, Clinton, by 19 points. That’s striking.

Pollsters are not well equipped to capture a voter’s thought process. They can predict how a given demographic will act — this many college-educated white Catholics will check the blue box; that many, the red — better than they can describe how the individuals who constitute it think. Social scientists can break down a voter’s chain of reasoning into parts and measure each one separately, but they have a hard time putting the pieces back together to form a clear, high-resolution picture of his mind in the round.

Conservative Catholics who may think that they’re objecting to moral reasoning based on the limited methodologies of the social scientist in fact often resort to them when they argue, as some do, that it is impossible to reconcile a vote for Clinton with the teaching of the Catholic Church. They complain that the Christian principles that the typical Catholic voter brings to bear at the ballot box are isolated buzzwords that he has failed to join together to form a coherent sentence: He lacks a cogent rationale for his chosen candidate. These critics sometimes point to Catholic voter guides in which a dozen or so issues are listed with indications of whether candidates’ positions conflict or comport with Catholic social teaching. That format, they observe, encourages voters simply to count check marks (“Let’s see, she supports the Catholic position on ten of these, opposes it on two”) without assessing the importance of the different issues and assigning greater weight to those of greater urgency or moral gravity. Often this critique involves the assumption that, for faithful Catholic voters, a candidate’s support for abortion rights disqualifies him from the get-go.

The sweep of the Church’s institutional memory is broad, extending well beyond our country’s post-Sixties social calamities and culture wars.

It may. The U.S. Catholic bishops explain that “a candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.” The Southern Baptist theologian Albert Mohler (surely his essays against artificial contraception qualify him as an honorary Catholic?) begins from that premise, ruling out Clinton because of her stand on abortion (and then proceeding to rule out Trump, for different reasons). Father Dwight Longenecker, a popular Catholic writer, rejects Clinton by the same reasoning, though he spoils it with a bit of bloggerly exaggeration, citing that line from the U.S. bishops and taking it as if they had written “must,” not “may.”

In conservative Catholic circles, that confusion between the imperative and the subjunctive moods is genuine, in my experience, and common. The question of whether it is sinful for a Catholic to vote for a Democrat or, more specifically, any candidate who supports the legalization of abortion is about as old as the abortion debate in America. To an American Catholic whose political universe is defined by elections between mainstream Democrats and Republicans from the 1970s through approximately yesterday, a categorical prohibition of voting for candidates who support abortion rights might seem unproblematic, a logical extension of the Church’s rightful emphasis on the dignity of the human person from conception through natural death, but the sweep of the Church’s institutional memory is broader than that, extending well beyond our country’s post-Sixties social calamities and culture wars.

It takes in, inter alia, and with all due solemnity, the badly disfigured political landscape of Europe last century. To say that the Church was anti-Communist would be an understatement. Catholic leaders had been fighting the internationalist ideology for decades, rhetorically and spiritually, when opposing powers representing competing, nationalist ideologies appeared on the right, promising to crush Communism once and for all, militarily.

A Catholic who was single-minded in his anti-Communism might easily succumb to their appeal: Joseph P. Kennedy, for example (although his reasons for seeking “a better understanding” with Germany as late as 1940 may have been complex). After the war, the Left, aiming to damage the moral authority of the staunchly anti-Communist global institution that was the Catholic Church, cultivated the meme, which it has taken about two generations of historians to debunk, that the Vatican secretly sided with the Axis powers in the Second World War. Helping the anti-Catholic propagandists make their case are the countless individual Catholics, both lay and clerical, who did acquiesce to the tyrannies on the right.

As a boy, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, was caught up in those events, along with his family. They opposed the populist political movement that took their country by storm in the 1930s. Mindful of that background, of growing up on a continent squeezed between two totalitarian threats of unprecedented scale and enormity, ponder this conclusion to a letter that Ratzinger, as a Vatican official, sent to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C., in 2004:

A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons. [My emphasis.]

This is true not because the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said so but because it’s fairly reasoned, built on an understanding that a crisis to which a citizen must in good conscience apply universal principles may be full of contingencies that no one sitting at a desk in Rome in the early 21st century was likely to anticipate. The name of the virtue that Ratzinger was affirming is prudence.

I’ve shared the Ratzinger paragraph with conservative Catholic friends, and some of them make quick work of that reference to “proportionate reasons.” They return to the figure of weights and measures, weighing Clinton’s clear support for legal abortion against Trump’s ambiguous opposition to it. They come up with a value that dwarfs the sum of all other differences they find between the two candidates across the full spectrum of domestic and foreign policy.

A Catholic may reason in good faith variously.

Note that Ratzinger’s reference was to “proportionate reasons,” not “proportionate issues.” Our duty to participate in civil society according to our conscience informed by our faith entails more than weighting the planks of party platforms, like a statistical analyst hoping to determine whether Cal Ripken was a more valuable shortstop than Robin Yount. A campaign for president is not a bloodless compendium of propositions but a bundle of moving parts, which include, foremost, the character of the candidate himself, although the policies he espouses are essential features of the gestalt.

A Catholic may reason in good faith variously. If he weights the pro-life cause as heavily as some of his conservative co-religionists say he ought, he might calculate, for example, that he should vote for Clinton because the effort to eliminate abortion in practice as well as in law seems to him, for several reasons, likely to be more harmed than helped by its association with Trump. One of those reasons may be that Trump largely alienates youth, who will write the laws and spin the web of the national culture after the candidate and most of his supporters have departed the scene. Against the view that the election is a simple, visceral struggle in which voters must storm the cockpit on Flight 93 is the view that politics is chess, which requires that we think many moves ahead, taking care neither to open paths for our opponents nor to close off paths for ourselves.

We can dispute the wisdom of that as a political argument for supporting Clinton, but to insist that the Catholic Church disallows a prudential judgment of that sort would be wrong both factually and morally. It would be a slander against the Church’s commitment to “the breadth of reason,” as Pope Benedict called it in his Regensburg lecture ten years ago this month.


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