The Corner

Conservative Catholics, the GOP, and the Pope

Chastity and charity: Conservative Catholics emphasize the former at the expense of the latter, and liberal Catholics vice versa. That’s the popular wisdom, which, however, reflects a misapprehension of facts on the ground. Conservatives in general have been shown to give a larger portion of their income to charity, and Catholic paragons of charity (e.g., Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa) are typically conservative in their respect for traditional Christian mores.

The dichotomy between “charity” and “chastity,” then, is false, but it’s clear, so it persists. When applied to American politics, it leads to the cliché that every voting Catholic faces a dilemma: Republicans are right on the social issues but are social Darwinists, while Democrats are wrong on the social issues but have an agenda that dovetails nicely with the social gospel. Under analysis, the stereotypes collapse (for example, on abortion, it’s the Democratic party that comes closer to social Darwinism), but for the most part we find them convenient and so take care not to analyze them much.

Given that so far in his pontificate he has had more to say about the poor than about abortion, same-sex marriage, or other culture-war issues, Pope Francis lends the impression that, in American terms, he’s liberal. Ross Douthat says that this can be helpful in dissuading conservative American Catholics from a too-reflexive attachment to the Republican party, and he quotes R. R. Reno on the dangers to be avoided in that regard. First, Reno explains, “religious people . . . could easily become a taken-for-granted base largely irrelevant to the party’s larger policy debate.” The other danger is that, if the religious bind themselves too tightly to the GOP and the GOP falls, they’ll fall with it: “Religion, especially orthodox Christianity, may end up implicated in the inevitable failures and corruptions of the Republican party” and “recapitulat[e] in some way the disastrous alliances of the Catholic Church with the European right in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Those warnings of Reno’s are cogent in themselves, but the premise that Douthat rests them on is questionable. Catholics who vote Republican are not necessarily allergic to Francis’s enthusiasm for the social gospel. Many applaud it and have their reasons for thinking that Republican economic policies are good for the poor: Republicans encourage the creation of wealth, which tends to drive out poverty, and Republicans like to cut taxes, which exert downward pressure on charitable giving. Granted, those dependent clauses are largely inaudible to opponents of the Republican message — all they hear is “Give me more” and “Make me give less” — but most conservative Catholics I know comprehend the message in full and conclude that the economic ideas most supportive of Catholic social teaching involve free markets and limited government.

Complicating matters further is that conservative Catholics are predisposed to appreciate the correlation between wealth and the formation of traditional intact families, so that, in their view, pocketbook issues and the social issues form (to borrow a phrase) a seamless garment. A child should have a father because to have a father is a unique good and, by the way, the kid is more likely to enjoy middle-class comfort now and in the future if his father is present.

Fatherlessness underpins a great many social and economic ills, and government can do less to enable it. It can curb entitlement programs whereby the state, assuming the role of the adult male in the household, supplies “bureaugamy” where healthy marriage is lacking. But that’s it. The etiology of the problem is primarily cultural, and so will be the solution. If conservative Catholics loosen their ties to the Republican party, it will be not because the pope, to whom they are loyal, is urging them to care for the poor but because they have decided to go easy on politics, at least for a while, in order to concentrate on the culture, which they’ve been losing for generations. It may well be generations before their labor in that realm bears much fruit again — which is to say, not in their lifetimes, but in the long run.

Douthat adds that, if conservative Catholics find themselves disagreeing with Pope Francis, that will be good in that “it might help cure them/us of the temptation toward papolatry.” But one man’s papolatry is another man’s unfeigned filial piety. The need to express it is greater than the availability of adult males to receive it, so it’s little wonder that whoever is elected to wear the white cassock and zuchetto, those evocative symbols of the “papa” (the Latin word for “pope” and, by way of the Greek “pappas,” a familiar, affectionate term for “father”), is ipso facto the object of so much adulation. Note that the rise of the pope as rock star, beginning early in the pontificate of John Paul II, coincides with a rise in single motherhood, the other side of that coin being a decline in the incidence of fatherhood.

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