The Magazine

Alito and the Catholics

The decline of an institution and the rise of its ideas.

Jan 23, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 18 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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ON THE MORNING PRESIDENT BUSH nominated Samuel Alito to become the fifth Catholic on the Supreme Court, I was sitting on an airplane next to a joke-teller, one of those people whose idea of travel is the chance to pass along to strangers all the latest gags. "So," he began, patting his jovial belly, "have you heard this one? A doctor, a lawyer, and a priest are on a ship when it hits a rock and begins to sink. 'What about the women and children?' the doctor worries as the three pile into the only lifeboat. 'Screw the women and children,' the lawyer replies. 'Do you think we have time?' asks the priest."

This may be the best time in American history to be a Catholic, and it may also be the worst: a moment of triumph after 200 years of outsiderness, and an occasion of mockery and shame. It is an era in which a surprisingly large portion of the nation's serious moral analysis seems to derive from Catholic sources. But it is also a day in which Monsignor Eugene Clark--an influential activist and Fulton J. Sheen's successor as rector of New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral--can be named an adulterer in a divorce petition and photographed checking into a hotel with his hot-panted secretary, to the weeks-long titillation of New York's tabloids: "Beauty and the Priest," ran the headline in the Daily News. Catholicism is the most visible public philosophy in America, and the Catholic Church is a national joke.

That's not necessarily a contradiction. Indeed, there might even be a connection between the rising rhetorical influence of Catholicism and the declining political influence of the Church. Since its founding, the United States has always had a source of moral vocabulary and feeling that stands at least a little apart from the marketplace and the polling booth--from both the economics of capitalism and the politics of democracy that otherwise dominate the nation. For much of American history, that source was the moral sense shared by the various Protestant denominations, and it influenced everything from the Revolution to the civil-rights movement.

Somewhere in the last 50 years, however, the mainline Protestant churches went into catastrophic decline. The reasons are complex, but the result is clear. By the 1970s, a hole had opened at the center of American public life, and into that vacuum were pulled two groups that had always before stood on the outside, looking in: Catholics and evangelicals.

Their meeting produced one of the least likely alliances in the nation's history, and it can be parsed in dozens of different ways. "Evangelicals supply the political energy, Catholics the intellectual heft," the New Republic claimed this month as it attempted to explain the Catholic ascendancy on the Supreme Court. That explanation is, as Christianity Today replied, mostly just a condescending update of the Washington Post's old insistence that evangelicals are "poor, uneducated, and easy to command." But the New Republic was at least right that the rhetorical resources of Catholicism--its ability to take a moral impulse born from religion and channel it into a more general public vocabulary and philosophical analysis--have come to dominate conservative discussions of everything from natural-law accounts of abortion to just-war theory.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy won 87 percent of the vote of Mass-going Catholics, but it has been a long time since Catholics achieved that kind of electoral unity. Indeed, there's an interesting question whether the leading evangelicals would grant Catholicism its current role if Catholics still had the kind of ethnic-voter unity they used to show. We may be seeing the emergence of one of those uniquely American compromises: A Catholic philosophical vocabulary is allowed to express a moral seriousness the nation needs, on the guarantee that the Catholic Church itself will not much matter politically.

The Catholic clergy's particular sins, especially against children, produced a shame that is deep and well-deserved, and through their class-action suits, the victims are about to strip away the endowment left by five generations of ethnic believers. The bricks-and-mortar Catholicism of the last hundred years--the intense desire of all those hard-working immigrants to build a visible monument of parishes, schools, hospitals, and orphanages--may well have disappeared by the time the total damage is calculated.

Work still needs to be done to explain the causes of the priests' crimes, together with the reasons for the American bishops' horrifyingly insufficient response. But, along the way, the political power of the Church itself came at last to its complete end. Perhaps the perceived influence of America's hierarchy had been, in fact, unreal for some time--a brief-lived leftover from the days when Catholic bishops really could direct their parishioners' votes. Still, the national prominence of, say, John Cardinal O'Connor before his death in 2000 seemed the natural order of things: Archbishops of New York have always occupied a powerful place in American affairs--or, at least, they always used to occupy a powerful place. O'Connor's successor, Edward Egan, appears mostly to wish he belonged to the Church Invisible, and he remains little known even to his fellow New Yorkers. With some exceptions (such as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and Francis Cardinal George of Chicago--neither, it is worth noting, implicated in the cover-up of the priest scandals), the vast majority of America's bishops have joined Cardinal Egan in full retreat from public engagement.

And that leaves--well, who is there now to speak for American Catholics? As their ethnic unity dissipated, Catholics have had considerably less need for someone to represent them, in the old, tribal sense of the word. But at the same time, the vacuum in public discourse allows Catholicism to act as a marker of intellectual depth about public philosophy--for good or for ill, depending on your view of the various issues on which it impinges, but always somehow a symbol of something that must be taken seriously.

So, President Bush, reeling from the rejection by conservatives of a nominee perceived as unserious, tossed aside all the diversity qualifications he had claimed for Harriet Miers and picked yet another Catholic for the Supreme Court. It doesn't always prove true, of course (as the existence of pro-abortion Catholic politicians demonstrates), but the American public seems to take serious Catholicism as an immediate sign of moral attention on intellectual topics like the law. Who now speaks for American Catholicism? A good example might be someone like Samuel A. Alito Jr.

NOT THAT ALITO is much of a spokesman for his coreligionists. He's never been a professional Catholic, one of those commentators who make their living off the fact of their faith. Nor has anyone claimed that his earlier jobs at the Justice Department and on the federal bench were obtained through some Catholic quota, the way the Supreme Court for decades had what used to be called the "Catholic seat." According to a report on Beliefnet.com, Alito sometimes attends Mass at St. Aloysius in Caldwell, New Jersey, a church very traditional in both its theology and its sacramental practice. But he's also a registered parishioner at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament in neighboring Roseland, which is, by all accounts, a fairly typical liberal suburban church, and the parish where his wife teaches catechism to the local children. Nothing in Alito's record suggests a desire or even a willingness to stand as the token Catholic representative for much of anything.

Which, in its way, makes him even more representative. In 2004, during the second presidential debate, John Kerry boasted that he used to be an altar boy, as indeed he did. It was a naked appeal to the old style of the Catholic vote: the ethnic unity that for more than a century delivered the votes of blue-collar urban America to the Democrats. In the end, George Bush won a good majority of Catholic votes--as might have been predicted when Kerry went immediately from mentioning his boyhood Catholicism to explaining why he supported public funding for abortions. Fifty years earlier, Bush's appeal to shared ideas of Catholicism would have been trounced by Kerry's appeal to shared membership in the Catholic Church.

Of course, 50 years earlier, Kerry would have shared the ideas of Catholicism, too. The meeting of evangelicals and Catholics in the opened center of American public discourse was probably bound to produce somebody like President Bush, an evangelical who couched his second inaugural address almost entirely in the language of natural law. But what's particularly interesting is that this somebody is a Republican--for by all rights, it should have been a Democrat. For that matter, so should most of the Catholics that Republican presidents have put on the bench in recent years. Perhaps the privileged upbringing of the new chief justice, John Roberts, would have made him a Catholic Republican anyway (there were occasionally such rare beasts), but Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas would almost certainly be Democrats, if there were left any place for their kind of Catholic thought in the Democratic party.

The most fascinating political story of the twentieth century may be how and why the Democratic party rejected its core of serious Catholic politicians and voters. "Goodbye, Catholics," an interesting article by Mark Stricherz in Commonweal this past November, pointed to the "soft quota" rule of the McGovern Commission from 1969 to 1972, which quickly delivered the party from the old city and union bosses to the feminists and social activists--all in service of creating what Fred Dutton, the commission's active force, called a "loose peace constituency."

Following the Commonweal report, David Brooks recently used his column in the New York Times to blame Dutton and the McGovern Commission for "Losing the Alitos"--for chasing out of the party, from the 1970s on, the Catholic blue-collar constituency that had been a mainstay of Democratic success for generations. "By the late 1960s," Brooks noted,

cultural politics replaced New Deal politics, and liberal Democrats did their best to repel Northern white ethnic voters. Big-city liberals launched crusades against police brutality, portraying working-class cops as thuggish storm troopers for the establishment. In the media, educated liberals portrayed urban ethnics as uncultured, uneducated Archie Bunkers. The liberals were doves; the ethnics were hawks. . . . The liberals thought an unjust society caused poverty; the ethnics believed in working their way out of poverty.

That's all true, of course, but people like Samuel Alito haven't actually been blue-collar urban ethnics for a long, long time. This is a man, after all, who went to Princeton as an undergraduate, got his law degree from Yale, and has--as reported during the debate over whether he should have recused himself from a case involving the Vanguard investment firm--over $400,000 in his retirement accounts. Alito looks rather like a model case study in the assimilation of Catholics into the American upper-middle class.

Except for abortion. Crime and protest, all those "Question Authority" bumper stickers that Brooks cites, may have freed some Catholic ethnics to vote for Republicans. And assimilation on the far side of suburbia's crabgrass frontier may have freed more from the politics of their urban roots, as their green-lawn Catholic churches became indistinguishable from the Methodist and Presbyterian churches down the block. But there is nonetheless something distinctive left about Catholicism as a system of public thought, and for people like Samuel Alito, it found its rock--the place beyond which it would not go and from which it began to build back--when the Democrats became the party of abortion and the Republicans the party of life.

IN THE SUMMER of 2003, the conservative Committee for Justice, upset over the stalled nomination of William Pryor to the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ran advertisements accusing the Democrats of imposing a "No Catholics Need Apply" rule on potential federal judges. When the antireligious advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State issued its predictable attacks on John Roberts and Samuel Alito as raging Catholic theocrats determined to tear down the wall between church and state, the Catholic League's Bill Donohue responded with the same rhetoric of a litmus test designed to keep Catholics off the courts.

In one sense, such claims are palpable nonsense: Among the Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, Ted Kennedy, and Richard Durbin are just as officially Catholic as Samuel Alito, the nominee they spent four days grilling last week. Of course, those same senators are manifestly not believers in the coherent system of Catholic thought in the American context that a set of (mostly) conservative theorists have developed in the 33 years since Roe v. Wade was handed down. The Committee for Justice simply got the phrasing wrong. In truth, for the Democrats, Catholics are more than welcome. It's Catholicism that's right out the window.

That kind of Catholicism is not, by any means, the same thing as sincere Catholic belief. One doesn't have to accept the natural-law theories of, say, Princeton's Robert George to be a faithful Catholic--or the international-law theses of Harvard's Mary Ann Glendon, or the just-war accounts of George Weigel, or the Christian capitalism of Michael Novak, or the strong claims of religious America in magazines like First Things. Plenty of serious and thoughtful Catholics stand, on ecclesial and theological matters, far to the right of the dominant intellectual form of American Catholicism, and plenty stand far to the left.

And yet, for all of them--left, right, and center--abortion now occupies the moral center of thought about American political issues. Against all odds (if one remembers the utter defeat of Rome's attempt in the 1960s and 1970s to convince American Catholics about birth control), opposition to abortion has triumphed as not just the official, but the believed, position of the nation's Catholic churches. Every diocese, even the most liberal, operates a pro-life office, and the majority of parishes offer some pro-life activity.

Of course, there are still a few Catholic commentators who downplay abortion by folding it into a host of other issues. Mark Roche, a dean at Notre Dame, for instance, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times during the 2004 election that claimed abortion is the greatest American crime since slavery--though it also somehow forms only a small part of the "seamless garment" of Catholic issues that stretches from the "death penalty, universal health care and environmental protection" to "equitable taxes and greater integration into the world community," all of which demand the rejection of George W. Bush.

For that matter, there are many Catholic politicians--mostly Democrats, though Maine's senator Susan Collins, California's governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and New York's former mayor Rudy Giuliani are easy Republican examples--who don't just downplay legalized abortion but seem actively to embrace it. Either pandering to the politics of their blue-state homes, or not yet persuaded by Bush's national defeat of Kerry, some of them hold to Mario Cuomo's old line of "personally opposed, but publicly supportive." In the case of such old-line Catholic politicians as Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, it's hard to see much personal opposition at all.

Meanwhile, there are millions of Catholic voters--nominal Catholics, cultural Catholics, cafeteria Catholics, suburban Catholics, soccer-mom Catholics, and many others--who seem unmoved by their coreligionists' struggle against abortion. One quarter of the nation's population identifies itself as Catholic, but probably less than half of those 65 million people are clearly and strongly pro-life. Perhaps only a tenth of them vote strictly on the issue of abortion.

So why all the agitation? The 2004 presidential election saw endless talk about the malignant effect of the Catholic hierarchy's preaching against abortion: editorials in the New York Times, talk show after talk show on television, long analyses in opinion magazines. But the fact remains that the vote in the political district of every cardinal in the United States, from Los Angeles to Boston, was won by pro-abortion politicians, usually overwhelmingly. George W. Bush, as the candidate who opposed Roe v. Wade, may have captured the vote of Catholics as a whole, but John Kerry, the candidate in favor of legalized abortion, won all the cardinals' home towns.

The current fear about Catholics cannot be drawn from the Church's direct political effect, for that well has gone bone dry. In New York City politics, the rectory of St. Patrick's Cathedral was once called "the Powerhouse," but no one has used the name in a generation. Not a single prominent pro-abortion Catholic politician has been successfully brought to heel by the bishops in decades, and for two presidential election cycles, Catholic voters have been more or less indistinguishable from the general run of American voters.

And yet, in another way, everyone who seems so agitated--from the New York Times editorial page to Americans United for Separation of Church and State--is right to worry about the nomination of a fifth Catholic to the Supreme Court. Neither John Roberts nor Samuel Alito admitted in his Senate hearings a willingness to overturn Roe v. Wade. That may have been merely good confirmation strategy, but it is also possible they will prove, as Anthony Kennedy did, unwilling in the end to pull the trigger. The fact that Alito's mother told a reporter her son opposes abortion is no more dispositive than the fact that John Roberts's wife once held a position in a pro-life organization.

But both Roberts and Alito are products of a Catholic intellectual life that has flowered in the years since the Court imposed legalized abortion on the nation. Compelled to moral seriousness by the urgency of the pro-life cause and granted a surprising public prominence by the collapse of the old Protestant mainline, post-ethnic Catholic thinkers have formed an exciting and powerful rhetoric in which to talk about public affairs in a modern democracy. You can see it among an increasing number of professors and journalists. You can see it, perhaps most of all, among lawyers and judges. You can even see it among nominees to the Supreme Court.

That is hardly the same thing as success for the Catholic Church. But it is success, of a sort, for Catholicism.

Joseph Bottum, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is editor of First Things.