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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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.