The edict of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Rhode Island, Thomas Tobin, denying Patrick Kennedy the right to receive communion in his Church is the latest evidence of the Catholic Church’s irrelevance in contemporary ethical discussion. It is sacramental blackmail, demanding that a Catholic legislator suspend judgment and conscience in order to promote the interests of his Church above the interests of the women and men, Catholic and not, who elected him to office. Worse, it ratifies the dark suspicions of fifty years ago when non-Catholics wondered out loud whether the dogma of the church rather than the principles of secular democracy would govern the decision-making of a Catholic president. Oddly enough, it is the Church itself rather than any Catholic politician that has renewed and perhaps answered the question.
In 1960 everyone able to vote in my Catholic family voted for JFK because Catholics (like most Jews and African Americans) were Democrats. Catholics believed in the Trinity, going to confession, the rosary, and the special license of nuns to inflict pain on adolescent knuckles.
On Sundays they were treated to hideous renditions of Mozart and Palestrina by undertrained choirs with shaky voices and priests whose anguished faces at a sung Latin mass left no doubt about the existence of Purgatory.
There was a “thing” called Catholic Culture, preserved in parish schools, loosely enforced by diocesan bishops, reinforced by the anti-communist television sermons of Bishop Sheen in Life is Worth Living. Being an American Catholic was easy because your Church and your country had a common enemy, even if no one could quite decide what to do about it. Communism was “evil” to religious America because it was atheism, the finer points of dialectical materialism being lost on the good citizens of St. Paul and Kansas City.
In 1960 John Kennedy wasn’t kidding when he said that, if elected, Rome wouldn’t tell him what to do–the so-called “Protestant Scare.” For most American Catholics, the Vatican was far away (especially for Irish Americans) and the pope had the same status as meatless Fridays: he came with the territory as the price of baptism. But in general the authority of the pope was pretty obscure and the non-existence of satellite television and the internet made his authority more theoretical than real.
There was a picture of John XXIII in my eighth grade classroom, positioned close to the crucifix, close enough to encourage the belief that perhaps he had lived at the same time as Jesus.
Nobody talked about abortion, homosexuality (of the clergy or in relation to marriage rights) or (much, anyway) about divorce, though all of these things were part of a darker culture that we knew about—usually in the form of an “unmarried” aunt who came to Christmas dinner but didn’t go to mass regularly.
Politics was easy because protestants didn’t talk much about these things either. When modern conservatives talk about a “broad moral consensus” missing in American society they are talking mainly about a religious convergence of social-sexual attitudes that existed before 1968, or thereabouts.
That’s when Paul VI spoiled our theory of the non-existence of the pope by publishing Humanae Vitae forbidding Catholics to take advantage of new techniques of contraception—the pill. It was a tough year to be an undergraduate dating a liberal Episcopalian.
From that day on, Catholicism was less and less about frequent communion, the trinity, and the virgin, more and more about hating abortion and strongly disapproving of gays—despite the irony of an emerging pedophile culture in seminaries and rectories.
Sad, that when this consensus broke down, Catholics by and large were forced into an ethical corner– forced to choose between church and conscience, between a kind of laissez faire allegiance to the principles of Catholic teaching and a strangely robust “moral” voice coming from a church in liturgical disarray and sacramental crisis.
All of a sudden, your best religious friends were not the ones who shared your tradition (tradition?) but the ones who agreed with you that abortion is murder, that homosexuality is a sinful, correctable practice, and that sex between loving but unmarried individuals of different sexes is morally wrong.
All of a sudden, the weak voice of faraway Rome and meatless Fridays seemed preferable to the New Church, a church that had decided to take its stand not at the altar but in the bedroom.
But the real problem in all of this is one our culture doesn’t yet have its head around. It is the way in which the Catholic Church has forced some of its most loyal sons and daughters, especially those in political life, to leave home.
No one knows whether, given the same set of moral variables in 1960, John Kennedy would have been the first Catholic president or could have achieved the delicate balance between convincing Catholics his religion mattered and non-Catholics that it didn’t.
But the balance is gone, thanks in part to changing social realities and changed laws and attitudes, and in part to a cultural backlash that hasn’t stopped lashing.
Unlikely as it seems, confronted with a progressive Catholic candidate in 2012, as we had in 2004, the claim of the Church’s non-interference and disinterest in American politics will no longer be convincing. We see that in the brokering of “acceptable” bishop-approved health care legislation in the U.S. Congress. We saw it in the sad final days of Ted Kennedy, in his letter of “qualified” contrition to Benedict XVI. Now we see it in the virtual excommunication–literally, being cut off from the sacrament–of Patrick Kennedy.
It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Catholic lawmakers now are expected to apologize to their church for the free exercise of conscience and the right to frame their ideas within the liberal tradition of American politics.
The issue in 1960, when the phrase had everything to do with belief and almost nothing to do with personal ethics, was whether a candidate was “Too Catholic.” For Catholic voters in the future, unless dramatic change occurs in a Church not known for upheaval, the question will be “Catholic enough?”