Culture warriors try again with the “Catholic Divide.”

By Kathryn Joyce

This week, The New York Times’s John Tierney dispensed a reassuring new truth: the culture war is all in our heads, and “the polarized nation is largely a myth created by people inside the Beltway.” Political scientist Alan Wolfe agrees, dismissing the idea of culture war as a luxury born of general national unity. Also this week, one reader of Amy Wellborn’s Catholic blog,Open Book, expressed his sense of this unity by offering another reader the following bargain: “If you don’t call me a sodomite,” he wrote, “I won’t call you a f***ing breeder, OK?”

The bargain failed, as did any attempted consensus in the discussion it was part of—what to make of President Bush’s recent, controversial meeting with Vatican official Cardinal Angelo Sodano, wherein he reportedly asked for American Catholic bishops to become more politically aggressive on cultural, family and life issues, specifically gay marriage. John Allen, a widely-respected Catholic reporter, writes, “the implication was that [Bush] hoped the Vatican would nudge them toward more explicit activism.” So if it’s true, as Tierney writes, that the culture war is an elite-sponsored myth, then Beltway-insiders are meeting success as they spread the word, got-up as it is in its latest disguise: the Catholic Divide.

Yesterday, David O’Brien director of the Center for Religion, Ethics, and Culture at the College of the Holy Cross, worried in the Boston Globe that no “self-respecting” Christian clergyman could bring himself to bless the Democratic delegates soon to gather in Boston. The Democrats could find “serious people to pray with them,” O’Brien claimed, only if they ceased to be “the party of partial-birth abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and gay marriage,” and adopted Republican co-chairs to reconsider their positions on these, all hot-button Catholic issues.

Meanwhile, more than 250 American bishops met in Denver to begin a week-long conference to determine, among other subjects, whether pro-choice Catholic politicians and their supporters are eligible for communion.

In response to the communion controversy, progressive Catholics like Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) called for a re-definition of Catholic politics. In a Hartford-Courant profile, reporter Janice D’Arcy explained DeLauro’s opposition to “‘using the Eucharist as a political weapon.’” Durbin went even further, tracking the votes of Catholic senators on a wider range of “Catholic” issues than abortion and gay marriage. Hisfindings—that Democratic Catholics were better keeping the faith—were in turn disparaged by conservative Catholics like Rick Santorum (R-PA), who complained that “Durbin is ‘trying to put a political spin that all of these issues have moral equivalency, and that’s simply not the case.’”

If it’s tricky ground between Durbin and Santorum, it’s trickier between pro-life activist Keith Fournier (founder of Common Good, which calls for Catholics to stop “hiding behind JFK” and his anti-doctrinal separation of faith and state), and Fr. Joseph F. Wilson, who writes onGodspy that with so few Catholics aware of proper doctrine, the communion controversy is “almost beside the point.” In other words, Santorum might not be fit for communion either, but the point of his and other Republicans’ invocation of papal authority isn’t such hair-splitting. Also presumably besides the point is Bush’s dismissal of Vatican opinion on Iraq and, as Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson argues, his 2000 campaign speech at the notoriously racist and anti-Catholic Bob Jones University.

The point, according to the common press narrative, is that shared moral positions—namely on abortion and gay marriage—will lead Catholics to vote Republican. But if that’s the case, the wisdom of this tactic is unclear. The Globe’s Jackson cites recent polls showing that “66 percent of Catholics say it is wrong for Catholic church-leaders to ‘publicly pressure Catholic politicians on issues such as abortion.’” Which, he adds, “is not much different from the 71 percent of Americans in general who feel the same way.”

Not that that will stop some politically-partisan Catholics from trying. Also in the Globe today,Michael Paulson and Raphael Lewis report that the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the official representative organization of the state’s four dioceses, has written to its parishes with a pre-election “scorecard,” ranking lawmakers on various issues—notably listing 76 legislators as “‘core supporters of same-sex marriage,’” and a separate group of 45 officials whose fidelity to the MCC line had been complete. The MCC mailings “urged priests to ‘share this information with your parishioners through your parish bulletin and other means.’”

While Jackson is hopeful that Catholics will ignore Bush’s selective embrace of their faith, he acknowledges that “nothing would be better for Bush than if he could find a divisive cultural issue to distract voters in November.” Even Tierney and Wolfe allowed that gay marriage could prove the last culture-war “‘wedge-issue.’” A third, and under-explored, option is that many lay Catholics may remain what Common Good’s Fournier disdains: comfortably “hidden” behind JFK. As voters, they may place less weight on the doctrinal imperfections of Kennedy’s compromise than on the content of his resolution: “that we have far more critical issues to face.” As Catholics, they may better recall Kennedy’s rationale for such separation, and his warning to those who doubted it: “For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew—or a Quaker—or a Unitarian—or a Baptist…Today I may be the victim- -but tomorrow it may be you.”