In the New York Times Sunday Review Molly Worthen offers up some words of wisdom, of a sort, for the Democratic Party regarding their relationship with the progressive Catholic social tradition:
Allowing Republicans to claim the mantle of Catholicism might cost the Democrats the election. As commentators have noted, Catholics may be the nation’s most numerous swing voters. Over the past few decades, Democratic leaders have alienated voters in one of the party’s historically strong constituencies. Through a series of ideological moves and cultural misjudgments, they have also cut themselves off from a rich tradition of liberal Catholic thought at a time when American culture requires politicians to articulate a mission that inspires religious and secular voters alike.
The Catholicism of Sister Campbell and Mr. Biden is a natural fit for Democrats. It is the faith of social justice activists like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, the church whose pope pleaded for relief of the “misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class” in an 1891 encyclical.
Here, I'm wholly agreed. There is a great deal in the Catholic tradition that is far, far more amenable to the Democratic party than the Republican. However, the obvious caveat is then offered:
The Democratic Party has marginalized progressive Catholic intellectuals for the same reason that Rome has: because they habitually challenge sacred doctrines. In the days of John F. Kennedy, American Catholics voted Democrat by default. But things got rocky as Richard M. Nixon capitalized on the resentments of many “white ethnic” (often Catholic) voters in the wake of the civil rights movement. At the same time, Democrats began to take a harder line on abortion. By the late 1980s, they had transformed Roe v. Wade into a non-negotiable symbol of gender equality and lost interest in dialogue with abortion opponents.
Now, for the record: This is nonsense, as anyone who has paid attention to the way the Democratic party has treated the politics of abortion over the past several decades knows. Even among non-Catholic Democrats, abortion has often been treated as an unfortunate though legally necessary reality of modern life, rather than a fundamental right. You can see this reflected in the Clinton rhetoric (which, by the way, I endorse) that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare." The same senitment was reflected in Obama's position on abortion in the 2008 campaign. Few, if any, prominant Democrats have spoken out strongly in favor of abortion rights over the past twenty years at least.
That said, there is no doubt that Democrats have maintained, rightly in my view, the position that abortion, even if tragic in many cases, and even if morally sub-optimal in other cases, should remain a legal right, and that the decision should be between a woman and her doctor.
Of course, it's understandable that for those Catholics for whom abortion is the central moral issue of American society, this is an unsatisfactory position. But to suggest that Democrats haven't tried, repeatedly, to accomodate anti-abortion position and politicans over the years is to miss both the rhetorical and practical aspects of how Democrats have governed when the've had the opportunity.
Just because anti-abortion Catholics don't win the argument doesn't mean that they're being excluded from the conversation.
Yet, abortion cannard aside, I think that there is much to agree with in this essay, and the conclusion is also very much on the money:
If the Democratic Party is not listening to liberal Catholics, it is partly because they are not in a position to speak very loudly. They are dodging the sights of a Roman hierarchy more preoccupied with smoking out left-leaning nuns than nurturing critical thinking. “Is liberal Catholicism dead?” Time wondered a few years back. The answer is no: in some regards, liberal Catholic intellectuals are flourishing. They are writing and teaching, running social justice initiatives at the church’s great universities, ensconced in professorships around the Ivy League. Yet a cozy academic subculture can be as isolating as it is empowering. The handful of nationally known Catholic political thinkers who might be called progressive, or at least compassionate and cosmopolitan — like the journalist-scholars Garry Wills and E. J. Dionne Jr., blogmeister Andrew Sullivan, or the feminist nun and blogger Sister Joan Chittister — are far outnumbered by the ranks of prominent Catholic conservatives in the trenches of activism and policy making.