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How Progressive Democrats Remain Catholic

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The governor of New York is a practicing Roman Catholic who was raised in a family steeped in traditional Church teachings. The nation's vice president is open about the role of faith in his life, saying that he finds comfort in carrying his rosary and attending Mass weekly. Our house Minority Leader calls herself an "ardent, practicing Catholic," and in a visit to Rome in 2008 was photographed kissing the papal ring of Pope Benedict XVI. And California's governor attended Jesuit seminary, where he studied to become a Catholic priest, and in 2005 was married in the Catholic Church.

These confirmed Catholics, attached to the church by birth and educated in parochial schools, are also progressive democrats. Andrew Cuomo made same-sex marriage the law of New York; and Joseph Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Jerry Brown support abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research (Biden and Brown also support the death penalty) -- stances sharply at odds with church teachings.

Over the summer, as the issue of same-sex marriage hit the news, I began thinking about the intersection of politics and religion. Specifically, how is it possible to be a practicing Catholic and an avowed Democrat? How can these liberal politicians remain a part of a 2,000-year-old institution, one that labels homosexuality an "intrinsic disorder," defines marriage as a "covenant between a man and a woman," refuses to ordain women as priests and calls abortion a "moral evil," even in the case of rape or incest?

Catholics have been a part of politics since the Founding Fathers, and have been active in politics in the United States since the mid 19th century. Today, America has -- for the first time -- a Catholic vice president. More than 30 percent of Congress is Catholic, compared with about 25 percent of the population. Increasingly, Catholic politicians are being criticized by bishops and conservative Catholic leaders for their "anti-Catholic" positions, and political observers expect the voice of the clergy to become even louder in the 2012 presidential election.

"I sent Nancy Pelosi a copy of 'Catholicism for Dummies,'" Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, told me in early August. "I'm not in the place to judge how faithful a person is, but we know what the church's teachings are, and when someone flagrantly violates them."

Donohue's impromptu gift to Pelosi was sent after her appearance in 2008 on Meet the Press, when the Speaker answered the "when life begins" question by saying "over the history of the church, this is an issue of controversy." (This was also when she declared herself an "ardent, practicing Catholic.")

"This is a flagrant misrepresentation of the church's teachings," Donohue said of her take on when life begins. "On the one hand, I don't want to sit here in judgment, on the other hand I get exercised when they say, well, there's more than one Catholic view on this. Abortion is one where there is no wiggle room."

In the same way, Donohue, whose Catholic League boasts 300,000 members nationwide, believes Andrew Cuomo is "playing both sides of the street. Like a lot of these politicians, he wants to invoke his Catholic credentials at all the right times, but when it comes to public policy, he wants to break away from the church. Cuomo isn't with us on abortion, embryonic stem cell research, school vouchers for inner city poor or gay marriage."

Before hanging up, Donohue, a longtime educator whose teaching career began at a Catholic school in Harlem, said, "I'd just like some consistency and more honesty. There are house rules to being a Catholic."

After talking with Donohue, I went back and read the seminal 1984 speech, "Religious Belief and Public Morality," given by then-New York governor Mario Cuomo at Notre Dame. The speech was pure Cuomo -- eloquent and philosophical -- and tackled the question of how a Catholic leader could support abortion rights. Weighing "moral truths against political realities," Cuomo made a moral argument for not imposing his religious beliefs on a pluralistic society, saying, "We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us." Cuomo ended with: "We can be fully Catholic. And still, all the while, respecting and enjoying our unique pluralistic democracy. And we can do it even as politicians."

For a different perspective, I reached out to Jim Fitzgerald, executive director of Call to Action, a national Catholic justice organization that has long advocated for change in the church. "We would simply ask that political leaders follow their conscience," Fitzgerald said. "Church Catechism says that the conscience takes precedence over everything."

Fitzgerald, whose group advocates for such changes as the ordination of women as priests, believes political leaders including Biden, Pelosi and Cuomo, "take their faith seriously, even though their voting records seem contrary." He posed what he sees as a rhetorical question: "Did Andrew Cuomo come to the position of supporting gay marriage uniquely and precisely because of his faith? Did he do it to make sure that the vulnerable and marginalized are protected?"

I thought about the Catholics I know and admire. A close friend who is gay and Catholic told me that he is often asked why he remains Catholic when the church labels him as "intrinsically disordered." He explained, "I reflexively cross myself when entering a church. I know when it's All Souls' Day, Candlemas, Ash Wednesday and Holy Week. I guess you could say that this thing called Catholicism permeated my skin. It is the good parts of the church that I can still feel, despite my best efforts to ignore it." Another Catholic I know -- an 80-year-old Italian immigrant who had her parish shuttered to help fund clergy abuse payouts -- said, "I've stopped going to Mass like I used to. But am I still a Catholic? That's like asking if I'm still Italian."

So now, when I look at prominent Catholic politicians with liberal social agendas and wonder how they attend Mass on Sunday and legislate something very different on Monday, I have my answer. Catholicism, a club with magisterial rituals, good deeds, arcane teachings and more than 1 billion adherents, is far from monolithic. The house rules that apply are those set by believers themselves. These are the everyday Catholics who may honor their pope but disagree with papal positions, and who hold their faith close but have disdain for much of the dogma. The Catholics who fill the nation's pews share something with the politicians at the podium: they believe that resistance and reverence can go together like bread and wine.

Julian Guthrie is an award-winning journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle. Her nonfiction book, 'The Grace of Everyday Saints: How a Band of Believers Lost Their Church and Found Their Faith,' about a group of Catholics who waged a heroic crusade to save their historic church and unravel the mystery of why it was closed, is to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Aug. 18.

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