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Catholics in Political Life

Brief history of American Catholicism

Catholicism has been an important part of the American political process since the 1800s. To understand how, we must discuss a little bit of American history. Catholics have been in America since the first settlers planted themselves on North American soil. Spanish missionaries made up a large bulk of the first Catholics to visit America, missionaries whose job it was to seek out native populations and convert them to Catholicism in the name of the Spanish Empire. There were also French missionaries in places like Canada and Louisiana doing the same thing, and in 1803, the number of Catholics in United States almost doubled with Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of this huge tract of land from France, known as the “Louisiana Purchase.”

The run up to the American Civil War (1861-1865) also saw a great boom in the Catholic population, as millions of Irish (who were predominately Catholic) migrated to the United States to escape the great famine that was sweeping across their country. It is at this point in American history where anti-Catholic sentiment starts to really take shape. Catholics had always been viewed with suspicion by American Protestants, mostly because Protestants did not – and still do not – have a central religious leader like the Catholic Pope. Therefore, many Protestants were uncomfortable with Catholicism because they felt that Catholics would be loyal to the Pope first and America second. It was almost unheard of, for example, to have a Catholic mayor, governor, or senator until several years after the civil war. In fact, the first – and last – Catholic President was John F. Kennedy.

American/Catholic Politics

Catholicism has always played an active part in American political life, but we must remember that the United States forbids the mixing of religions and state business. This so called “Separation of Church and State” is enshrined in the American first amendment. Why is this important? Well, religious leaders and organizers are limited in how much political influence they are allowed to have in America, as mandated by this principle. Therefore, when speaking of Catholic political life, we must remember that in many cases, it is not politicians with a Catholic agenda who are driving policy, but instead outside private citizens and organizations who are doing so.

Catholic Organizations in America

There are many Catholic organizations in the US that are active in American politics. For example, The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is an American organization that actively lobbies the US government to “defend the right of Catholics [. . .] to participate in American public and political life.” The Catholic League is well known in America for speaking out (sometimes loudly and with great fanfare) about perceived injustices against Catholics, and about “anti-Catholic” feelings that they may feel exist, whether in the government or in political life. They are able to do this because technically, they are a private organization and not legally affiliated with the Catholic Church.

Catholic Charities is another organization in America that mainly focuses on providing a multitude of charity services for the poor and underprivileged. In fact, the US branch of the Catholic Charities (they are a worldwide organization) is the second largest provider of aid for the poor in the country, only coming in behind the US federal government! As you can imagine, they are a massive organization. They help over 8.5 million people a year, regardless of their religious orientation or faith.

Politically, Catholic Charities maintains that they are neutral; that is, they do not lobby the federal or state governments for change in the name of their organization. However, this is not always the case. In November 2009, Catholic Charities in Washington DC threatened to end their services if a gay marriage bill passed. In 2006, the organization stopped providing adoption services because of federal requirements that gays and lesbians be allowed to adopt children. Both of these practices run contrary to Catholic teaching; we can see here how the lines between political and private life can often become blurred. While they do not participate in politics, their decisions can have massive political consequences.

Individual Catholics in America

Catholic teaching can often have a great impact on the American political scene, but most of this is indirect. A Catholic priest, for example, cannot tell his parishioners that they may or many not vote for a specific candidate; this would be in violation of many of US laws. However, Catholic ideology can have a profound affect on American politics simply because there are so many Catholics in America.

This is perhaps nowhere more prominent than in the American debate about abortion. Many leaders and teachers of the Catholic faith – from the Pope, to Bill Donohue of the before mentioned Catholic League, to bishops and cardinals – have said that abortion is immoral and against the teaching of the Catholic Church. Because of this, abortion in America is a highly sensitive issue in American politics, and reaches out to touch things like medical care and even, in 2009-2010, the reform of the American healthcare system!

The latter is a great example of how Catholic teaching can influence American politics. Consider that in the proposed health care overhaul, President Barack Obama seeks to give more federal money to help pay for Americans’ medical costs. While the situation is very complex, at its core it relies on distributing tax money. As a Catholic, you may be personally against abortion because of the teachings of the Catholic Church. Therefore, having your tax money spent on someone else’s abortion could be very offensive. People who are offended by this possibility call their senators to complain; and suddenly, Catholicism is influencing the political process!

Summary

It is important to remember that American legal and political tradition dictates no interface from religious organizations. However, private organizations are not limited in how they can participate in the political process, so it always a balancing act between limiting religious influence and allowing personal expression. The important thing to remember is that individual American citizens have the right to take their religion into the voting booth on election day; what is not allowed are religious organizations influencing the process.

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