By Anna Hanuska
Supposedly, a fundamental concept of our government is the clear separation of church and state. However, the Catholic Church plays a significant role in American politics.
As nearly a quarter of the US population, Catholics make up a significant portion of voters. Initially made up of mostly poor immigrants, Catholics used to be a dependably Democrat voting group, especially in the early 20th century. Once many advanced to the middle and upper class, however, more and more began voting Republican. Now, Catholic voters are split down the middle, nearly half voting for each party, despite the shared belief system. In fact, the divide seems to be largely a racial one, as the majority of white Catholics vote Republican and the majority of Hispanic Catholics vote Democrat. Winning that slight majority of Catholics is crucial, especially since they have sided with every winning presidential candidate since 2004. To do so, politicians must appeal to the Catholic vote. In the 2020 election, Catholics will play a large role in swing states such as Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Despite the official position of the American sector of the Catholic Church to refrain from supporting specific candidates or campaigns, many individual bishops and parish priests push their personal opinions on their parishioners. Some say that Biden’s support of legal abortions make him evil and unfit for Catholic voters, while others acknowledge that the Democratic stance on most other issues aligns greatly with the Vatican’s official platform. The mistake of only focusing on abortion (in the case of priests who oppose Biden) or social justice issues (in the case of those who oppose Trump) falsely implies that Catholics must pick between a “right” and a “wrong” candidate. Some priests even incorrectly insist that voting for a particular candidate will send their congregations to hell. Technically, according to the bishops’ statement “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”, “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.” Therefore, Catholics who vote for Trump for his anti-abortion policies despite his views on immigration or the climate crisis, as long as supporting those stances is not their intention, has not committed any moral crime. The same is true for pro-life Catholics who support Biden because of his views on racism and healthcare. However, due to the polarization of American politics, there can be no major candidate who truly supports all of the Vatican’s views.
Despite that moral nitpicking, the reality is that most of that near quarter of the population are not “perfect” Catholics, and don’t actually take all of that into consideration. (Really though, is any Catholic perfect? Unless you believe immodesty–such as wearing bikinis–is a mortal sin.) Ridiculed as “pick and choose Catholics” or “Catholics in name only” by the particularly devout, many Catholics don’t actually believe or follow every piece of church doctrine. Grave infractions, ranging from divorce and remarriage (considered adultery by the church) to purposefully missing Sunday mass (refusing to keep holy the Lord’s day violates one of the Ten Commandments), are relatively common among less-than-perfect Catholics. Despite the Bible’s insistence that life begins at conception, 56% of all American Catholics believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center. As for Republican Catholics, the vast majority support Trump’s immigration policies, such as expanding the wall, despite Pope Francis’ insistence that the world should “build bridges, not walls.” Thus, most Catholics actively support candidates and policies based on their chosen political party, even when it opposes their faith.
Even though many Catholics don’t follow doctrine in the way they vote, the 2020 candidates make efforts to appease them. For example, with Trump’s SCOTUS nomination, Amy Coney Barrett, the Supreme Court would have six Catholic justices. For pro-life Catholics who support overturning Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges, this move essentially wins their reelection vote. The nomination of Barrett especially appeals to suburban white Catholics, who like her emphasis on family. On the other side, Biden appeals to the more liberal Catholics, those 56% who support the legality of abortion. As a practicing Catholic himself, Biden carries a rosary to emotional events and attends mass often, yet he has faced lots of criticism for his pro-choice policies. He defends himself, saying, “My private beliefs relative to how I would deal with church doctrine is different than my imposing that doctrine on every other person in the world—equally decent Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists.” Though he alienates traditional Catholics who disagree with the idea of subjective morality, he draws in those who see the value in secular lawmaking. Those 56% of Catholics who think abortion should be legal may still think abortion is sinful or even murder, yet they believe their religious rules do not necessarily apply to everyone.
Thus, both candidates have policies that support and oppose Catholic doctrine. Winning the Catholic vote will surely make a difference in the election, whether America decides on Biden, who would be the second Catholic president, or another four years of the pro-life yet anti-social justice Trump.