The Catholic Democrats this nation once knew — staunch advocates of the unborn and the worker — are all but extinct. This is a loss worth mourning, given the moderating influence they once exerted on their party and the noble causes they championed. But it also offers a moral and political opportunity for a GOP with an increasingly working-class constituency.
Evidence of the Catholic Democrats’ demise is strewn across the American scene. Witness, most recently, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s standoff over abortion with the American bishops. Last week, Pelosi invoked her faith to justify repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal taxpayer money to fund abortions.
“As a devout Catholic and mother of five in six years,” she said, “I feel that God blessed my husband and me with our beautiful family. But it’s not up to me to dictate that that’s what other people should do.”
An older generation of pro-life Catholics, men like Bob Casey, Sr. and Sargent Shriver, may not have been perfect. But they could sincerely claim to follow the Roman church’s teaching, especially where it touched on human life.
And they were democrats in the true sense, full of faith in the common man. They stood on the side of the workers. They spoke out for the unborn. The last of their race was Dan Lipinski, a congressman from Chicago who lost his primary last year.
Now the only Democrats who identify as Catholic are people like Pelosi and Biden. They may still rattle their rosary beads. But as the Democratic Party has become more upscale economically and more liberal socially, they have forfeited the concern for the weak and workers that once made Catholic Democrats so distinct.
Pelosi’s bishop, Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, rebuked her stance on Hyde: “No one can claim to be a devout Catholic and condone the killing of innocent human life.” But many Catholic politicians seem to disagree. As of 2019, Catholic senators and representatives had significantly higher approval ratings from NARAL Pro-Choice America than their non-Catholic counterparts.
Even as the Democratic Party became more committed to defending abortion, Catholics were able to justify support for the party by pointing to its working-class policies. Sure, the argument went, Democrats be misguided on abortion. But on economic issues, they are clearly better than the GOP, the party of the country club.
It is becoming harder to make this case. Republicans still receive support from some of the country’s wealthiest voters and a few of its large industries. But super-wealthy donors now lean toward the Democrats, who received the bulk of Wall Street money in 2020.
Democrats are also the preferred party of the professional-managerial class clustered in US cities. With their strong backing, Biden won counties that represent more than 70 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
So today’s Catholic Democrats are not only indifferent to the plight of the unborn. They are disconnected from the concerns of the un-credentialed. They oppose the cap on state and local tax deductions introduced by former President Donald Trump, which falls hard on professionals in blue states, but isn’t exactly a blue-collar concern.
They support student-loan forgiveness, which would be immensely beneficial to professional-class aspirants but do little or nothing for the two-thirds of Americans without a college degree. They campaign for environmental concerns that are hardly appealing to those who live outside urban centers and must take gas prices seriously.
Some hope that the new socialist ferment on the left can be an ally of a new Catholic left. But this is unlikely. Though it claims to stand for workers, millennial socialism is best seen as a pressure group representing the interests of marginal members of the professional class.
Lacking the security that comes with capital but desperately hoping to gain a secure place in the elite, these people compete with each other by seeing who can most convincingly repeat ruling-class bromides on race, reproduction and sexuality. Any deviation from the woke consensus becomes the excuse for stripping a class competitor of prestige and employment. This is rocky ground for a new Catholic politics.
Is the Republican Party any better? Perhaps, if only accidentally. The party is so unsure of what it represents, so inept at enforcing discipline, that there may be some opportunity for Catholics to push the party in a direction that is relatively pro-worker while remaining firmly pro-life. If that proves to be the case, the real heirs of yesterday’s Catholic democrats will find their home on the right.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things.