Bless me Father, for I
have sinned; I am a
In interest of full disclosure, I am a Democrat. I can’t help it, I was born that way. I grew up in South Buffalo—the same neighborhood as the late Tim Russert. Remember how Tim used to describe South Buffalo: where you are born Democrat and baptized Catholic. He wasn’t exaggerating. And I grew up in a Church family. My dad was a daily communicant—as was his dad. We went to Catholic School—the Sisters of Mercy. Like Tim, when it was time for High School, I was sent cross-town, out of the Irish ghetto, to the Jesuits. I learned my faith—at home, in Church, and at school.And what was that faith I learned. I learned from the good nuns that Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore had gone to bat for Terrence Powderly and the Knights of Labor when more conservative churchmen like Archbishop Corrigan and Cardinal Taschereau were labeling them communists and socialists. I learned from the nuns that Pope Leo XIII had embraced the side of the working classes against the robber barons with the encyclical Rerum Novarum. And I learned the Pius XI had reinforced this with Quadrigesimo Anno some Quadrigesimo annos later. I learned that Monsignor John Ryan who had taught at the Catholic University of America for many years and was the Director of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Council (the predecessor of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) wrote about the rights of labor and the responsibilities of management. I learned that Bishop Francis Haas of Grand Grapids had served as a member of the National Labor Board and that Bishop Haas and Monsignor Ryan had worked with the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations to help pull us out of the Great Depression which had been caused by the reckless pro-rich policies of the Harding and Coolidge Administrations. I learned that AFL-CIO President John F. Sweeney had said of Monsignor George Higgins of Catholic University: “He has been an irresistible force in bringing labor and church together…we respect him for his strength, we revere him for his conscience, we stand in awe of his intellect and we thank him for his love.” I learned from the nuns that discrimination against people for any reasons whatsoever—in those days it was mostly because of race but the nuns didn’t limit their condemnations to that—discrimination against people for any reason whatsoever was sinful and wrong. And by the way—all this was before Vatican II. I learned that people had a right to live wherever they wanted and that it was wrong to refuse to rent or sell them property because they were “different.” And I learned that yes, there were priests and even bishops in some places in the United States that believed that not all people should have equal rights but that they differed from the teaching of the Church and were an embarrassment to her. I learned that we were here to serve the needs of others regardless of race or religion or any other barrier. In those days, of course, we didn’t have gay rights or women’s rights so those weren’t the issue but we weren’t taught issues, we were taught principles from which we could make rational applications to the issues at hand. We did learn that rights and responsibilities were not limited to Catholics and did not depend on the state of one’s soul but only on the fact that they were human persons created by God. The good Sisters themselves probably didn’t understand the implications that would unfold a half-century and more later from their teaching but they laid the groundwork—along with my parents and the parish priests—for the kind of Catholic I am today.
The Jesuits added to this not so much in content as in depth. They gave us discipline and taught us character. Their students were not all from the Irish Ghetto and as many came from wealthy families we were a far less homogenous group politically and socially. The good Fathers of the Society of Jesus were far more sophisticated than the Sisters had been. We learned more about the abstractions of what justice is from a theological viewpoint. We learned that the Gospels put before us a certain vision of society—for example we learned that there are frightening implications in the story of Lazarus and the rich man. What does that story say about distributive justice? Unlike the nuns, the Jesuits did not give us answers—they posed questions, dilemmas, anomalies, and paradoxes. They didn’t think for us but they taught us to think and they told us that no one else could think for us. They refused to think for us and they told us not to let anyone else—no politician, no prelate (nor even a pope), no priest, to professor, no parent, no nobody think for us because God had given us an intelligence and would hold us to account for it one day. It was and has proved to be a huge responsibility and when people comment on how many Jesuit alumni have left the Church and even devolved into atheism I think it is precisely because the Jesuits would not let us shirk moral responsibility and that proved too heavy a burden for those who wanted to choose “success” or “happiness” or whatever rather than integrity.
With this sort of a background how could I have become anything other than a Democrat. Now remember, growing up in New York State in the 50’s and ‘60’s the Republicans were the liberal party—the party of Rockefeller and Javits. But there is more history than that.
The Catholics in the first days of our Republic gravitated to the Federalist party. Catholics—in those early days—were heavily of the Maryland aristocracy. They were moneyed and propertied. The French Revolution scared them from Jefferson and his Republicans who naively idealized the revolution and its goals. Jefferson’s party would eventually grow into today’s Democratic Party but the Catholics would find in it a refuge from the more extreme liberalism of the Whigs and the Republicans.
By the 1824 presidential election the Federalist party had collapsed. George Washington had never wanted to see political parties as he believed—from the experience of the Whigs and Tories in the England of his day—that they divided the nation and that seeking the common good was a collaborative and not a competitive effort. But political parties were an inevitability given the way government was structured—and probably even more that human nature has been flawed by original sin—and there seems to be an inevitable need, for people to see themselves in opposition to others. All may want the “common good” but different people will see from different perspectives diverse propositions of what the common good may be. And so as the Federalists died away it was all but inevitable that a counter-weight to Jefferson’s (and now Jackson’s) political machine should develop.
You may remember from earlier entries (Jan 22, 23, 26, 28, 29, 30, 31, Feb 1, and March 7, 2011) that it was at this time—the 1830’s—that a virulent strain anti-Catholicism first began to reemerge in the American Republic.) Catholic support for the American Revolution and the spirit of tolerance that pervaded the Republic through its early years had muted the tradition of anti-Catholicism that the colonists had brought with them from England. But as the first great wave of immigration brought Catholics in great numbers—mostly Irish and German at this point—to America’s shores, there was a negative reaction from those who wanted to “keep America American.” Episodes like the Charlestown convent burning and the anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia and New York represent this caricature of Catholicism as a “foreign” and “unAmerican” religion.
Now pay attention as this explanation is going to use terms in ways that are a bit different than we use them today. It was the “liberal” faction in American society that wanted to keep the country from immigrant (and Catholic) influence. They saw Europeans as monarchy-loving and unable to absorb the democratic principles on which our nation was founded. They sought to pass laws limiting numbers of immigrants except Protestants from Britain. They wanted to put in difficult barriers from those born in other European countries attaining citizenship. They wanted to limit positions as public school teachers to Protestants. This was all to protect the American tradition from being corrupted by monarchy and Catholicism. Catholicism was identified with the European absolutist monarchs—France, Spain, Portugal, Bavaria, the Austrian Emperor, and, of course, the Pope who himself was king of a significant slice of the Italian Peninsula called the Papal States.
The Jefferson-Jackson party—the Democratic Republicans—today’s Democrats—were the conservative party. And while Jefferson had thought religion, all religion, was only for the common sort of people and not intellectuals like himself, and while Jackson had a frontier Second-Great-Awakening prejudice against Catholicism, their party offered a safer refuge for Catholics than the liberal “Whigs” who saw Catholicism as unAmerican and dangerous to democracy.
The Whigs themselves soon, by the 1850’s, morphed into what we know today as the Republican Party. Catholics were, for the most part, not as bitterly opposed to “The South’s Peculiar Institution” (slavery) as the evangelicals that made up a significant part of the Whig (and then Republican) Party. (Yes, these were days when the Evangelicals and Republicans were liberals.) In the Civil War while Archbishop John Hughes of New York was an ardent supporter of the Republic and encouraged recruitment in the “Fighting 69th (New York 69th regiment) among the Irish immigrants of New York City, Catholics in general were more tepid supporters of “Mr. Lincoln’s War.”
After the Civil War the estrangement between Catholics and the Republican party only grew stronger. In the 1884 presidential campaign, Republican candidate James G. Blaine, was on the platform when a speaker, the Reverend Dr. Samuel Burchard declared “We are Republicans and we don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” Blaine did not disassociate himself from the remark and it cost him the Catholic vote and the election. It also firmly impressed on the Catholic memory that the Republican Party was no friends of the Catholics.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were marked by massive immigration from Catholic Europe—not only Ireland and Germany, but Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Once again the Liberals—and this politically meant the Republicans—were alarmed at the number and influence of the immigrant populations. Quotas were imposed, though not very successfully, favoring Protestant nations of northern Europe over the Catholic populations of central and southern Europe. The interventions of Pope Leo XIII to try to avert the Spanish-American War were resented by the Republicans—the party of Teddy Roosevelt who declared: “it’s a little war, but it’s the only one we have.” The liberal goal was to spread America and American democracy—and with it Protestantism—around the world and the defeat of Spain put both Cuba and the Philippines under American tutelage.
It is difficult for us to think of Manifest Destiny (a polite term for American Imperialism), colonialism, anti-immigrant sentiment, English-only, etc. as a liberal agenda. It only goes to show how ideologies, like fashions, change. But as for American Catholics, they saw themselves as being pushed to the margins of a society that idealized and identified itself with old blood and old money. This view of America believed and taught that anyone could pull themselves up by the bootstraps and holding up rugged individualism as the American way saw labor unions and collective protection of workers as subverting our American principles. Consequently the immigrants and factory-workers—overwhelmingly Catholic—turned to the Democratic Party where they felt they were being heard. The dedication of Church leaders such as Cardinal Gibbons solidified the ties between working-class and immigrant Catholics and the Democratic Party.
Not all bishops supported the working classes, of course. Corrigan of New York and O’Connell of Boston—an arrogant blowhard of a mitered Pharisee if there ever was one—supported the Protestant ascendancy of the old and moneyed families and the few Paddy-Catholic nouveau riche against the social and economic interests of the sheep entrusted to their episcopal care, but while these bishops had great power they did not have the respect that was given to Gibbons and those bishops who were concerned about the working classes—many of whom were forced to live in squalor while their employers, the great Robber-Barons, had their Fifth-Avenue townhouses and summer homes in Newport.
Just as not all bishops supported labor, nor did all Democrats like Catholics. Woodrow Wilson, in so many ways an idealist, had a strong streak of anti-Catholicism. He was, after all, a preacher’s kid from the Old South and carried all those prejudices. He made sure that Benedict XV was kept out of the peace conferences that ended World War I and that may have played a role in the unhappy and unjust “peace” that would bear fruit in a resentful Germany rising from the encumbrances placed on it by the Allies and striking back in World War II. But at home in the United States the Catholic faithful overlooked Wilson’s biases and maintained their loyalty to the Democratic Party. In 1928 the Democrats took a bold chance and nominated a Catholic, Governor Al Smith of New York, for the presidency. Bold, it was also a bad choice. A tsunami of Anti-Catholicism swept over the country as rumors of a papal takeover and destruction of the Republic threw the nation into a frenzy. Smith lost in a landslide as Protestant Ministers joined Ku Klux Klanners in rallying bigots of every shade of sickly pale from Boston Brahmin to Southern Cracker to keep the nation Protestant and Republican. But it was still good for the Democrats. The defeat of Smith solidified Catholic support for the Democrats as the sense of shared defeat made the Catholics feel that the Democrats were their protectors while in fact the Democrat machine probably saw them more as a constituency to be manipulated than an honored ally.
FDR made the most of that alliance. In his programs to rebuild the nation from the disaster of the Great Depression he made fast the ties between the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party. Roosevelt came from a very blue-blood WASP family who only knew Catholics as chauffer’s and parlor-maids, but he didn’t let his personal prejudices get in the way of valuable political alliances. He courted the Catholic Church. He made it clear that he wanted the national capital to be the seat of an Archbishop: the honor of the United States required it. He appointed prominent priests and monsignors to various posts—mostly having to do with economics and labor relations. He sent a personal representative to the Vatican. (Congress, or the national mood, was not about to let him establish formal diplomatic relations.) Not all Catholics liked him. Father Charles Coughlin, a Michigan priest with a popular—very popular—radio following, quickly turned from a Roosevelt supporter to a Roosevelt foe but Coughlin, a notorious anti-Semite, was probably more valuable as an enemy than a friend. Roosevelt actively courted Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago, and Mundelein, though no liberal, relished the attention. Then there were any number of social progressives in the hierarchy—Cardinal Mooney of Detroit, Archbishops McNicholas and Sheil, Bishop Frank Haas of Grand Rapids, Monsignor John Ryan of Catholic University. Harry Truman, a Baptist, also kept the Catholics on his side continuing the alliance between Democrats and labor. This was a time when Catholics worked in factories or construction and depended on labor unions to protect them. Catholic teaching on the rights of labor, articulated by Leo XIII and Pius XI, brought politics, economics, and religion into harmony.
The apex of the Catholic/Democrat alliance was reached when John F. Kennedy was the Democratic nominee for President in 1960. Catholics saw the day come when the highest office in the land was now open to one of their own and they were no longer second class citizens. The anti-Catholicism that had surfaced during the campaign only served to solidify the marriage of Catholics and the Democratic Party, but things were already beginning to change.
Thanks to the GI Bill Catholics were beginning to move up the social ladder rapidly and from the blue collar workforce into the professions. Democrats too were changing—from working-class liberals to suburban liberals. The issues had changed from economics to social questions and Catholics, particularly those who attended Church, were not always ready to move. Catholics had been slow to get aboard the Civil Rights movement though eventually they came over—not without some pushing from Rome—and they were even slower to stand up against the war in Vietnam. But where the great divide fell into place was with Roe vs. Wade and the consequent legalization of abortion.
Abortion has been perhaps the most divisive issue in America since the Civil War, but what is the most dangerous aspect of the polarization caused by this issue is that the various sides have been unable to establish any dialogue or discussion that can bridge the divide and find some common ground on which to build a national consensus. When the late Cardinal Bernadin called for such an initiative his fellow prelates, especially the much admired Cardinal Law and his shanty side-kick, the ideologue Cardinal Hickey publicly ripped him apart in a shameful manner. One can be solidly pro-life and willing to speak with—and listen to—those who are “pro-choice.” Indeed, if we ever want to resolve this issue in order to protect the unborn we will have to listen attentively to one another. A refusal to dialogue only condemns the reluctant mother to be pitted against her unborn child, but at this point both sides are so septic that I wonder if any rational conversation is in the realm of possibility.
Catholics only began going over to the Republican party in the 1984 election as Ronald Reagan had begun to win their trust against a Democratic Party that had begun to take them for granted. Unlike in the America of my salad days, Catholics are no longer automatically Democrats. Now there is a split down the middle. Most who have become Republicans have done so not so much for the conservative social agenda as Catholics, abortion aside, still tend toward the left on social questions (“tend” being the operative word). White, professional Catholics from the more secure social classes feel more at home in the Republican party as that is where their colleagues and neighbors feel most at home. Blue collar, racially diverse, lower economic strata Catholics (of which there are fewer and fewer)—along with us educated old liberal leftovers from the sixties—still hang out with the Democrats though we often feel like the patronized stepchildren of the chic arm-chair liberals that run the party. Sometimes I wish I had taken less philosophy courses and more business ones and then I too could have voted for Newt in the primaries. But at the end of the day I can’t slip my history, my Catholic history and while I have voted for Republican candidates when I think they are the better person for the office, and while I will at times vote Republican again—like Tim Russert I am going to have to explain to Saint Peter why, at heart, I am a Democrat regardless of the attempts of our good bishops to convert me.