Who’s Afraid of Political Parties?


This is how we like to think about political campaigns.

With Congressional election season upon us, we’re about to be reminded repeatedly that no political party platform conforms across the board to Catholic teaching.

This is absolutely true, but I confess I judge you if you feel the need to say this, for three reasons.

1) To dispense with a pet peeve: I don’t know where these hordes of my-party-right-or-wrong Republican Catholics in need of rebuke are.

I’ve spent my life in and around politics as a native Washingtonian, the daughter of an advocacy journalist, a pro-life lobbyist, and the wife of a Congressional staffer. I’ve never met anyone with unquestioning loyalty to the GOP.

In conversation, Republicans — including Republican office-holders!–  are more likely to lead with their first principles and only secondarily mention any connection to the party.  “I’m more Conservative (or social conservative or Libertarian) than Republican,” they’ll say. It’s not Democrats, but Republicans, who refer to “The Stupid Party versus The Evil Party” — they’re typically well aware of the GOP’s deficiencies.

2) Usually, the context of the objection that neither party is fully Catholic is an effort to excuse Catholics from voting to uphold the dignity of life.

Yes, the national Democratic party demands its candidates for higher office burn their anti-abortion credentials on the altar of presidential politics (Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson and Al Gore were all once articulate spokesmen in defense of life); yes, it aggressively campaigns against any limitation on abortion whatsoever; yes, it’s sneaking abortion funding into Obamacare and crushing religious liberty with the HHS mandate. But….  Republicans don’t do enough for the poor. So there! Everyone’s awful, therefore you’re absolved from your responsibility to try to shape a culture that respects the human person.


This is how a political campaign actually works.

That line of argument overlooks the distinction between intrinsic evils which we are obliged to oppose simply and problems which require examination of several factors before judgment can be reached. The latter often admit of more than one morally valid approach and many Catholics have grown too quick to pronounce anathemas over differences of strategy that in no way depart from Catholic doctrine. Moreover, Christianity is neither condescending nor cynical and  “everyone’s awful, nothing can be done” is not a valid Catholic approach to anything. We all feel that way at times, but it’s one thing to mutter it to your spouse in private and another to advocate it as the Catholic view of the public square.

3) Even when offered sincerely, the complaint strikes me as sterile lamentation. Ideological purity might be good for political parties in a parliamentary arrangement, but our winner-take-all political system is deliberately designed to thwart ideologically committed factions, rendering them powerless unless they are able to broaden their appeal to others. In our system, a political party by definition is a coalition of people with disparate interests making common cause for a goal they share. Just how disparate is captured by Rodgers & Hammerstein in Oklahoma!:

“Territory folks should stick together,
Territory folks should all be pals.
Cowboys dance with farmer’s daughters,
Farmers dance with the ranchers’ gals.”

Everyone knows how competing land use claims made bitter rivals of cowboys and farmers in the Oklahoma Territory. Their shared desire to enter the United States caused them to set those differences aside for a time to achieve that goal. That’s what a political party does: provides a framework for diverse groups to collaborate.

It’s never an interesting question, therefore, whether “the party” respects us or not, or whether some within it view us with distaste. The question is, to what use can we put the party? How can we use its framework to advance our ideas? Right now, in this time, under these circumstances, how can I as a voter or candidate most effectively influence the direction of public policy?

Screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi has done yeoman’s work over the years teaching Christians not to fear the film-making industry. Christians should be creators or patrons of the arts more than critics, she insists. She’s also credibly demonstrated that Hollywood has little animus against Christianity as such, but Christians in the arts can be terribly arrogant, assuming they deserve recognition simply for the rightness of their message, but lacking the humility or drive to master the skills and idiom of the craft of film-making. Pious people will turn in sloppy schlock, not even bother to format their scripts to the industry standard, and then grouse they weren’t read because Hollywood hates Christians.

I think there’s a parallel to be drawn with Christians who bemoan our political parties’ lack of catholicity. Too often we whine about lack of respect without ourselves respecting the field of politics and doing the due diligence to master its principles and craft.  “They’re not really with us” is usually a way of saying we haven’t the patience for the slow hard slog of advancing our causes a little at a time and find it easier to disdain our fellow citizens than engage and persuade them.


Categories:Democratic Party Politics Republican Party

  • Vincent

    What I find are Catholics who divide the Church’s social teaching into 2 parts: the negotiable and the non-negotiable. They then put the issues where the Democrats are stronger into the negotiable category, and the issues where the Republicans are string into the no-negotiable category. I have read many commentaries, including several on this website, that say that a Catholic can’t vote for a Democrat in good conscience because even if that candidate doesn’t vote for abortion you are still empowering a party with a pro-abortion platform.

    Helpfully, Pope Francis just reminded us that ALL of our values are non-negotiable, not just a select subset that happens to align with one particular political ideology.

    We should also remember a few other things.

    (1) There is always room for prudential judgment in voting for candidates, even when the main issue they differ on is one involving intrinsic evil. This is because we have to decide how likely the candidate is to affect that issue, and how likely the candidate is to actually follow up on their campaign rhetoric. (Politicians don’t always follow up on their campaign promises.)

    2) In Catholic moral theology “intrinsic” is not the same thing as “grave”. There are intrinsic evils (e.g. supporting the legality of contraception) that should weigh less heavily in our decision making than some non-intrinsic, but more grave forms of evil (e.g. taking our nation into an unjust war).

    • Brian

      Intereting point on #2, Vincent.

      How about the evils that are ALWAYS both grave and intrinsic? Abortion, for instance.

      An unjust war is gravely evil, but in many instances even the determination that it is just or unjust involves some degree of prudential judgment. There is also the question of whether the hypothetical unjust war of the future would even be waged.

      All else being equal, a candidate that MIGHT lead the nation into what MIGHT be an unjust war is, in my opinion, always better than the candidate that does and will continue to support a grave and instrinsic evil.

      Even with that, #2 does make me think. Thanks for the comment.

    • Rebecca Teti

      Vincent, thanks for your response. To address your second point first, you are of course correct about the distinction between “intrinsic” and “grave,” but nonetheless I meant “intrinsic.” What I meant to illustrate was this: apart from some procedural votes which can be tricky to judge at face value, it’s generally easy to tell whether or not a politician is voting to expand the abortion license or not. But how do you tell on an up or down vote whether he’s upholding solidarity or preferential option for the poor? If one pol votes for a doubling of expenditures on anti-poverty programs because the bulk of the money goes to fund population control programs which he views as a way of keeping the unfit under control, while another pol votes against that budget because he thinks there are better ways to help the poor and immigrant, who has preferential option and solidarity at heart in that scenario? Yet almost always a scene like that in our current political climate will play as hard-hearted pol hates the poor — not just in the press, but also in the commentary of much of the social justice lobby. Similarly, if I propose a budget that doubles safety net spending and you trump me and say, “No, let’s triple it,” and I think that’s irresponsible and likely to lead to the collapse of our safety net entirely, am I then outside Catholic thinking because I didn’t vote for as much money for the poor as you did? Of course you are right that some things weigh more heavily than others. My point was different: that some things can’t be easily judged by appearances.

      As to the first point, I’m going to punt a little because I intend to write more on these matters in further posts. I intuit you and I would not agree on many policy matters, but I think from your invocation of prudence you might agree with me that Catholics commenting on politics these days are a little too interested in pronouncing their feelings bruised and their fellows to be bad Catholics and not sufficiently interested in advancing political arguments.

      I think the time is ripe for a flowering of engagement with Catholic social teaching in the public square, but we are never going to bring it about with the disdainful and lazy and shorthand kind of arguments we’re currently having. But as I say, I hope to develop this idea more over time, so I hope you’ll stay tuned.

      • Vincent

        Rebecca, I am in full agreement on the need for a richer discussion of Catholic social teaching. I look forward to your further posts on this subject.

        Somewhat in response to Brian, but also in response to what you’ve said about ease of judgment, I think there is always a fair degree of ambiguity even with grave, intrinsic evils. Let’s assume we are talking about a presidential candidate. While the president can affect abortion policy to some degree (e.g. executive orders like establishing/rescinding of the Mexico City policy), he/she does not actually have a great deal of control over the issue. Their greatest impact is through their judicial nominations, particularly those to the Supreme Court. Will a Supreme Court seat open while the candidate is in office? Are they truly committed to only nominating someone who is against abortion? Will that person be confirmed? (cf. Bork) Will that person really be against abortion? (cf. several nominees from the Reagan/Bush I era who turned out to uphold abortion rights once they got on the court.)

        On the other hand, the President is Commander-in-Chief and exercises direct authority over the military. So while it is true to say that abortion is always wrong and war is not, it is also true to say that a candidate’s views on war are more likely to be translated into actions and policies than their views on abortion. Just as one does not know if a war will arise (these days, probably yes) or whether it will be just (these days, probably no- and that’s based on Church teaching, not just my own opinion… read the Compendium on Social Doctrine), one does not know how a candidate will affect abortion policy.

        I think in every race you have to see which candidate seems to better embody and be better poised to enact Catholic social teaching. I think there is no litmus test (even on issues involving grave evils like abortion) that can provide a short cut through this kind of discernment.

        • Rebecca Teti

          Vincent, again thanks. I like the way you think insofar as you are thinking strategically and politically, and trying to exercise prudence (a word now so abused that I have seen otherwise sensible Catholics denounce this necessary virtue as a mere weasel word!)

          However, I think you gravely underestimate the President’s power to affect policy. The President appoints not only to the SCOTUS, but to all the federal benches — depending on the backlog sometimes literally hundreds of people who shape the course of our jurisprudence far more than SCOTUS. Similarly, ours is no longer a government of laws, it’s a government of regulations. Our day-to-day life is shaped by federal regulators — literally thousands of political appointees rewarded with positions for their political activism. The President does an enormous amount behind the scenes through political appointees at HHS, Justice and all kinds of other agencies where normal people wouldn’t think abortion had anything to do with the case. The HHS mandate, for example, is a regulation cooked up by Dem party activists with ties to Planned Parenthood. And it’s not only HHS that is making life difficult for pro-lifers. It’s also Eric Holder’s Justice dept. harassing pro life clinics and refusing to hold abortion clinics accountable for maternal deaths, sex trafficking, or for fraudulent billing; and it’s the IRS threatening pro-life protestors and auditing adoptive parents and a whole succession of policies designed to harass anyone pro-life. It might not be so bad if a “pro-choice” President just gave us one bad justice on the Court. But the current and previous “pro-choice” Presidents allowed their appointees to turn every federal agency into a relentless juggernaut of abortion expansion. More on that in another post, I think. Thank you for raising the point!

  • Ben Warren

    A vote for any political party that is left-of-center is intrinsically evil because it is a push for more communism. Since communism is intrinsically evil, and since communism is any push for any kind of legalized plunder, including, but not limited to, schools, ‘welfare’, ‘social security’, and minimum wage laws, a vote for a left-of-center party is intrinsically evil on economic grounds alone. WHAT PART OF ‘THOU SHALT NOT STEAL’ DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND?

    • Brian

      I am definitely not left-of-center, but what part of “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” do you not understand.

      Taxation is not intrinsically evil. What is done with that taxation is what might make it evil.

    • Vincent

      You are radically out of line with what the Church has to say about property. I suggest you read the Catechism 2402-2406. We do not have an absolute right to property and must always respect the universal destination of goods. The political authority has the right and the duty to promote distributive justice to ensure the basic needs of all are met and to promote the common good. That’s Catholicism, not Communism.

      You should also peruse the Old Testament. The same law code (The Law of Moses, handed down at Mt. Sinai) that said “Thou shalt not steal” also commanded tithing, the regular cancellation of debts, the redistribution of land every 50 years, the release of indentured servants, and forbade lending at interest. And somehow they didn’t see any of those laws as violating the commandment against stealing.

  • morganB

    Never mind the political arena… it has bee proven that most Catholics do not comply with the strict rules of the church. Some call them cafeteria Catholics.

    I was amazed to read last week that Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida, my Bishop, ordered a “survey”. The purpose of the survey was to “see” what local Catholics felt about “hot buttons” of the day. The survey concept was blessed by the Conference of Catholic Bishops the results of which will be aired in Rome in September. Now, please enlighten me on the survey. What will be accomplished?

    I believe that little will change regardless how much the survey reveals. Protestant Bishop William Sloan Coffin of St John the Devine in New Your City was once asked how he saw the Catholic Church progressing. His answer fits the current thinking with a “survey”. Coffin answered that the hierarchy was steering the ship of church based what they saw in the rearview mirror. So apropos.

    A final note on my former Republican Party, now called the GOP/TP. By insisting that candidates align themselves with Catholic dogma, (litmus test), they become less electable. I can point to NO potential Republican candidate for president in 2016 who is electable. I call the unelectable majority the giddy right.

    • Brian


      The “survey” is in response to Pope Francis’ call for a Syond on the Family in 2015. The survey is not intended to cause changes in Church teaching but to change the way the Church teaches.

      Let’s say the survey reveals that 60% of Catholics believe that a divorced (no annulment) and remarried person should be able to receive Communion. Church teaching on this matter will not change as a result. Instead, the Church will have a better understanding of where the teaching has failed. Perhaps it would lead to a greater emphasis on what Marriage and the Eucharist are and why the Church teaches what it does.

    • Rebecca Teti

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. This is a bit off the topic of this post, but just for the record in case any random reader should take away the wrong impression, bishops across the world were asked to do that survey in preparation for the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the family. Its purpose isn’t to subject Church teaching to popular vote, but to gain insight into HOW people think and WHY, so the bishops in Synod, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, can craft a more deft response to the crisis of the family in our time. Anyone interested can read the questions in part 3 of this link.
      You’ll see that they are about effectiveness of evangelization, not, “Hey, who likes the sacrament of marriage? Should we keep it?”

      • morganB

        Rebecca, I have not seen the survey, but the word is that it is a “roll your own” option of each Bishop.

        Your reference to evangelism remind me of another challenge for this new Pope… it clashes with John Paul II’s offer of ecumenism and respect to non-Catholics.

        How does Francis reconcile this dilemma?

  • Chris

    Excellent article.

  • http://www.badcatholics.com John Zmirak

    Very, very well said. Brava, Mrs. Teti! You never disappoint.

  • Eric Johnson

    Rebecca, excellent points and well stated. Thank-you.



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