In The Name Of The Father

I grew up in a suburb in which neighborhood was defined by parish, in which the smell of fish sticks filled the air on Friday nights and there were more copies of the Baltimore Catechism than of Webster's dictionary. It was not until I was 8 years old that I discovered that not all the world was Roman Catholic. When John F. Kennedy ran for president, it became clear that many Americans outside of our homogeneous enclave considered our faith strange and suspicious and threatening. It turned out that we were a they.

Perhaps this is why it seems so offensive to watch the Bush administration self-consciously pursuing and consulting what it calls "the Catholic vote." Most recently this has been applied to whether the White House will support stem-cell research, which could lead to a cure for any number of serious illnesses. One of the administration's house Catholics quipped not long ago, "In 1960 John Kennedy went from Washington down to Texas to assure Protestant preachers that he would not obey the pope. In 2001 George Bush came from Texas up to Washington to assure a group of Catholic bishops that he would." The speaker seemed unaware that both courses of action are distasteful and essentially un-American.

Let us begin with this simple fact: there is no such thing as the Catholic vote. Once upon a time there was something like it; every obituary of Rep. Joe Moakley included his famous quote about the Boston Irish, "As soon as we're born, we're baptized into the Catholic Church, we're sworn into the Democratic Party and we're given union cards." But that was a lifetime ago, at a time informed by what the Catholic writer Eugene Kennedy calls "a potent mix of pride, politics and poor people." American Catholics are no longer uniformly struggling immigrants, they no longer uniformly attend closely to the pronouncements of the church hierarchy and they do not uniformly vote as a bloc. There has been nothing uniform about most of our lives since parochial school.

There is no consistent body of thought among Catholics about capital punishment, welfare reform, abortion or a host of other political and moral issues. Catholics are as diverse and as various as the rest of the American population, in what they believe and in how they behave. Despite the church emphasis on matters gynecological, American Catholic women have abortions at the same rate as women of other faiths. And as I look around my parish church at all the families with just two children, it is clear that either we have been astonishingly adept at playing the fertility odds or we are personally overriding the church ban on contraception.

So when administration officials speak of the Catholic vote, they are speaking in code. We Catholics are familiar with code where our faith is concerned; once it was shorthand for ignorance and superstition. And there's still enough intellectual snobbery about the church to make some people believe it when Karl Rove, the current White House Rasputin, says that Catholics are "socially and politically conservative." But that's the gospel according to George W; no polling data supports that blanket conclusion. When the White House talks about courting Catholics, it is code for conservatives who are sympathetic to Republican positions and likely to be swing voters.

Those of us who disagree with church pronouncements on birth control, abortion and the ordination of women are often accused of picking and choosing what we like from the church and discarding what we do not. The president is doing precisely the same thing, but with no concomitant criticism. As George W. Bush makes well-publicized calls on bishops and expresses his admiration for "the culture of life," he conveniently sidesteps the many positions on which he diverges sharply from the church. The hierarchy has distinguished itself by speaking out against the death penalty, in favor of a living wage and in support of ameliorating the effects of global-climate change. The greatest glory of the Catholic Church has been its service to the poor and the disenfranchised.

It is unfortunate that some of the bishops who have excoriated Catholic politicians who support legal abortion have not spoken out about the Bush administration's conspicuous shortcomings in these other areas, as well as the president's flagrant attempts to sanctify his political positions by associating them with the spiritual concerns of a church to which he does not belong. I pray that this is not because the bishops recognize in the Bush plan to offer federal money to church organizations and his support of vouchers for schools an unprecedented government windfall. If George W. Bush wants to explain how his faith has led to his political positions, that's fine; after all, I suspect I am a liberal largely because I am Catholic, because I believed the New Testament story about giving my second cloak to the man who had none. But it's ridiculous to suggest that somehow "the Catholic vote" helps determine the president's principles regarding stem-cell research. (For the record, polls show that, like most Americans, Catholics support it.) Dressing up conservative politics in a borrowed cassock is calculation masquerading as consecration.

One of the most dispiriting moments in my almost half-century career as a Catholic was the Sunday just before the last presidential election when our pastor, with barely disguised distaste, informed us from the pulpit that he had been told to read a letter from the archbishop. This said in part: "In the coming election, in addition to issues of basic human rights, there will also be addressed the questions of parents' rights to decide how their children are to be educated." After delivering this free advertisement for school vouchers and, by extension, the Republican candidates, Father was expected to dust the dirt of lobbying off his hands and move seamlessly to transubstantiation. It was impossible not to think of the money changers in the temple, and how an enraged Christ threw them out, or to remember that the separation of church and state grew out of a desire, not so much to protect government from religion, but to protect religion from government.