The zenith of Catholic political influence, however, took several decades longer to arrive. In fact, we are living through it right now. But few would call it palpable: In law and policy, apparent Catholic power has not delivered results that are identifiably Catholic — or, really, identifiably anything at all.
Today, about 30 percent of the members of Congress are Catholic, compared to only 21 percent of Americans. But it’s the Supreme Court where Catholic influence is strongest: Five of the current eight justices are Catholics. If nominee Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed, the tally will increase to six of nine.
Yet a census of congressional Catholics leaves one confounded as to what beliefs they could possibly share: Progressives such as Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), moderates such as Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), and conservatives such as Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) all claim the affiliation. And even as they dominate the Supreme Court, Catholics hardly form a bloc. Justice Sonia Sotomayor generally votes with the liberal wing, and even more conservative justices such as John G. Roberts Jr. and, previously, Anthony M. Kennedy have delivered defeats for Catholic positions on the foundational issue of abortion.
Despite apparent Catholic power, the U.S. government is at least as hostile to the Catholic view of human dignity — that is, to the duties of care and respect owed to every person as a child of God — as it has ever been.
Catholicism — long considered a politically and culturally suspect sect — has over the decades sought and achieved respectability through assimilation with Protestant, and later secular, America. The result has been the rise of “identity Catholicism,” where affiliation with the church serves a social and political purpose but is no longer associated with distinctive moral beliefs or with a transformational encounter with divinity.
Thus questions as seemingly disparate as the morality of contraception, policy toward migration and the administration of the sacraments have degraded into means of policing Catholic identity, obscuring the real stakes.
We can see this clearly in the discourse surrounding the 2020 election. On one side is Joe Biden, the Mass-attending Irish Catholic Democratic presidential nominee. On the other side is Amy Coney Barrett, former Notre Dame law professor, covenant religious community member and mother of seven who is now at least as much President Trump’s running mate as Vice President Pence is. These two figures have become avatars for dueling conceptions of American Catholic identity.
Biden represents the accommodationist view: an assumption that Catholic identity can contribute meaningfully to American public life even — or perhaps only — if it accommodates itself to the shifting mainstream in all matters but the Apostles’ Creed itself. Everything is negotiable. (In Biden’s own case, that even includes the liberty of the church, as shown in his support for applying Obamacare contraception mandates to Catholic nuns.)
Barrett represents what we might call the compatibilist view: an assumption that a robustly practiced Catholicism, including assent to key moral teachings in intellect and lifestyle, is compatible with participation in American public life at the highest levels. Some of her most notable academic work, such as her paper on the duties of Catholic judges in death-penalty cases, involves detailed consideration of marrying faithfulness to the church with faithfulness to the judiciary. At the same time, Barrett’s orthodox conservatism on issues such as corporate power raises uncomfortable questions for compatibilists about their own accommodations.
Still, Barrett’s very existence challenges the notion that certain Catholic accommodations to the mainstream have been necessary and proper — which is why the questioning from Catholic Democrats on the Judiciary Committee is likely to be especially sharp. While accommodationists will hear challenges to the role of Barrett’s faith in her work as pushback against an unseemly brand of assertive Catholicism, compatibilists will hear them as an assault on the faith itself. And there will be no translation between these understandings, especially because the media largely accepts the accommodationist view and regards the compatibilist view as suspicious and radical, if intelligible at all.
Identity Catholicism has made Catholic politics impossible to discuss because it has rendered the very concept incoherent, like discussing “red-haired politics” or “Steelers fan politics.” We are left, even among Catholics, disputing the boundaries of an identity rather than the tenets of a faith. American Catholicism today lacks the salience that comes from a confident application of the church’s timeless traditions and from a Christian identity that transcends power and partisanship.