The irony of these attacks: Becerra is a practicing Catholic. But these charges reflect how public debate too often erases a significant strand of liberal Catholicism that prioritizes social justice over divisive issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights. For generations, liberal Catholics have connected their faith’s moral teachings to an egalitarian philosophy that militates against war, economic inequality, environmental degradation and civil rights violations.
No one better embodied this tradition than two towering figures of 20th century liberalism: Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. Their careers show that being Catholic in public life does not have to mean opposing abortion and LGBTQ rights. Instead it can be about delivering “justice for the orphan and the widow” and “food and clothing” for the foreigner, in the words of Deuteronomy 10:18. While he rarely discussed his faith in public, Kennedy was deeply religious. The brother of the first Catholic president, he attended Sunday Mass and was well-versed in Catholic theology. At his mother’s funeral, he noted that her faith “was the greatest gift she gave us.”
Religion gave Kennedy’s political career — blighted by personal scandal — a moral lodestar. It guided him to fight for social justice. “My favorite parts of the Bible,” he told a prayer breakfast in 2007, “were always Matthew 25:35, I was hungry and you gave me to eat, and thirsty and you gave me to drink.”
As a lawmaker, Kennedy fought for the suffering. The senator began his legislative career in the 1960s fighting poll taxes. He famously battled with the Reagan administration to protect voting rights and civil rights in 1982 and 1988. And he spent his final days advocating for LGBTQ rights, long before doing so was popular among Democrats.
Expanding access to health care was, in Kennedy’s phrasing, the “cause of my life.” While he never succeeded in his lifelong dream of universal insurance coverage, he extended health care access to unemployed adults in 1985, HIV-positive people in 1990, people with mental health challenges in 1996, poor children in 1997 and people with rare diseases in 2001. After being diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008, he redoubled his efforts, forcefully advocating for the Affordable Care Act from his hospital bed.
Kennedy’s commitment to people forgotten in the rarefied halls of the Capitol shaped decades of seminal legislation, ranging from the Americans With Disabilities Act to the Family and Medical Leave Act to the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act.
The senator paired these policies with vocal support for reproductive rights, which provoked the ire of many conservative coreligionists. They accused him of flouting the tenets of Catholicism. But Kennedy was living up to the obligations of his faith as he understood them. He showed that being Catholic is not synonymous with merely supporting abortion criminalization. By striving for a fairer society that respected human dignity, Kennedy embodied Catholic values.
Brennan, whose long tenure on the Supreme Court overlapped with Kennedy’s time in the Senate, was also a devoted Catholic. He attended weekly Mass and spoke about the importance of religion to him and to America. Historian Henry J. Abraham called him “probably the most devout member of the court.” For decades, Brennan was also the court’s sole Catholic. From this vaunted perch, he protected the rights of the country’s most vulnerable, including criminal defendants and political dissidents. He put the Constitution firmly on the side of voting rights and school desegregation.
Brennan held that his faith did not impact his jurisprudence. Yet as Judge Richard Posner has remarked, judges bring their “priors” — “expectations, formed by background, experience, and temperament” — to the process of adjudication. A close examination of Brennan’s record shows his priors: the traces of Catholic social teaching and its emphasis on human dignity, communal solidarity and social justice.
To Brennan, the Constitution exemplified “the aspiration to social justice, brotherhood, and human dignity that brought this nation into being,” even if “this egalitarianism in America has been more pretension than realized fact.” Although the term “dignity” does not appear in the Constitution, Brennan cited it in at least 39 opinions. Brennan saw “dignity” in the constitutional claims of women, welfare recipients, criminal defendants, union members, racial minorities and many others who turned to the court seeking justice.
Along with Justice Thurgood Marshall, Brennan was the court’s most stalwart opponent of capital punishment. He dissented every time the court rebuffed appeals from people on death row, therefore condemning them to die. Brennan spent his 90th birthday party decrying this “barbaric and inhuman punishment that violates our Constitution” and “besmirches the constitutional vision of human dignity.”
Like Kennedy, Brennan often infuriated his conservative coreligionists. He authored a crucial right-to-privacy precedent, Eisenstadt v. Baird, that protected the prerogative of unmarried couples to possess contraception. He privately lobbied Justice Harry Blackmun to recognize the constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade, and joined Blackmun’s eventual decision, despite personally opposing abortion. And he dissented in Bowers v. Hardwick, which found that LGBTQ adults did not have a right to engage in consensual sex in their homes.
These positions fit with Brennan’s hope to create the pluralistic conditions that allowed for religion and religious people to flourish. “It is not only the nonbeliever who fears the injection of sectarian doctrines and controversies into the civil polity, but in as high degree it is the devout believer who fears the secularization of a creed which becomes too deeply involved with and dependent upon the government,” he wrote in Abington School District v. Schempp in 1963.
Brennan and Kennedy showed there is not one formula for being a Catholic public official. While antiabortion leaders pilloried their records, Brennan and Kennedy spent their careers expanding access to health care and blocking executions. They may have failed narrow litmus tests, but they lived out their faith as they understood it.
Enter Becerra, whose career has been defined by the same struggle for social justice that marked Kennedy’s and Brennan’s public lives. Known as a “health care wonk,” Becerra was an original co-sponsor of the Affordable Care Act. He led the fight to extend its protections to undocumented people. As California’s attorney general, he has championed health equity, environmental justice, labor rights and immigrants’ rights
These historically have been Catholic causes, even if conservatives dismiss the ties between the faith and such advocacy. In recent history, Catholic clergy walked picket lines with union organizers and marched with farmworkers, lobbied for death penalty abolition, pushed for universal health care and immigration reform and led protests and sit-ins that challenged racial oppression. And Catholic senators and Supreme Court justices promoted social justice through their legislation and jurisprudence.
Becerra is embodying an alternative vision of public Catholicism that has just as deep a tradition as does his critics’ version of their faith. It is the same one that animates President Biden and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and that Pope Francis has tried to foreground during his papacy. In 2013, the pope lamented that the church had become “obsessed” with abortion and LGBTQ rights at the expense of other pressing issues like poverty.
Becerra’s confirmation is a reminder that conservatives do not get to define religiosity in the public sphere. Disagreeing with their interpretation of faith is not hostility to religion. Instead, as with Brennan and Kennedy, devout faith can lead public officials in a very different direction.