In 1994, 39 church leaders and scholars — some Catholics, some evangelical Protestants — published a statement of reconciliation. “We together, Evangelicals and Catholics, confess our sins against the unity that Christ intends for all his disciples,” they said, and over the course of their letter laid the foundations for political and spiritual cooperation. They would work together, they declared, to strengthen the family, defend democracy and end abortion on demand. Over the next decade, signatories of the 1994 document, Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), would confer again and pen further statements , all in hopes of establishing a durable accord between their traditions. These were the leaders and the elites: the pastors and priests, professors and bishops, notables and worthies from each side of the great schism. Together, and for what they saw as the greater good, they would overcome the old hostilities dividing rank-and-file pew-sitters.
They had a reason for dramatic measures. For decades, evangelicals and Catholics had struggled to work together even on political issues both groups took seriously, such as abortion and prayer in schools. Old animosities divided them, and mistrust poisoned attempts at cooperation. In the 1950s, Catholics resented the proto-evangelicals pushing for prayer and Bible readings in schools — from Protestant texts and translations. In the 1970s, Foy Valentine , a crusader for traditional Christian morality and the longtime head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission, griped that public campaigns against abortion were a strictly Roman Catholic preoccupation; other evangelicals were also wary of participating in anti-abortion politics for fear of associating too closely with a cause presumed to be thoroughly Catholic, and at times they developed their own parallel anti-abortion groups just to avoid cooperating with the Romish.
But a new generation of rightward activists, intellectuals and politicians mobilized during the culture wars, attracting Catholics and evangelicals to their ranks. Eventually, thanks to the work of groups like ECT and the pressure of ongoing polarization, relations between Catholics and evangelicals grew so warm that it now seems hard to recall these struggles. But the political pact between evangelicals and Catholics also came with significant hazards. It has, especially recently, become a source of anxiety for the Catholic leaders who helped convene the alliance in the first place. For all their success building a new coalition on the right, evangelical and Catholic doctrines are still distinct. Working together meant that one party would have to make concessions to the other. And so far, Catholic teaching has given the most ground.
Catholics have had trouble fitting into U.S. politics since the beginning. America’s founders were suspicious of the faith. John Adams mocked the “nonsense and delusion” of “absolutions, indelible characters, uninterrupted successions, and the rest of those fantastical ideas, derived from the canon law.” Immigration from predominantly Catholic countries throughout the 19th century sparked anti-Catholic parties such as the Know-Nothings ; roughly 100 years later, echoes of those sentiments sounded in response to John F. Kennedy’s historic presidential run.
So the evangelicals and Catholics who wanted to join forces had their work cut out for them. Catholics had generally leaned Democratic, with a few exceptions: They liked Ike, for example, but turned out in droves for Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Yet, just as evangelicals began cleaving ever closer to the Republican Party in the late 1970s and early 1980s based on issues such as divorce, abortion and public morality, Catholics shifted from voting generally blue to a more even split ; they remain resolutely bifurcated between the two parties. Today, working with evangelicals, a group that identifies overwhelmingly with the Republican Party , means that Catholics must operate within the political agenda of the GOP.
The close quarters produced a new breed of politically evangelicalized Catholic candidates and officeholders who have little use for the church’s social teaching (which includes support for organized labor , immigrants and the poor) but adhere vehemently to its teaching on issues related to sexuality. Evangelicals have greater theological latitude when it comes to matters of the economy, with much less in the way of binding, traditional doctrine on the right use of wealth and property than Catholicism has accrued over the years. In supporting typically lean Republican policies on social programs and the economy, these Catholic politicians adopt a moral approach to politics reminiscent of their evangelical compatriots.
Among these new Catholics, seemingly custom-made for the GOP, are House Speaker Paul Ryan, a onetime fan of the intensely anti-religious, free-market thinker Ayn Rand; former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who radically shrank his state’s nutritional assistance program and rebuffed Louisiana bishops’ attempt to halt an execution scheduled for Ash Wednesday ; and Rep. Dave Brat, a Virginian who describes himself, dizzyingly, as Catholic, Calvinist and libertarian . This brand of Catholic, a perfect fit with America’s conservative movement, would supposedly “remake” the GOP.
But instead of carrying Catholicism’s compassionate approach to social programs into the party, the Catholics who’ve joined the Republican ranks seem to have adjusted their faith to the party’s interests, at least where economic matters are concerned. Church authorities have taken notice. Though Ryan has enjoyed some support from more conservative church leaders, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has repeatedly issued letters of correction to Ryan’s austere budget proposals, urging Congress in a 2012 letter to remember that “a just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.” Ryan replied that he and the bishops “just respectfully disagree,” a statesmanlike rebuff from an evangelical politician, but a more puzzling riposte from a Catholic speaking to the ordained leaders.
Similar statements have increasingly come from Republican politicians seeking to distance themselves from Pope Francis’s teachings in order to remain closer to GOP orthodoxy. During the 2016 presidential primaries, disavowing the pope became a kind of ritual for Catholic candidates. Jeb Bush rejected his characterization of climate care as a religious obligation, on the grounds that “he’s not a scientist.” Marco Rubio remarked that “on economic issues, the pope is a person.” Chris Christie was blunt: “I just think the pope is wrong,” he said, referring to the pontiff’s desire that the United States renew diplomatic relations with Cuba, a predominantly Catholic country . Rick Santorum openly rejected the USCCB’s position on immigration in 2011, saying, “If we develop the program like the Catholic bishops suggested, we would be creating a huge magnet for people to come in and break the law.” Their repudiations of church hierarchy have the same ring as Kennedy’s 1960 speech on his Catholicism — “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me” — but they come much more readily, often on TV, and with showy indifference to the church that calls itself the one, the holy and the apostolic. It’s one thing to insist, as Kennedy did, that church and state are simply separate; it’s another to add that the church is in fact wrong and the state right.
With statements like these accumulating, could the bond between the faiths hold out? In July, the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a close confidant of Pope Francis and a top Vatican official, indicted such evangelical-Catholic collaboration in an article published with a Protestant co-author in La Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit journal reviewed by the Vatican before publication. The essay, “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism ,” offered this thesis: “Some who profess themselves to be Catholic express themselves in ways that until recently were unknown in their tradition and using tones much closer to Evangelicals,” Spadaro wrote. “They are defined as value voters as far as attracting electoral mass support is concerned.” His article was widely read to mean that the church hierarchy had become disillusioned with the 24-year-old political cooperation pact, and Vatican-watchers saw the hand of the pope.
Shortly after its publication, Catholic writer P.J. Smith pointed out that, in calling for a more stern separation between religion and politics, Spadaro’s essay contradicted the very vision of political activity that Pope Francis often advocates. Perhaps the omission resulted from Spadaro’s focus being overly trained on partisanship, an artifact of frustration from those early days of Catholic-evangelical cooperation under the auspices of the New Right. Spadaro and other like-minded Catholics might be irritated by Catholic cooperation with evangelicals on conservative issues, but the same challenges certainly face Catholics working within the Democratic establishment, where the situation is similar in kind but reversed on the issues.
The impasse comes down not to the specific nature of either party but to the very foundations of America. Spadaro was right about the difficulties of Catholic participation in U.S. politics, but he didn’t seem to see how deep the trouble goes. This country was founded around Protestant principles. Catholics involving themselves in American politics — especially the machinations of the two parties — are always likely to find that the closer they come to Washington, the further they stray from Rome. It may simply be the price of doing business in a country like ours, but it makes authenticity and efficacy very difficult to square.