IN 1986 Antonin Scalia became the seventh Catholic appointed to the Supreme Court bench in almost two centuries. Brett Kavanaugh is likely to be the sixth appointed since then (or seventh if you count Neil Gorsuch, who was brought up Catholic but attends an Episcopal church). Besides cementing the court’s Catholic majority, Mr Kavanaugh will also continue its conservative drift. This is part of a broader trend: the American right is becoming more Catholic.
In both parties, Catholics are prominent among the elite as once-poor Irish, Italians and Poles rise in the establishment. One in three members of the House of Representatives is Catholic, a record high. Six Catholics contested the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Previously only three had appeared on the presidential ticket of a major party, including John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic president to date. Catholic voters are also important to both parties. They represent a quarter of the electorate and usually choose the winning presidential candidate, as exit polls suggest they did in 2016. Hispanic Catholics, around a third of the total, mostly vote Democratic, whereas white Catholics lean Republican. Neither group, unlike evangelicals, votes mainly on the basis of religion: Catholics tend to project their politics onto the church, which is divided between right and left, rather than the other way round. Yet a minority of Catholics does vote on religious lines, which generally means favouring anti-abortion candidates, and President Donald Trump may owe his job to them.
That reflects the electoral importance of rustbelt states, which have lots of working-class Catholics. Their most Catholic counties went heavily Republican in 2016, sometimes for the first time. It also reflects the fact that, in an election decided by thin margins, many Catholic bishops, though forbidden to endorse candidates, signalled a preference for Mr Trump. Lexington’s parish priest more or less openly endorsed him from the pulpit.
That was despite Mr Trump getting into a spat with Pope Francis, who suggested his promised border wall was “not Christian”. America’s 300-odd Catholic bishops are mostly conservative and preoccupied by gay marriage and abortion, which Mr Trump railed against. This makes them resistant to Francis’s effort to return the church to the radicalism of the Gospels. Yet something odd is happening. Just as the Republicans become more Catholic, the church is moving the other way.
Even the most conservative bishops have denounced Mr Trump’s harsh immigration policies. At a gathering in June of over 200 bishops in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, one liberal felt emboldened to suggest imposing “canonical penalties” on people implementing them. Supporters of Mr Trump, such as Stephen Bannon, also a Catholic, sneer that the bishops want bodies to fill the pews. Yet their rebuke to Mr Trump goes far beyond immigration. They have also slammed his regressive tax cuts, efforts to cut health-care benefits and inflammatory recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Unlike Trump-loving evangelicals, with whom conservative Catholics cemented a political alliance in the 1990s, the bishops appear to have buyer’s remorse.
The minority—perhaps a third of the total—who strongly support the reformist pontiff see this as an opportunity to make his case for a broader definition of “life” issues. Francis has described efforts to fight poverty, injustice and pollution, as well as immigration reform, as “pro-life”. Migrant lives and those of unborn babies are, he says, “equally sacred”. “There are no single-issue saints,” quipped one of his supporters, José Gomez, the archbishop of Los Angeles. Though anathema to many bishops (one or two of whom may dream of disproving the quip), this is squarely within Catholic orthodoxy. Indeed, the tradition of social justice that Francis represents was prominent in the American church until recently. In the 1980s its bishops issued important tracts against poverty and nuclear arms. By appointing liberal bishops, Francis aims to restore that more expansive approach.
He may fail. The pool of liberal priests is shallow. Conservative bishops will also resume their opposition to the pope when the border crisis eases. Even at the level of parishes, where pragmatism and a stress on social cohesion are more evident than among the bishops, the church’s political rift can cause friction. A priest in Maryland recalls retrieving a note from the offertory plate that read: “I didn’t come here to be lectured on immigrants.” That there is not more such conflict also reflects how little mixing there is between whites and Hispanics, or conservatives and liberals. Catholics tend to sort themselves into like-minded congregations. Holy Trinity in Washington, DC is known to liberal clergy as the “church of last resort”, because of the many liberal fugitives it draws from northern Virginia.
Yet the church is engaged in a self-examination that is demanded from below—by Hispanic and liberal Catholics—as well as by the pope. And it is doing so while managing its conflicts relatively well. There are lessons here for secular conservatives.
Is the pope a Catholic?
For one, abortion-obsessed Catholic politicians, and perhaps jurists, are in danger of finding themselves out of step with Francis’s church. That is their business—but if it transpires they should be wary of flaunting their Catholicity for political effect. Another lesson concerns the need to take account, as the church is starting to, of changing demography. The white-resentment politics to which Republicans have devoted themselves will have diminishing returns in a browning America.
A third lesson is relevant to both parties, but to Republicans especially. It is to permit reasonable debate on core beliefs, as on their better days America’s Catholic authorities do. The Trump-bullied Republicans are permitted rather less internal dissent. It is a remarkable state of affairs when Republican congressmen are under more pressure to toe the line than a Catholic bishop.