Evangelicals bring the votes, Catholics bring the brains


The Word of Life’ mural, otherwise known as the ‘Touchdown Jesus’, at the Hesburgh Library, Notre Dame University. PHOTO/Wikipedia

Catholics make up a disproportionate share of the intelligentsia of the religious Right in the United States. Although they constitute only a fifth of the US population (and white Catholics make up less than 12 per cent of the US population), they maintain a high profile among conservative think tanks, universities and professional organisations. On the US Supreme Court, four out of five Republican-appointed justices are Catholic, despite evangelicals making up a substantial portion of Republican Party support.

To understand Catholic overrepresentation on the US Supreme Court, and how Catholics in some sense became the brains of American conservatism, we must look to the history of Catholic education in the US.

Successive waves of Irish, German, Polish and Mexican migrants to the US made up most of the Catholic Church in the US. They faced persistent harassment from the country’s Protestant majority. In 1834, when a Protestant mob burned down an Ursuline convent near Boston, it was only an extreme example of popular American prejudice against Catholics.

Long a Europe-oriented institution, the Catholic Church had a tense relationship with liberalism, church-state separation and democracy. Often in the 19th century, the Vatican felt itself under siege by republicanism in France, where the state had seized Catholic lands and property, and in Italy, where nationalists had unified the country at the expense of the temporal power of the Papal States. This was the context, during the First Vatican Council of 1869-70, in which the Vatican proclaimed the Pope infallible, a rarely invoked doctrine but one that symbolised the incompatibility of conservative Catholicism with republicanism and secularism. The Vatican published an ‘index of forbidden books’ from the 1600s until 1948 (officially ending only in 1966, following the Second Vatican Council) that banned the laity from reading Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, John Locke, Martin Luther, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas and Niccolò Machiavelli. Later, 20th-century authors including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were added.

Of course, many American Catholics regularly ignored these prohibitions. And some American clergy believed that Catholicism should adapt to the values of its new homeland. But the Catholic hierarchy and especially the Vatican remained opponents of liberalism. In his encyclical Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (1899), Pope Leo XIII even condemned ‘Americanism’, warning that it was wrong to desire ‘the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world’. Fear of republicanism and secularism partly drove American Catholics to set up separate institutions for themselves – separate social clubs, separate unions and separate charities.

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