In principle, as a Catholic Democrat, I’ve always rejoiced in the presence of Catholics in public life. I remember as child a delegation coming to our house in Trenton to ask my father, a World War I hero and the editorial writer for the Trenton Times, to run for office. But, though an eloquent public speaker, he lacked the politician’s temperament—event though I learned later that his father had served in the New Jersey Assembly in the 19th century. But my brother Dave ran for city council and rose to becoming a Superior Court judge. The turning point for my generation was the John Kennedy campaign, and some of us in the Jesuit seminary in 1960 were jealous that one of JFK’s speech writers was our age, while we were stuck in a remote Westchester cloister where we had to watch the Kennedy-Nixon debates in secret.
In spite of his language crafted to reassure both an audience of Protestant ministers and a nation of fellow Catholics, his Houston address was a sort of Magna Charta for the Catholic in public life. He proclaimed the primacy of the individual conscience, which has always been Catholic teaching, especially in Vatican II—which was still on the horizon in 1960—and, once elected, he was photographed every Sunday leaving church with that old Sunday Missal in his grip.
Since then, until recently, a candidate’s Catholicism has not been an issue, unless a local bishop proclaims that the Catholic candidate who does not buy the bishop’s stand on birth control, same-sex marriage, stem-cell research, or abortion is anathema, banned from the communion rail—and sometimes you too, if you vote for him/her.
Onto this stage walks Rick Santorum, whom Bob Casey knocked out of the senate in 2006. Santorum, to a greater degree than other Catholic candidates, has constructed his image around an altar boy youth, his coal miner father, his big family of seven children, plus the loss of a son born prematurely in 1996. On the other hand a series of New York Times reports fills in the portrait of the anti-big government Santorum, both of whose parents worked for the federal government at a hospital, with stories on the millionaire lobbyist and the political brawler, the hot-headed name caller, the “bully who was not the potent enough force to be a bully” and became known as “Senator Slash.” (Read one of the Times' stories here.) And now the more thoughtful conservative who has cooled down.
His most developed statement is “A Charge to Revive the Role of Faith in the Public Square,” a talk delivered at the University of St. Thomas in Houston in 2010, the 50th anniversary of JFK’s address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. He confesses that as a boy his grandparents displayed pictures of Jess, Pope Paul VI and John F. Kennedy. Then he goes on to reject the Kennedy vision, accusing Kennedy of constructing another “threatening wall” that “sealed off informed moral wisdom into a realm of national beliefs that have no legitimate role in political discourse.” That day, says Santorum, Kennedy “chose to expel faith.” He goes on to explain the First Amendment, insisting that freedom of religion is not just one of the freedoms but the one on which freedom of speech, press, and assembly depend. Kennedy, says Santorum, is closer to “Ataturk than to James Madison.”
I don’t know where Santorum was in 1960, but he was two years old. I was surrounded by Jesuit scholastics in philosophy studies. We knew the speech had been written with the advise of Catholic theologians and that Kennedy knew the proper role of conscience, as well as religion, in making public decisions.
Meanwhile the issues which challenge Catholic conscience have grown, particularly in social justice, since the 1960s; and many, if not most, Catholics see the relationship between life issues as both more intimate and complex than those Kennedy faced. A study by Catholic Democrats shows that Santorum has among the worst voting records in the U.S. Congress on social justice and the family, though Santorum describes himself as “pro family.” In November 2011 he questioned the value of lower income children qualifying for Medicaid, food stamps, and housing assistance. “Why do these kids feel they are entitled to so much?...Suffering, if you’re a Christian, is part of life and it’s not a bad thing.” He favors massive tax cuts for the wealthy, wants to abolish public service unions, and denies humans are responsible for climate change. While the bishops have condemned torture in all its forms, in the televised debate Santorum endorsed water-boarding and “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He has long been pro-death penalty, but now says he’s thinking it over.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.