Last March, Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal headlined “The Democrats Abandon Catholics”. The Archbishop of New York wrote: “It saddens me, and weakens the democracy millions of Americans cherish, when the party that once embraced Catholics now slams the door on us.”
Dolan was speaking particularly about abortion. Indeed, it’s surprising that the Democrats – the party of John F Kennedy – have become almost uniformly pro-choice. When the pro-life movement began in the United States, it was largely dismissed as a fringe position composed almost solely of Romanists. Then, in the decades following Roe v Wade, evangelicals in the Republican Party took up the pro-life banner and won about half of those papist votes for the GOP.
Many Catholics find the Democrats’ economic and immigration policies more agreeable to the Christian faith. Still, the party’s support for abortion makes it impossible for them to vote for any candidate with a “D” next to their name.
This came into stark relief after all the senators seeking the Democrats’ presidential nomination – Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar – voted against the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act on February 25. It would have required doctors to provide live-saving healthcare for babies that aren’t killed during the abortion process.
Even relatively moderate Catholic Democrats like Joe Biden and John Delaney are ardently pro-choice. There’s virtually no flexibility for Democrats holding office at the national level. This, to the minds of many conservatives, makes the GOP a natural home for Catholics.
But, as Catholic progressives will remind us, there’s a wider range of policy issues to consider. Now that the 2020 election cycle is upon us, Catholic voters will ask: how well do the Democratic candidates conform to Catholic social teaching?
Take healthcare, for instance. As early as 1919, a publication of the National Catholic Welfare Council said that “the state should make comprehensive provision for insurance against illness, invalidity, unemployment and old age.” And the US bishops were generally supportive of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).
Sanders has pushed the healthcare debate even further with his Medicare for All Act of 2017. The socialist from Vermont would abolish private healthcare altogether and implement a European-style national health service. Four other candidates serving in the senate (Booker, Harris, Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand) co-sponsored the bill. Eighty-one per cent of Democrats and 51 per cent of independents support the Medicare-for-all model, compared to just 23 per cent of Republicans, according to a Kaiser poll conducted in January.
The environment has also become a major emphasis in Catholic social theory in recent decades thanks to the leadership of Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. Both pontiffs emphasised the importance of acting as responsible stewards of Creation. Since the 2020 cycle began, environmental issues have been dominated by the so-called Green New Deal (GND): the controversial brainchild of 29-year-old socialist senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The bill was co-sponsored by Harris, Warren, Booker and Gillibrand; Klobuchar has announced her intention to vote for the legislation.
John Delaney has said that he supports Ocasio-Cortez’s “energy”, but not the GND itself. President Trump, meanwhile, ridiculed the legislation during his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference this week. And, to be sure, her proposals are perhaps the most radical that American environmental politics has seen since Theodore Roosevelt founded the United States Forest Service. Yet a December poll found that 92 per cent of Democrats and 64 per cent of Republicans back the GND’s policies. It’s safe to say that any Democrat would have the advantage on climate issues – especially, perhaps, among Catholic voters.
Next is immigration. Pope Francis has repeatedly criticised Trump’s calls to build a wall along the US–Mexico border. He stands in a long tradition of popes who have – to quote Pius XII – “tried earnestly to produce in the minds of all people a sympathetic approach towards exiles and refugees who are our needier brothers”. All of the 2020 Democratic contenders oppose Trump’s wall and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who came to this country as minors. Bernie Sanders was once an immigration sceptic, embracing the old-school left-wing view that a large influx of migrant workers drives down wages for low-skill labourers and threatens blue-collar jobs. So far in this campaign, however, he has taken a stance that aligns more with modern progressivism, calling for a “humane border policy”.
Conspicuously absent from the discourse is same-sex marriage (SSM). Trump has declared that he is not interested in challenging the 2015 Supreme Court decision that implemented SSM across the country. This caused him grief during the 2016 Republican primary, but he won the vote of social conservatives nevertheless. Next year will see the first election since 2000 where SSM is a non-issue. Here’s yet another reason many Catholics won’t be able to get overly excited about either major party.
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