At the centre of the china cabinet in my grandparents’ farmhouse, amid porcelain, crystal, and family portraits, stands a plate painted with the images of Jackie and John F Kennedy. For people in their household and countless others, the Kennedys were a symbol of arrival and achievement, a sign of a time when it was easy to be fully Catholic and fully American. Mixing the two was simple – all one had to do was vote Democrat.
Even as Catholics left the Democratic Party in the 1970s and 80s, that conviction held. As men like Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus led people who had voted four times for Roosevelt into the big tent of the GOP, the message was reassuring familiar. One could be fully Catholic and fully American – all one had to do was vote Republican.
It is hard to sustain such faith today, which is one reason why I regard with shame rather than pride Hillary’ Clinton’s selection of Tim Kaine– a Catholic who has done mission work with the Jesuits – as her running mate. Of course, Kaine seems decent enough. No man who plays Carter Family songs on the harmonica can be thoroughly bad. I am less reassured by his love of camping. Voluntarily sleeping in the dirt (he boasts that he had all of his children in tents before they were six months old) is perverse. Why, after our Paleolithic forebears struggled so hard to escape such conditions, would anyone return willingly to them? I cannot understand how a liberal Catholic backslides so far from the Omega Point.
Neither can I comprehend how a man who claims to live by the Gospel of love could treat the legalised killing of the unborn as a trifle. Like the countless other politicians trained in Catholic schools who believe that one can be merely “personally opposed” to abortion, Kaine demonstrates that introducing a Test Act that bars Catholics from public office would be one of the most efficient single measures for advancing a decent society.
Whatever effect Kaine has on this race, the model of politics he represents is spent. In the age of Kennedy, reconciling Catholic life to the American mainstream seemed possible. Today, in the wake of Roe and Obergefell, it does not. Kaine tells us more about nostalgia for the past than what Catholic politics will look like in the future. Catholics must discard the idea of an aspirational centrism, and embrace the role of unashamed dissent.
On the left, it is already happening. Even as the Catholic Democrat is dying, a new kind of Catholic leftist is coming into being. The most prominent of these is the Washington Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig, a writer who is merciless in her criticisms of Republicans and Clintonites alike. She has been attacked by conservative Catholic “tradbros” for her economic views, and by operatives close to the Clintons for her opposition to abortion. This latter group recently succeeded in getting her husband fired from his job.
Alongside Bruenig is a freewheeling group of young people who ask questions like “What would a Catholic Marxist look like?” They gather on a private online discussion group called the “Papal Octopus”, a reference to an anti-Catholic cartoon that shows a Romish cephalopod encircling America with its tentacles. On Twitter, these young “tradinistas” run an ongoing inquisition, promoting an alternate conception of Catholic politics by scourging anyone naïve enough to retweet a defender of free love or free markets. They are also “woke” on racial matters. As others slumber in the face of systemic injustice, they say, “Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion.”
Unafraid to defend of Catholic dogma, they tend to think little of Amoris Laetitia but admire Laudato Si’. When an editor at a Catholic journal proposed to the other members of the group that Catholics needed to line up behind Tim Kaine, he was met with arch dismissals – not just because Kaine was insufficiently left on economic matters, but also because he was insufficiently dogmatic on sexual ones.
The motto of the tradinistas might be, “Win the class war, win the culture war.” How it is to be won is, in good Marxist fashion, a matter of dispute. Some, after chiding Herbert McCabe for his doctrinal failings, echo his calls for open class struggle. Others seek to overturn the order through lives of quiet virtue. To them, Theodor Adorno’s observation in Minima Moralia that “The long since frigid libertine represents business, while the proper and well brought up lady represents yearning and unromantic sexuality” suggests the possibility of silent subversion.
It has been hard not to notice that whereas John Paul II spoke of “the culture of death” and Benedict XVI of “the dictatorship of relativism”, Francis instead condemns “the throwaway culture”. His enemy is the same as his predecessors’, but by attending to the material reality, he avoids the suggestion that sin stems from a simple lack of virtue or mistaken idea left us by Ockham. If thinking he is correct to do so places one on the left, I am there alongside not a few other young Catholics. Just don’t expect us to display any portraits of Tim Kaine.