The line between religion and politics isn’t clear, but the papacy of Benedict XVI could erase it altogether. Remember the nasty arguments over whether Sen. John Kerry — a Catholic supporter of abortion rights — was entitled to receive Communion? Some American bishops threatened to deny it to him. Well, in retrospect, those were merely opening skirmishes in the bitter war over the role of faith in public life. And the Vatican of this pope will play an out-front, aggressive role.
I should say first off that Catholics believe the choice of a new pope is divinely inspired — and that predictions about the papacy of the man once known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger need to be made with caution. He is a zealous defender of traditional church dogma — but that literally was his job description before he was elected pope. Now he has a broader role. New jobs can change people, even at the age of 78.
Still, history is history. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was not afraid to summon to Rome and officially silence wayward thinkers. As the man only half-jokingly referred to as “vice pope,” he diminished the independent power of bishops and encouraged (imposed) on the American conference a new militancy in political matters — at times turning the church into what amounted to the most powerful PAC on earth.
To understand the import of the decision on Tuesday in the Sistine Chapel, here’s a political analogy: It’s as though the Republican convention of 2008, after two terms of controversial but charismatic George W. Bush, picked as its new ticket a team of Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Karl Rove.
Conservative Catholics cheer
If the denial of Communion — the central sacrament of Catholicism — was a weapon used only occasionally before, expect that it will be more widely used now. In his writings and interviews, the former Cardinal Ratzinger declared that politicians who support abortion rights should be turned away — and that it is a sin for Catholic voters to support a pro-choice candidate if their main reason for doing so is the candidate’s abortion views.
We are eons away from the days when John Kennedy wanted to assure voters that the Vatican would hold no sway over his actions. Now everyone frankly acknowledges the Holy See’s role in the American public square. The question is: How will the electorate view the advent of a new Church Militant?
Conservative Catholics are cheering, of course. This choice of a new pope will embolden political figures such as Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sam Brownback of Kansas, who will pursue with even greater determination their hard-line stance against abortion, cloning, stem-cell research, “right-to-die” legislation, gay marriage — you name it — certain of rhetorical and political support from the traditionalist redoubt in Rome.
As far as voters are concerned, if these life and culture issues are paramount, you’ve long since migrated to the George Bush Republican Party.
The real strategic issue is: What about everybody else?
This pope no doubt views the term “liberal Catholic” as an oxymoron, but there are millions of them in America and it will be interesting — and important — to see if they seek to organize in some way both within the church and in politics. We may even see Catholic politicians (and others) appealing directly to them, which would bring an open conflict with Rome. Kerry’s personal religious roots were too complex and his public style too diffident to try that route. But someone — think Teresa Heinz — could try.
For years, the Democratic Party was oblivious to the political implications of the growing conservatism of the Church. No more. In Pennsylvania, national party leaders and Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell all but dictated that a pro-life Democrat — Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. — be the man to take on Santorum next year. Rendell and Sen. Charles Schumer, who heads the party’s senatorial campaign committee, didn’t want to have to take on the GOP, the White House and the Church at the same time — at least on the issue of abortion — in a state where the electorate is nearly 50 percent Catholic.
But will the Democrats dare tie Santorum to some of the more, shall we say, traditionalist writings of the pope? Ratzinger’s views are anathema to many of the voters Santorum needs to try to reach in, say, the wealthy — and still somewhat Republican — Montgomery Country suburbs of Philadelphia.
It’s risky business for any Democrat who tries it. Which means they probably won't.