WASHINGTON — The most-ever Catholics have been elected to the two houses of Congress in the November election, according to the Pew Forum on Religion on Political Life, a non-partisan, nondenominational research center.

The Pew study of the religious composition of the new Congress indicates that Catholics picked up five more seats than they held in the previous Congress for a total of 161, giving them 30.4% of all the seats in the Senate and House of Representatives, well above their 22% share of the adult population.

Overall, the study noted an unprecedented religious diversity among members of the 113th Congress.

John K. White, a politics professor at The Catholic University of America (CUA) and author of Barack Obama’s America: How New Conceptions of Race, Family and Religion Ended the Reagan Era, said, “We have the first Hindu, the first Buddhist, the first ‘none’ [for ‘no religion’]. These all broadly reflect what is happening in the population.”

But the increase in Catholic members is not so easy to figure, he told the Register, since there is no matching increase in Catholics among the general population. He speculated that it was a function of the gradual destigmatization of Catholic politicians since Catholic John F. Kennedy won the 1961 presidential election, despite opposition from some Protestants who feared he would “take orders” from the Pope. “There’s almost none of that attitude left,” said White.

If anything, the more faithful Catholics are to their faith, the more likely they are to win support from faithful evangelical Protestants. Commented White, “The thing has been turned on its head.”

On the other hand, there remains an evident stigma attached to atheism, as demonstrated by a recent Gallup survey indicating that 42% of voters would not vote for an atheistic candidate for president — the most negative response of all the options offered by Gallup. In the Pew results, said White, this is reflected by the fact that there is only one member of Congress, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who self-indentifies as religiously unaffiliated, whereas 20% of the electorate do so.

White speculated that only one congressman self-identified as having no religion “not because candidates are lying to conceal their atheism, but because atheists are simply not becoming candidates,” with the odds stacked against their being elected.

Catholics will hold 134 seats (31%) in the House of Representatives; they will occupy 27 seats (27%) in the Senate. Catholic Democratic senators will outnumber Catholic Republicans by a two-to-one margin, 18-9. In the House of Representatives, Catholic Democrats have only a slight edge, outnumbering their Republican counterparts 73-61.


More Pro-Lifers

Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that endorses pro-life women candidates, says the November election returned a slightly larger number of pro-lifers to Congress. In state races, the increase in pro-life legislators was more marked.

“This just reflects the demographics, which show a general increase in pro-life support for several years now,” she said.

Stephen Schneck, director of CUA’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies as well as a member of the Democrats for Life board of directors, identified new Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana as a pro-life addition to the U.S. Senate. Donnelly, who previously was a member of the House of Representatives for the same state, supported the Affordable Care Act, but otherwise opposes abortion and co-sponsored the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act of 2011.

A fiscal conservative who is supported by the National Rifle Association and who opposed the Dream Act to reform immigration law, Donnelly defeated Richard Mourdock after the Republican candidate made a controversial condemnation of abortion in the case of rape; Mourdock phrased his remarks in a way that could be misconstrued as meaning God had intended that rapes should occur. Donnelly has received a 70% score from the National Right to Life Committee for his votes on abortion-related issues.

One Catholic newcomer from Democrat-heavy California is Republican Rep. Paul Cook. A retired Marine colonel and Vietnam veteran, Cook later taught political science and won election to the state Legislature. Cook followed the party line on his website, leading off with his commitment to reducing government red tape and taxes to encourage economic growth, but emphasizing, too, his commitment to defending human life. “I have always been pro-life, and I always will be,” he states, detailing his support for the parental-consent requirement for abortions by underage mothers.

Another newcomer who is Catholic and Republican is Floridian Ted Yoho. A veterinarian and father of three, he put “jobs and the economy” at the top of his website list of issues and abortion next to last. Still, Yoho’s position is unequivocally in line with Church teachings: “I am pro-life. As a Christian, I believe life begins at conception, and I oppose taxpayer funding of abortion.”

However, neither Cook nor Yoho mentions the religious-liberty issue, which was raised by the Catholic bishops in the context of the federal contraceptive mandate, on the issue lists on their websites.  

In addition, Dannenfelser identified Ann Wagner, a Catholic newcomer to the House of Representatives from Missouri, as a likely mover and shaker on the Republican side. Wagner also leads her issues webpage with jobs and government debt, but when it does address abortion, it does so in detail, starting with the fact that her first visit to Washington was with the annual March for Life.

“Ann believes that life is truly our greatest gift, from conception to natural death,” it states. “In Congress, she will fight for the day when abortion is not only illegal but unthinkable. She will support the Hyde Amendment to bar federal funds from being used to pay for abortions and will work to defund Planned Parenthood and similar organizations.”


Upcoming Debates

When will newcomers such as Donnelly, Wagner, Cook and Yoho get a chance to demonstrate their loyalty to Catholic moral and social teachings? The Susan B. Anthony List’s Dannenfelser believes there will be plenty of opportunities to choose life in the upcoming budget debates.

“We call them questions of conscience, but they will appear as funding questions,” she said. “There are so many ways that funding for abortions keeps turning up in the most surprising places — the armed forces, the prisons and, of course, health care,” because health insurance will cover the so-called morning-after pill, an abortifacient.  

There will either be many appropriation bills with abortion funding concealed within them, Dannenfelser said, “or one big appropriations bill.” In either case, pro-lifers will unite in both chambers to pass the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal spending for most types of abortion.

“This time, pro-life members will try to expand the Hyde Amendment to apply to the health-care plan,” she said.

CUA’s White said the immigration issue would pose an interesting challenge for Catholics. “The [U.S.] bishops are for immigration reform,” he noted, “but how strongly will they come out for it?”

If a fractious and protracted congressional debate develops over immigration reform, White speculated that Democratic senators might support changes to the Senate rules governing filibusters.

In recent years, he explained, the rules have allowed a minority, with 41 votes to stop bills outright with the mere threat of a filibuster. Because a hard-to-achieve “supermajority” of 60 votes is needed to bring a vote of closure to overcome a filibuster, the majority frequently abandoned controversial legislation rather than subject the Senate to the time-consuming stall tactic.

“So I say, ‘Make them do it,’” White commented about the possibility that opponents might filibuster immigration-reform legislation. “Change the rules of the Senate to make them actually stay in the chamber 24 hours a day and every day, on everyone’s television sets across the country, cutting their throats with the Hispanic voters by blocking immigration reform.”

White predicts the Republicans instead will give up filibustering and let immigration reform pass quickly so that they can get on with the job of winning over Hispanic voters with other issues.



Mandate Exemptions Targeted

Schneck told the Register he expected “Catholic and pro-life Democrats” to figure prominently in both social justice and life issues.

“They will be working both for comprehensive immigration reform and the Dream Act, protecting safety-net programs like food stamps and Medicaid from overzealous cuts as Congress responds to the fiscal cliff and also working for more inclusive exemptions for nonprofit religious organizations from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.”

But one crucial pro-life area where new members of Congress will have limited impact at best is the Supreme Court, because President Barack Obama will nominate any new appointees, whose confirmation would likely be assured courtesy of the continuing Democratic control of the Senate. Therefore, the door could be open for a pro-abortion top bench, the Susan B. Anthony List’s Dannenfelser warned, if any of the aging pro-life stalwarts in the current Supreme Court decide to step down during Obama’s second term.

Said Dannenfelser, “Let’s pray they don’t.”

Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.