There's no such thing as the ideal Catholic candidate because there's no such thing as the Catholic stance on all issues. Catholics should all agree on basic principles of their faith, including issues that necessarily entail specific positions on certain questions, such as the legal right to life for unborn babies. But this side of the Eschaton, Catholics will always disagree among themselves about how best to order this-worldly affairs to conform to the law of God.
That said, on the highly important, fundamental issues of abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning, it's not breaking news that evangelical George Bush is much closer to the Catholic position than soi-disant Catholic Senator Kerry.
Furthermore, Mr. Bush's Supreme Court nominees, who are all-but-certain to come, will probably be more favorable on most right-to-life issues and most issues regarding traditional Christian values in the public square than Mr. Kerry's choices would have been. On these things, the Bush victory is, in a qualified sense, a “Catholic win.”
Even so, many — though certainly not all — serious Catholics have sizable problems with aspects of the Bush agenda: the war in Iraq, tax cuts, health-care policy, etc. While these concerns aren't in the same category as such things as 1.3 million abortions every year, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning and same-sex “marriage,” they're not unimportant.
Let's be clear: A Catholic isn't obliged, as a Catholic, to differ with the Bush administration on the war, tax cuts, health care, etc. But he certainly is free to do so, and many faithful Catholics, in fact, do disagree. Indeed, many Catholics feel compelled to disagree out of fidelity to the same principles that lead them to agree with the Bush administration on right-to-life issues. For such Catholics, the Bush re-election isn't a “Catholic win” in those areas on which they differ with the president, notwithstanding the “Catholic win” in other areas.
There's also a sense in which — even on the issues of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell experimentation, human cloning and same-sex “marriage” — the Bush re-election isn't a “Catholic victory.” Opposition to such evils isn't specifically or uniquely Catholic. The Catholic Church witnesses against these evils, but so do many other Christians, as well as many non-Christians.
The recent election was a Catholic victory in another sense: a triumph over the irrational fear some Catholic leaders have had of confronting pro-abortion Catholic candidates. The argument has been that such confrontation inevitably leads to victory for pro-abortion candidates. John Kerry's defeat disproves that thesis, for no candidate has been chided publicly by Catholic leaders for his pro-abortion stance more than Mr. Kerry has.
Then, too, Catholics “won” in this election insofar as lay groups — such as Catholic Answers, Catholic Out-reach and this newspaper — disseminated literature to millions of Catholics. Such organizations mounted massive, non-partisan efforts to educate Catholics on Church teaching and to relate that teaching to key issues. Seldom have lay Catholic groups been so effective in reaching Catholics in the pews. While some diocesan bureaucracies sought to impede such groups, other diocesan offices supported their efforts.
The election clarified that to espouse a consistent life ethic isn't the same as signing off on a litany of highly debatable policy positions with “non-negotiable” Catholic concerns, such as abortion, euthanasia and same-sex “marriage,” effectively neutralized in their significance.
Finally, the Catholic Church came out a winner in the recent campaign in that more and more Catholics feel free to break with the historic pattern of lockstep Democratic support. No party should think it has the Catholic vote in its back pocket.
Growing Catholic independence doesn't mean, of course, that Catholics should now march to the Republican Party's drummer, lockstep or otherwise. As Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver recently observed, Catholics aren't with the Republicans on such issues as abortion; Republicans are sometimes with us. An effective political strategy would be to remind the leaderships of the Republican and Democrat parties of just how important it is that they side with Catholics on such fundamental issues as the right to life — that is, if they want to continue to receive Catholic support.
Mark Brumley is president of Ignatius Press and associate publisher of IgnatiusInsight.com.He contributed to the book The Five Issues That Matter Most (Catholic Outreach).