Samuel Alito Jr.’s confirmation by the Senate last month made him the fifth Catholic on the Supreme Court, marking the first time that Catholics hold a majority in that body. But more importantly, it may indicate a change in the reigning paradigm that Catholic politicians must keep faith and public life in two separate, air-tight compartments.

In spite of being grilled about his pro-life voting record as an appellate-court judge during his Senate confirmation hearings, Alito was not once asked about the bearing of his Catholic faith on his past or future decisions. This in itself is a milestone, considering the treatment accorded to Chief Justice John Roberts by the same Senate Committee a few months earlier.

Last September, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., asked Roberts, a Catholic, what the Wall Street Journal termed “The JFK Question”:

“Would you say that your views are the same as those expressed by John Kennedy when he was a candidate, and he spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September of 1960: ‘I do not speak for my Church on public matters, and the Church does not speak for me’?”

Hours later, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked point-blank if Roberts, like Kennedy, would “address the issues of conscience out of a focus on the national interests, not out of adherence to the dictates of [your] religion.”

Jewish commentator Jeff Ballabon of the Center for Jewish Values called those questions “grotesque” and Protestant Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America called them a deeply offensive, “anti-Christian religious litmus test.”

To be fair to President Kennedy, he was speaking against those who were attempting to derail his presidential nomination precisely because he was Catholic. While Specter and Feinstein are certainly not bigots, the thrust of their questions was still unmistakable: Catholics in public life — especially the practicing ones — are expected to take the Kennedy pledge.

This paradigm stems in large part from an erroneous interpretation of the First Amendment and Jefferson’s “separation of church and state” axiom. Both are usually taken to mean that public figures of any religion are expected to bracket their faith when they engage the public square in order to meet secularists on neutral ground.

The problem, as Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George pointed out last year in a conference on Catholic-Jewish dialogue, is that secularism has become itself the de facto “state religion.” It has its own creed, its own adherents, its own preachers and its own fanatics, who are every bit as fanatical as the most extreme religious zealot.

Moreover, if religious politicians must bracket their faith in order to debate issues pertinent to all Americans, the public arena is no longer “neutral ground.” The secular humanists, in fact, enjoy a decisive “home-court advantage.” Men and women of religious faith are expected to talk on their terms, and any religious perspective on political and social problems — even if it offers reasonable solutions to those problems — is ipso facto disqualified.

There is evidence, however, that this paradigm is shifting. Respected journalists and partisan pundits alike attributed the Republican victories in the 2004 campaign in large part to “religious values.” And while Republicans won that round, the next round will prove to be much tougher for them.

One example is the current U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania, which pits incumbent Rick Santorum, a pro-life Catholic Republican, against challenger Bob Casey Jr., a pro-life Catholic Democrat. It will certainly be the most-watched Senate race of the year, and will probably offer a preview of what’s to come in 2008.

I interviewed Santorum in his office in Washington, D.C., last March. On the subject of bringing his Catholic faith into the public arena, his response was unequivocal:

“I think you see things through the lens of your life experiences, your value structure, your worldview. My worldview has been influenced by my Catholic faith, just like most people’s worldviews are based on the values they are taught. We all have value structures, and I would argue that religious influences are just as legitimate as secular ones.”

Yet, just as unequivocal was Casey’s response to the same question in a July 2005 interview with Ignatius Insight:

“Yes. My Catholic faith and the values reflected in that faith have always had a profound impact on me as a person and as a public official. I try to live up to the teachings of my faith in my personal life and in my public life.”

Though Santorum is the undisputed point man for pro-life activists, having led the battle in the Senate to outlaw partial-birth abortion, Casey has broken with national Democrats and has effectively disarmed him on this issue:

“I believe that being pro-life means the right to a decent life for a mother and her child before and after birth. I am and I have always been pro-life. ... As a pro-life Democrat, I have a different position on abortion than many national elected officials and that’s why an organization like NARAL won’t support me in the campaign.”

If elected, Casey would certainly face intense partisan pressure to dilute his pro-life stance, though it is not sure he would buckle. One the one hand, he favored filibusters last spring for certain pro-life judicial nominees, but on the other hand, he did support Alito’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.

The remarkable thing is that, in 2006, two Catholic politicians will campaign in a heavily Catholic state on the issues of concern to voters, among them: Who will best represent all Pennsylvanians in Washington. And life issues are not the only ones of concern. If Casey has broken with Democrats on abortion, Santorum has broken with Republicans on government’s role in poverty:

“We haven’t been particularly articulate as Republicans. I think we’ve accepted this label as being the party of markets, less government, lower taxes. … I’m a Republican that believes we have an obligation to those in society who are less fortunate for one reason or another, and that government has a role to play in dealing with these problems.”

For Santorum and Casey, there doesn’t seem to be a “JFK Question.” In an interesting historic twist, Alito’s anti-abortion vote in the 1991 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey repeatedly came up during his Judiciary Committee hearings. The “Casey”, of course, refers to Bob Casey Sr., erstwhile Democratic governor of Pennsylvania who had no qualms about being “too Catholic” on issues like abortion, capital punishment or poverty relief. Alito, like the elder Casey, deserves credit for not apologizing for his pro-life stance just for the sake of getting confirmed.

In 2003, the U.S. bishops encouraged Catholics to engage the political process on all levels: “We urge Catholics to become more involved by running for office, by working within political parties, by contributing money or time to campaigns, and by … other efforts to apply Catholic principles in the public square.”

Catholics don’t want a theocracy, and they don’t want just one religion to dominate the public discourse. But the status quo is a “seculocracy” and that’s no better.

Let’s hope that 2006 is the year when Catholics of both parties — as well as Protestants, Jews and people of any creed — no longer feel they need to leave their faith at home in order to engage the public debate. Casey, Alito and Santorum seem to be offering a new paradigm in this respect. The country, and yes, even the secularists, will be better off because of it.

Raymond Cleaveland writes

from Mundelein, Illinois.

Reach him at RayCleaveland@hotmail.com.