Catholics and Secular Politics
With Vatican II, the Church outlined a new role in its relations with political systems everywhere. It called for a more humane society built on justice and animated by Christ's love. Laypeople play a role in developing the society they live in by being politically active and working toward world development and peace.
Vatican II called on Christian politicians to protect the welfare of the people and to discharge their duties for the common good. The role of the Church itself is to direct society in moral understanding.
In the United States, the Catholic vote is far from predictable. Although it used to be a truism that Irish Catholics vote Democrat, it's also true that William F. Buckley, editor of the right-wing
Before Vatican II, priests confined the political messages in their sermons to decrying the godlessness of communism and warning Catholics to avoid the secularism and materialism of American life. But the Church has slowly created a more public and powerful role for itself. Catholic bishops have addressed concerns of interest to all Americans, including defense, the U.S. role in Latin America, economic justice, health care, child welfare, and human rights. Priests also play a role in interpreting the bishop's position within their parishes.Prominent Catholics in Office
Anti-Catholic laws, along with an insistence on the separation of Church and state, kept priests and religious women out of office in early American history. A thread of anti-Catholic sentiment ran through American life. These sentiments were most strongly represented in the presidential campaign of Catholic Alfred Smith in 1928. Prominent Protestant writers asserted that Catholics owed their allegiance to Rome and not to the United States, and argued that Catholics should not be allowed to play a more prominent role in politics.
Nevertheless, anti-Catholic sentiment did not prevent Catholics from taking on public roles, beginning with municipal politics in the predominantly Catholic cities of Boston and Chicago. In 1884, Hugh O'Brien was the first Catholic elected as mayor of Boston, to be followed by John Fitzgerald (who was Rose Kennedy's ambitious and powerful father) and James Michael Curley. Richard Daley and his son, Richard Daley Jr., both served as mayor in Chicago.
Illinois also elected a large number of Catholics to state and congressional office including Edward F. Dunne, who was governor, and Melvin Price, who served as Illinois representative in Congress from 1945 to 1988. Catholics began to be widely represented at the state level and in Congress in the 1950s. Many saw the election of a Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, as a hallmark of political maturity.
Left-wing Catholics took a leading role in protesting the Vietnam War throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Daniel and Philip Berrigan were Catholic priests and leaders in the anti-war movement. In 1968, they removed records from the draft office in Catonsville, Maryland, and were convicted on charges of conspiracy and destruction of government property.
Increasing political activism even led some clerics and nuns into office. Sister Clare Dunn, an activist for social justice, was elected to serve as a representative in the Arizona State legislature in 1975. Father Roland St. Pierre was a three-term mayor of Plattsburgh, New York. Robert Drinan sat in Congress from 1970 as a representative of Massachusetts until the Vatican asked him in 1980 to resign. A new Code of Canon Law from 1983 forbids both clerics and members of religious orders from taking public office. However, bishops have the authority to grant an exception.Behind the Scenes
The Holy See has a representative in Washington, D.C., and at the United Nations in New York. The U.S. bishops take prominent stands on public issues and make presentations to government committees on topics as diverse as reproductive technology, the economy, the environment, and the arms race. In the 1970s and 1980s, the abortion issue dominated the Church's public agenda as it fulfilled its role of directing society in moral understanding. The Church even went as far as to criticize Catholic officials in office, including former U.S. Secretary of Health Joseph Califano and Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, who did not work toward its pro-life agenda.
The Church's opposition to reproductive choice led to its stance against legislation to improve the equality of women, including the Equal Rights Amendments. Political conservatives have found a ready ear in the Vatican of John Paul II. However, lay Catholic organizations have not hesitated to press the feminist cause and other liberal causes. Lay organizations represent a range of political views and lobby in a wider spectrum of issues than the bishops. The causes they champion include rights for homosexuals, the peace movement, racial equality, social justice, and international development.