(RNS) — It’s hard to find a good Catholic in American politics.
It’s true that, in what was once a virulently anti-Catholic country, Catholics have reached political heights. In addition to Joe Biden, the second Catholic to be elected president, 31% of the House and 25% of the Senate in the 117th Congress, seated in January, are Catholic, according to Pew Research Center.
Almost all of these politicians, however, reject major portions of what their faith teaches about social ethics, notably on what it means to be “pro-life.” And while a vanishing few occasionally express anguish about the conflict between their faith and their positions, almost all of them undermine their church’s teaching daily in service of both major parties — parties that make it almost impossible for a believing Catholic to survive in Congress at all.
Ask former Illinois Congressman Dan Lipinski.
After eight terms representing Southwest Chicago and its suburbs, Lipinski, a rare anti-abortion Democrat, was narrowly defeated by now-U.S. Rep. Marie Newman in a March 2020 primary. (Lipinski might have won except for the COVID-19 lockdown that began that very week.)
After his primary defeat, Lipinski said, “I lost a job that was a great honor and privilege. But what I lost was nothing compared to what I have. I was tested by fire, and though I was not perfect through the whole ordeal, in the end I was — and am — Catholic first.”
His defeat shows that we have a political system where no one who is “Catholic first” can win, and both parties will move with swift and furious anger against anyone who dares to try.
Newman ousted Lipinski with a flood of support from coastal abortion-rights groups, media outlets and elite Democrats who would just as soon see Democratic abortion dissenters such as Lipinski drop dead.
Couldn’t the Republicans use a man like Lipinski? The trouble is that he is as pro-union and pro-solidarity as Pope Francis — whose papal encyclicals on labor, the economy and the environment the Republican Party would sooner use as toilet paper than allow its candidates’ consciences to be formed by.
Republicans prefer the kind of Catholics who put themselves on a pedestal in their tortured defenses of Trump and their self-aggrandizing columns praising the traditional Latin Mass and attacking the Holy Father with shocking and frankly pathological levels of hatred and vitriol.
The anti-abortion movement itself has enough resources in its organizations and PACs to create a bipartisan, multi-racial anti-abortion majority filled with Dan Lipinskis for decades into the future. Instead, the movement prefers a costlier and riskier one-party approach — one that requires unflinching fealty to Donald Trump and his incessant desecrations. The past four years were a hard pill for a nonwhite pro-lifer or a good Catholic of any color to swallow but barely troubled Big Pro Life at all.
What can we do to show 70 million Americans they do not have to check their faith at the door when they enter the halls of power? A religion claiming one-in-five American souls should not abet the wealth and power of a few thousand political insiders while the church Jesus founded on Peter stays silent.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops could do a lot to improve the situation. Castigating national Democrats from safe districts who support abortion rights is by definition negative and destructive. Instead the bishops should show stronger leadership in teaching and speaking about how the richness of Catholic social teaching can point toward better debates, better choices and elevation of principles such as dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity.
The bishops talk more about issues than candidates, as they should. But they could more boldly, actively and materially encourage candidates like Lipinski, stating the plain truth that, if Catholic social teaching actually formed consciences, every American Catholic would be a pro-life, pro-labor, pro-solidarity Democrat.
All this is very easy for me to say, as a non-Catholic with no strong view on abortion policy. But it’s hard to watch the Democratic Party sacrifice its national majority yet again on the altar of an ever more extreme abortion plank, because the Republican Party — shamelessly awash in Trumpist degradations — is unfit to govern this country.
We could all benefit from a new politics that welcomes the coherent, universal, common-good orientation of Catholic social teaching. We need healthier discourse and a better debate about ethics and politics in this country. Both parties need it. The pro-life movement desperately needs it.
A Dan Lipinski congressional-primary rematch would be a good start.
(Jacob Lupfer is a writer in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)