Why won’t American Catholics get behind the very Catholic Rick Santorum?
From New Hampshire to Nevada, he has lost the Catholic vote in nearly every state where Republicans have gone to the polls to elect their nominee for president. The only slight exception is Tennessee*, where he carried the Catholic vote by a whopping one percent.
Instead, Catholics have gone for a Mormon: Mitt Romney.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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At a fundraiser in a Chicago suburb, I asked Santorum why he couldn’t win over his fellow Catholics. His bafflement was eye-blinking. Losing Illinois proved to be more baffling still. Later, talk show host Sandy Rios put a version of the same question to him. He explained, “We do well among people who take their faith seriously.”
Except Romney wins those Catholics, too. By a margin of 9%, Santorum lost Illinois Catholics who attend Mass every Sunday.
Just because Santorum can’t answer the question doesn’t mean The New York Times won’t try to take a wild stab at it. Catholics, Frank Bruni argued without the benefit of Illinois exit polling data, are marginalized by “an out-of-touch, self-consumed church hierarchy and its musty orthodoxies.” Bruni cites polls that suggests Catholics are “merrily ignoring the church’s official position” on pelvic political issues. Predictably, he couldn’t leave out some hearty criticism on child sex abuse.
As much as Bruni would like, Bishops aren’t spokesmen for Catholics or the human pelvis. “Bishops speak,” as the Archbishop of Chicago Francis Cardinal George wrote, “for the Catholic and apostolic faith.” What’s more, Catholics vote for Romney well-knowing he is on the side of the Bishops.
In giving this question another go, we’re going to have to engage in some cult talk. That’s been banished to the fringes this election cycle, but trust me; it’s not what you think.
Gene Healy’s The Cult of the Presidency argues that Americans increasingly understand “the presidency as an earthly manifestation of the living God.” That, in echoing Michael Novak’s Choosing Our King, Americans “had developed a ‘civil religion’ in which the president was Pontiff in Chief.”
When New Jersey’s Catholic governor Chris Christie endorsed Mitt Romney after several months of conservatives literally begging him to enter the race, he said that Romney is “not a legislator trying to figure out how to use executive power, but an executive who has used executive power and will use it to make American lives better.” From a baron of private equity to governor of a state, “executive” is Romney’s middle name.
In fact, Mitt Romney was “President” once before—stake president of Boston Mormons. Much like a Catholic Archbishop, Romney was responsible for shepherding the spiritual (and otherwise) wellbeing of his flock. Bishop Romney’s tenure as a religious leader is a useful primer for Catholics to examine how he exercised pastoral authority.
If Americans are indeed looking for a “Pontiff in Chief,” Romney’s fluency in executive-speak and know-how must resonate with Catholics. After all, their Church is a hierarchical one that wields executive power often.
Admittedly, this makes some Catholics queasy. Bishops often go beyond their competency when exercising authority and influence. Alternatively, some conservative Catholics grow frustrated with Bishops who don’t use their fiat powers more often, as with some so-called Catholic higher education institutions. Catholics check their faith with the Church, and ultimately, they respect the authority of the Pope—they have to!
In addition to being drawn to executive experience, Catholics can relate to how Romney has lived his life. He married his high school sweetheart and had many children. He made a successful career in business all the while remaining active in his local church. Romney is someone Catholics know.
Catholics thought they knew Rick Santorum. He’s a family man all right, but once Santorum caught Potomac fever, it was too hard to break. Santorum made his name in Washington, and even before entering the halls of Congress he was lobbying as a young attorney in Pittsburgh. Santorum’s experience as a representative in Congress doesn’t jive well with how the Church is run. As much as some Catholics would like the Church to be a democracy, it isn’t.
Romney is struggling among Evangelicals, however, and Santorum is not. Santorum even likened American Catholics to Protestants in a clumsy attempt to explain their disaffection with his campaign:” Catholics have, by and large, assimilated into the religious milieu of this country.”
If Santorum is right, then there really is no Catholic vote at all. Unfortunately for him, there is a Catholic vote and it loves Mitt Romney.
*Rick Santorum has since carried the Catholic vote in Louisiana.—Editor