Politics 1988: What Role for the Bishops?

“What role will the American Catholic hierarchy play in the 1988 presidential election? In part, the answer to this question will depend upon the bishops’ actual statements and actions during the upcoming campaign. However, in 1988, as in the past, the hierarchy’s role will also be shaped by political factors beyond the bishops’ control. To an extent not generally acknowledged, the parties’ electoral strategies and the terms of the political debate will determine the nature and significance of the bishops’ participation in the campaign. For that reason, if we are properly to understand the bishops’ political role during the next several months we must pay at least as much attention to politics as we pay to the bishops themselves.

The effect that politics can have on the bishops was made particularly clear during the 1976 and 1984 presidential campaigns. In 1976, though they denied it was their intention, the Catholic bishops were widely perceived as having endorsed the Republican ticket. The bishops’ Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities strongly advocated support of right-to-life candidates; officials of the bishops’ national conference appealed to both parties to condemn Roe v. Wade and then denounced the Democratic platform for failing to do so; and Joseph Bernardin, then Archbishop of Cincinnati and president of the bishops conference, declared that he was “disappointed” in Jimmy Carter’s position on abortion and “encouraged,” by Gerald Ford’s.

The bishops’ actions themselves, however, tell only half the story of 1976. Their active role in that election was also shaped by the presidential candidates’ extraordinary sensitivity to the views, statements, and actions of the Catholic hierarchy. In 1972, the Democratic coalition that had held together since FDR and the New Deal crumbled. A majority of Catholics and white Southerners broke their traditional ties to the Democratic party and voted Republican for the first time in decades. Carter, of course, was sure to recapture the south for his party in 1976, but Catholics appeared to be up for grabs. In fact, both Carter and Ford considered Catholics the key to the whole election. Moreover, both candidates also believed that the bishops could affect the Catholic vote substantially.

Gerald Ford, for his part, spoke openly of a “Catholic strategy” for capturing Northeastern and Midwestern states. With this strategy in mind, he declared his opposition to legal abortion, he praised the bishops’ anti-abortion activities, and he took every opportunity to highlight the split between the Catholic hierarchy and the pro-choice leadership of the Democratic party.

Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, was worried about his so-called “Catholic problem” of selling a born-again southern candidacy to northern ethnic voters. As a result, he waffled on abortion, chafed at the bishops’ public criticism of his position, and took pains to point out issues on which he and the bishops agreed. In fact, Carter was so anxious to defuse his abortion dispute with the bishops that he pushed for a personal meeting with the bishops’ national leadership. It was after this meeting that Bernardin expressed his infamous “disappointment” in Carter’s views.

The point is that expressly political factors such as the demise of the Democratic New Deal coalition, the Republican “Catholic strategy,” Carter’s so-called “Catholic problem,” and the candidates’ conviction that the hierarchy influenced the Catholic vote placed the spotlight directly on the bishops in 1976. The bishops did not simply create a political role for themselves by declaring themselves “disappointed” and “encouraged.” Rather, the alignment of the party system and the nature of the candidates’ strategies combined to place the bishops at the very center of American electoral politics.

After remaining relatively quiet in 1980, the Catholic hierarchy was actively involved in the presidential election of 1984. Once again, the bishops’ role was centered on abortion. This time, however, a few individual bishops, rather than the hierarchy as a whole, were perceived as endorsing the Republican ticket. Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston, called abortion the “critical” issue of the election; John O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York, publicly doubted whether a Catholic could vote for a pro-choice candidate “in good conscience”; and O’Connor accused Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, of misrepresenting Catholic teaching on abortion.

As in 1976, however, these actions took place within a specific political context which focused attention on Catholic bishops and bestowed political significance to their actions. The statements of O’Connor, Law, and others were politically noteworthy because they were related to an important component of the 1984 campaign debate, and because a pro-choice Catholic was running for vice president.

President Reagan portrayed himself in 1984 as the candidate of morality, religion, and what he called traditional American values. He identified himself with right-to-life sentiments, he loaded his campaign with religious rhetoric and imagery, and he accused his opponents of being “intolerant of religion.” Walter Modale countered that Reagan’s conception of morality and religious values was too narrow. Mondale argued that some of his own positions, on such issues as poverty and arms control, were moral positions as well.

This debate between parties was over the proper parameters of what might be called the moral agenda in American politics, about what should be included in discussions of morality and policy. Ronald Reagan, for example, wondered out loud how the Democrats could call themselves the “party of compassion” while turning away from what lid considered the slaughter of the unborn. For her part, Geraldine Ferraro even went so far as to question the sincerity of the President’s Christianity because his economic policies were, in her view, “so unfair.”

In light of this partisan debate, the policy agenda of the Catholic hierarchy became a matter of great political interest. The Catholic bishops are, after all, the spiritual leaders of the largest single religious denomination in the United States. Their views on the scope of the relationship between Christian morality and public policy were bound to be taken seriously in 1984.

Cardinal Bernardin may have intended his “consistent ethic of respect for human life” to be politically neutral. In fact, however, the broadening of the bishops’ policy agenda, and the de-emphasis of abortion that it unavoidably implied, meshed more readily with the Democratic conception of the American moral agenda than it did with the Republican one. O’Connor, Law, and their allies within the hierarchy, of course, clearly saw abortion as the top moral and political priority. Their actions during the 1984 campaign have to be understood as counterpoints to Bernardin’s “seamless garment” approach and as attempts to redirect the Church’s focus, and the public’s perception of that focus, back onto abortion.

This debate between a broad policy agenda and a more narrow, explicitly abortion-centered approach had been going on within the American Catholic hierarchy for more than a decade. The reason that it spilled out into public and the reason that it received so much political attention was that in 1984 this debate within the hierarchy directly intersected with a partisan debate over the proper role of moral and religious values in American politics and public policy.

The bishops’ participation in the 1984 campaign was also shaped by the fact that a pro-choice Catholic was running for vice president. The dispute between O’Connor and Ferraro was particularly dependent on Ferraro’s being a Catholic. If she had not been a Catholic, for example, Ferraro would surely not have characterized the “Catholic position” on abortion as “not monolithic,” and O’Connor would not have had occasion to accuse her of misrepresenting Catholic teaching.

How, then, does this brief review of the bishops’ involvement in the 1976 and 1984 campaigns help us to understand, and possibly predict, the bishops’ role in 1988? It helps, I think, by focusing our attention on the political factors that will play such a part in determining both the nature and significance of that role.

First, it is extremely unlikely that we will see a repeat of 1976 either this year or in the foreseeable future. Catholics are still considered important swing voters, but candidates now have a more accurate understanding of the very tenuous relationship between the views of Catholic bishops and the votes of Catholic citizens. Second, candidates also have learned to be a bit more circumspect in their approach to the bishops. For example, Republican attempts to claim the tacit support of the hierarchy are less credible in light of the bishops’ pastoral letters on nuclear weapons and the U.S. economy. Third, it would be very unusual if a Democratic nominee repeated Carter’s naive mistake of actually welcoming a forum in which the Catholic hierarchy could condemn his or her abortion views.

Whether 1988 will look more like 1984 is a little less clear. To be sure, the debate within the hierarchy itself over the scope of the bishops’ collective policy agenda has not been settled. We can expect several prominent bishops to defend a broad multi-issue agenda, and several others to claim that abortion should be the top priority. Whether this dispute and the bishops’ statements associated with them will have much political import will depend very much on developments beyond the bishops’ control.

If, for example, one or more of the presidential nominees adopts a particularly moral or religious tone in 1988, or if the Democratic party nominates a Catholic for either president or vice president (and any such Catholic would almost certainly be pro-choice) then Cardinals O’Connor, Law, and other like-minded bishops might very well replay the role of focusing attention on the candidates’ abortion views. On the other hand, if the religious content of the campaign is kept to a minimum, then the bishops, both collectively and individually, can be expected to play a relatively minor role in 1988. It is not that Catholic bishops will not speak out on the issues, because many of them will do so. It is rather that in such circumstances fewer people, in the media and elsewhere, will be paying as much attention.

There is one other possibility that could raise the bishops’ political profile in the coming months. The Democratic party continues to struggle in its attempt to build a majority coalition to replace the one it lost in the 1960s and 1970s. One possibility that has been mentioned is a Democratic appeal, along class lines, to a grand coalition of the “have nots” in American society. Should this strategy be pursued then the bishops’ pastoral letter on the economy, with its talk of “economic rights” and “distributive justice,” would almost certainly be resurrected and publicized by the Democrats and some bishops. If this were to occur, then the debate over the scope of the hierarchy’s agenda would break into the open again, and several bishops may be very actively involved in the campaign, perhaps on opposite sides of the political fence.


  • Timothy A. Byrnes

    At the time this article was written, Timothy A. Byrnes was on the staff of Cornell-in-Washington's public policy program in Washington, D.C, and was completing a dissertation on the role of the Catholic bishops in American politics.

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