A Catholic candidate for evangelicals?

David Goldman AP Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at to reporters at a campaign event as … Continued

David Goldman


Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at to reporters at a campaign event as his wife Karen, left, listens Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012, in Greenville, S.C.

It used to be that “evangelical” and “Catholic” were mutually exclusive opposites. The near-win in the Iowa caucuses by Catholic Rick Santorum, raises questions about how evangelicals and Catholics work together in politics –both on a pragmatic level and on a spiritual level. I saw this happen in Puerto Rico where ex-Governor Pedro Rosselló declared himself to be of both religions. Ditto for Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. But while this twining of religious outlooks makes sense politically, it causes confusion theologically. As the archbishop of San Juan said about Mr. Rosselló: “He’s undergoing an identity crisis.” Does that judgment apply to Rick Santorum’s Catholicism?

Mr. Santorum clearly identifies with the anti-federal government line of most Republican candidates this presidential season. But unlike Puerto Rico’s ex-governor and current Florida Senator, he suffers no divided church loyalties. He belongs to St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Virginia, a favorite of Opus Dei. Santorum’s appeal to evangelicals seems to be based on his frequent invocations of his faith as personal witness and his willingness to refer to religion in shaping legislation. He also trumpets values shared by conservative Catholics and evangelicals, to political success, in Iowa at least.

I have found two threads in Santorum’s message which I attribute to his Catholic convictions. He denounces government programs for creating a “culture of dependency,” a concept derived from Blessed John Paul II’s
Centesimus annus
. The pope denounced “the Welfare State” for “depriving society of its responsibility” and objected to this top-down approach to poverty because it …

“…leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. (#48)”

After gutting federal social service programs Santorum expects individuals and state governments to address legitimate needs in the absence of control from Washington — and to do it better. Mr. Santorum thus places himself as the third way between socialism, i.e. “state capitalism” (#35) and the nothing-at-all option (#19) of libertarians. He embraces the pope’s teaching for the “strict duty of justice and truth…not to allow those burdened by such needs to perish.” (#34) Faithfulness to this part of papal teaching helps reconcile his right-wing Republican policies with Catholicism.

There are questions to be asked, however, when the rest of papal teaching is added to his preference for segments favorable to GOP politics. If government largesse creates a negative dependency for poor individuals, wouldn’t Santorum’s proposed elimination of capital gains while extending corporate give-aways create a similar dependency for rich corporations? Centesimus annus explicitly rejects (#42) the type of capitalism where “freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality.” Catholic Democrats would likely view the EPA, Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act, Dodd-Frank legislation and the Consumer Financial Protection Agency as the pope’s “strong juridical framework” putting capitalism’s excesses in check: Mr. Santorum does not. Should we mention his opposition to the bishops on immigration, environmental issues, and state-conducted torture.?

The former senator’s record for embracing Catholic theology on birth control, abortion and same-sex marriage is the second line of Catholic thinking. Santorum has suggested that states might outlaw the sale of contraceptives, he pushes for a constitutional amendment against all abortions even in cases of rape and incest, he would declare the fertilized ovum a human person and he would seek to annul all same-sex marriages when president. There is no doubt that these policies are theologically orthodox: the question remains if they are politically possible.

Catholics should respect the authenticity of Santorum’s political application of theological principles while reserving their own rights to choose within the boundaries of Catholic freedom. The strongest negative in Santorum’s public profession of religion is what I characterize as “smug elitism” that disdains contrary opinions. Santorum does not just oppose gay marriage, he considers homosexual behavior degenerate. He proves he is not a racist because he supports African-Americans becoming Republicans. He claims that criticizing him demonstrates anti-Catholic bigotry from liberals.

Is such sanctimony attributable to the secretive Opus Dei that he esteems? Is it a product of a culture warrior mentality that sets up opponents as moral adversaries? Are those good things? How people resolve these issues will probably determine if they vote for Santorum.

  • SwingCorey

    Santorum holds these positions because he is a thinking Catholic (i.e., one who reads the writings of the Magisterium and understands theology and philosophy), not a knee-jerk Catholic (e.g., one who says, “there’s poor people? give them money!” without considering the causes of poverty, both individually and societally).

  • usapdx

    All that are elected to political office in the USA must keep their religion out of our government.