Why I am a Catholic Democrat

The first in a three-part series, where prominent Catholic writers explain and defend their political orientation.


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In late 1993, I worked for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps to redevelop a poor, black neighborhood in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The area felt remote, almost uninhabited. From my front porch, I would often see lone African-American men walking by or riding their bicycles, clutching open cans of beer. Aside from churches, the only real institutions in the neighborhood were governmental ones — a high school, a hospital that floated on Medicaid and Medicare payments, and a non-profit housing company that existed because of the hospital.

The lesson I learned from the experience was obvious but instructive: There is no money to be made helping poor people. Businesses and profit-minded individuals create wealth for the able-bodied, but neither can be relied upon to serve the poor and working classes. Just read Milton Friedman.
As someone who has grown to appreciate Catholic social teaching, I believe that the basic test of any civilization is how it treats its least citizens. In my personal and professional experience, I have concluded that the federal government is a better vehicle than business or the free market to meet that test. That’s why I am a Democrat. As Pope John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus (1991),”The more that individuals are defenseless within a given society, the more they require the care and concern of others, and in particular the intervention of governmental authority.”
To be sure, the current national Democratic Party is not fully committed to those ends. It countenances violence against society’s most vulnerable — the unborn. In fact, it muzzles those Democrats who wish to speak out in defense of the unborn, as former Pennsylvania governor Robert P. Casey learned. As a result, I vote for pro-life Republican presidential nominees rather than pro-choice Democratic ones.
Yet political parties are not eternal entities. Like sports franchises or church groups, their leadership changes hands. At present, secular liberals control the national party machinery. When a good new group arrives on the scene and wrests the presidential nominating system from them, I will vote Democratic once again.
I hope to get the chance to do so. Part of an upcoming book of mine examines the history of the national Democratic Party from 1948 to 1968. In researching this topic, I was struck again by all that the party achieved in helping the have-nots. It extended full legal protection for African-Americans. It lifted most elderly people out of poverty. It gave health insurance to the aged and infirm. And it prevented tens of millions of Americans from going hungry.
In each case, the federal government accomplished those goals. Businesses and the free market, by contrast, either opposed them or were indifferent. Southern storeowners discriminated against black customers. The American Medical Association opposed the laws that created Medicare and Medicaid. No businesses pushed for the enactment of the minimum wage or food stamps.
I don’t mean to imply that the federal government is the only or best vehicle for social justice. As Centesimus Annus states, “The individual, the family, and society are prior to the state . . . and the state exists in order to protect their rights, not stifle them.”
I also don’t mean to imply that the federal government is necessarily a beneficent force. Some federal programs are downright rotten. Welfare encouraged recipients not to get married and to stay dependent on the dole. Many urban public housing projects were dominated by the ranks of the poor.
Why do some federal programs fall short? The answers can be found in any political science textbook: Either the given program fails to adapt to changing social circumstances, has the wrong incentives for recipients, acquires a small but powerful constituency that opposes change, or is met with indifference by the public.
But those problems merit our concern, not our scorn. What the Democratic Party needs, as the nation needs, is a new leadership class that seeks to overcome those obstacles. This class would have the toughness and soulfulness of Bobby Kennedy, the prudential wisdom of David L. Lawrence, and the compassion and Christian conscience of Robert P. Casey.
I don’t begrudge good Republican politicians. But at a time when America’s wealthy and middle classes are growing estranged from and sanction violence against the poor and vulnerable, I hope and pray that the great Democratic public servants of years past can inspire those of today and tomorrow.

Mark Stricherz


Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party.

  • Rob Schultz

    If you insist on being a Democrat, so be it. At least you seem to realize the values that lead that party are not what you endorse. As you state, this is the party of the abortionists, the pro-homosexual agenda, the anti-God politically-correct initiatives, and of course, every type of Socialist method known to redistribute wealth of those who work and take risk to those who do not. Seriously,I cannot see how a believing Catholic could in good conscience, consider themselves a member of this Democratic Party. As a conservative, I am a Catholic Christian first.
    The Republicans, sadly, in oh so many ways, are the same as the Dems, politicians who have compromised themselves with their only goal being to get re-elected. It cannot be denied, however, the Republican party is Pro-Life, anti same-sex nonsense, anti illegal immigration, pro 2nd amendment, and finally at it’s core significantly driven by personal responsibility. Since LBJ, the $Trilions spent on entitlements have made the FEDS the great enabler. In the long-term, this has proven itself to be more harm than good.

  • Chuck

    I have a problem with the government programs such as welfare which discourages self-sufficiency and encourages truly destructive personal habits plus I also think these programs destroy the community’s motivation too help the unfortunate in any sustained or involved way. I think this because when you pay 1/3 of your income to the government you are left with less discretionary income for your family and money that could be used for others and it therefore encourages the ” I gave at the office” attitude among many people, thus causing a loss of a real sense of community and care. Also one can argue it helps to destroy families because the high rate of taxes forces many families into two worker households which may weaken the integrity and viability of families with small children.While the dems may believe they are helping and need a powerful central government to do the job, in fact I believe this weakens society and ignores another element of Catholic social teaching – subsidiarity!I strongly suggest you read the book: ” The Tragedy of American Compassion”.

  • Chris Baker

    I’m enjoying the stories of the old warhorses like David Lawrence and John Bailey.
    Don’t you think it far more likely that the GOP will be more open to your sort of economic policies, then the Democrats will ever be to traditional morality and cultural issues? Look at the rise of Huckabee, and some of the ideas being floated by Olasky,Dreher and Gerson. All of those guys get heard, and their ideas discussed within the conservative movement, even though they break from orthodox Reaganism. Is there a similar openess to debate on abortion, embryo-destroying research, and traditional marriages and families on the Democratic side? Nope. And there won’t be. Sorry David, but the old-style Catholic ethnic Democrats are either dead or dying. You’d have more success re-founding the Whig Party then convincing the Democrats to tolerate pro-life, pro-family polices, let alone promoting them.
    Whether you choose to join us or not, you’re very much welcome in MY Republican Party. Read Rick Santorum’s ” It Takes A Family”. Social justice doesn’t have to be warmed over statism.

  • Charles

    Thank you for such a well written piece. And thank you for expressing the basis of much of what it means to be an American Catholic.

    For those who rally around the Pro-life movement, the best thing that could happen is to overturn Roe/Wade. Then they will get to see just how pro abortion their so called family value Republicans really are. It is pure hypocrisy to think one party is somehow better or worse than the other on supporting life. For me, a life long Republican, it is the Republican party that has abandoned it’s roots. And no matter how you try to spin it, they are being adopted by the Democrats. Without social justice, there are no family values and religion merely becomes a political issue. Making moral judgments about political issues is mixing religion and social justice and basically advocating a theocracy much like exists in Iran. I too was taught the importance of all men being created equal. I am sad to see others arguing that all men are not equal unless they conform to their beliefs. The same argument being used by the terrorists. How did we in the US allow our principles to trump our moral compass. We argue how valuable an American’s life is. We tacitly endorse the concept that other human beings are less valuable. We do it in foreign policy, economic policy, social policy, military strategy, politics and in our judgment of folks who believe differently.

    Thank you for refocusing the debate even if several folks chose to ignore it. Hopefully we will see and be able to support candidates who will do the most public good, regardless of their personal beliefs.

  • Neal Lang

    That’s why I am a Democrat. As Pope John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus (1991),”The more that individuals are defenseless within a given society, the more they require the care and concern of others, and in particular the intervention of governmental authority.”

    I believe the “individuals (which) are (most) defenseless within a given society” would be the unborn. Your support of Democratic candidates by both your vote and your rhetoric insure the annual genocide of most defenseless in our Nation will be over 1 million.

    Also, a government cannot demonstrate “care and concern”. It is always an instrument of coercion. It possesses a monopoly on force unavailable to the “private sector”. Unlike personal charity, the “gifts” of government are never “free”. Power is the coin of all governments, and their largess always comes with an equal or greater demand for power. Obviously you have no concept of the Church’s long held Principle of Subsidiary.

    The best example of the “real costs” of Federal Program to “help” the poor is universal Welfare – a suppossed program to help the poor, but instead destroyed the Black family in our country more efficiently than could any program design specifically to do so by a racist government. Even liberal Democrat Senator Daniel Moynahan of NY recognized it as such. Still the totally repudiated socialistic program remains the Democratic Party “Holy Grail”.

    Finally, if we are to remain a “government of laws”, as the Republican Party insist, instead of a “government of men”, as the Democrats prefer, we really need to limit the Federal Government to matters the Constitution of the United States of America authorizes them to address. Welfare is certainly not mentioned anywhere in the Article I Section 8 delineated “Powers” of US Congress. If you support such Federal programs, please do the right thing – amend the Constitution first!

  • Neal Lang

    “But at a time when America’s wealthy and middle classes are growing estranged from and sanction violence against the poor and vulnerable, I hope and pray that the great Democratic public servants of years past can inspire those of today and tomorrow.”

    What on earth are you talking about? Americans, especially the wealthy and middle classes are the most generous in the World. The real “violence against the poor and vulnerable” was perpetrated by the Democrat politicians, especially LBJ who fought as Senate Majority Leader to block and finally waterdown the Civil Rights Act of 1957 – the first enacted since 1870. In the area of true Civil Rights and Martin Luther King’s “dream” of full equality has been better served by the Republican Party, who will not belittle Blacks and other minorities with preferential treatment, which is merely the expression of the ingrained bigotry of the Party of Thomas Jefferson, whose opinion of African Blacks has always been and remains today:

    “there are varieties in the race of man, distinguished by their powers both of body and of mind…as I see to be the case with races of other animals.”

    The Democrats manifest this continued prejudice by establishing quotas and set-asides – then they take credit for the accomplishment of great minority giants, such as Assciate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas – who would set on the court today had the Democratic Party had its way!

  • Neal Lang

    “How did we in the US allow our principles to trump our moral compass. We argue how valuable an American’s life is. We tacitly endorse the concept that other human beings are less valuable.”

    This is utterly absurd. Obviously you have no idea of what you “pontificate” about.

    You certainly are clueless as to just what our Nation’s “Principles” truly are, as expressed above. I suggest you inquire of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on the same. I am sure he will explain to you the “Self-evident Truths that ALL MEN are Created Equal” – not merely Americans. Hence so many Americans shed their blood so willingly around the World so that other men may one day live as free as we.

    Of course, as most Democrats do, you start out with the proposition that America and its Principles: that Men are “Endowed by the Creator with certain Unalienable amongst which are LIFE, LIBERTY, and the PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS (PROPERTY)” are worst evils on Earth. It was the Democratic Party that denied men, especially African Slaves, their RIGHT to the PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS – i.e. the Right to the keep what they earn from the sweat of their brow! The Democratic Party has corrupted America’s Principles so that the “Pursuit of Happiness” is now a “guarantee of Happiness itself”, and that “Happines”s is no longer defined as your property and what you have earned from your effort, but instead it now means your “right” to do anything that fills good.

    Democrats have no idea as to the meaning of morality – hence the “lemming” defense of the “Right to murder unborn babies”. The Democrats’ Right to murder the most defenseless kills more innocents in one year that have been killed by Americans in ALL THE WARS they have participated in since the Revolution. The hyprocracy smells to high heaven.

    Of course, the Democrats also promote lose morals and the lack of ethics by dividing our country into “Special Interests” who they promise something for nothing because they will take it from someone else. How else can they get elected and stay in power? After all, our Founders knew that the free Republic that was created by our Constitution could never survive without a “moral and ethical people”.

    Democrats elected Bill Clinton – a President with the “morals and ethics” of a slug. Now daily, in his effort to get back into the Oral Office by marriage, we are remined why he will always be known as “Slick Willie”!

  • Mary Cascio

    The Democrats became interested in women and minorities when it meant getting their vote, and thats how they operate. Are they interested in the unborn, no because they have no voice. Individuals like Jimmy Carter while governor of his state didn’t care that Blacks were not allowed entrance into his Baptist Church, until his was running for president. Then suddenly that immediately was changed. But you heard little about that fact… Both my parents who were from Illinois had great grandfathers in the Civil War. And as small bands out in the battle fields played the Battle Hymn of Republic this is what motivated the Union Soldiers. But does any one remember this G.O.P history today, that happened when Blacks had no voice??? I ask any one to think of the words in the last verse of the Battle Hymn of Republic, and this is what these Union Soldiers felt at heart. So Mr Stricherz go ahead and vote Democrat and be ready to answer to Our Lord for your frivolous actions

  • Marcus

    The state isn’t the place to turn for taking care of the least among us. Another post said it well…state welfare programs & the like generate an “I gave at the office attitude”.

    Witness France a few summers back. The state takes care of many of the elderly there. So, while many in France were enjoying their famously long summer vacations, grandma & grandpa were dying in the heatwave back in the hometowns. The state had assumed, and grandchildren abdicated, the fundamental responsibility of family to honor mothers/fathers/grandmothers/grandfathers. Can the state possibly tend elderly citizens as well as these peoples’ own families? Of course not.

    I laud (and share) your sense of obligation to those less fortunate, but see only failure in instance after instance of the state attempting to do that which is rightly done out of free will by the more fortunate individuals for those less so.

    Dinesh D’Souza describes giving a starving man a sandwhich voluntarily. The giver does so out of free will, the reciever is rightfully thankful. A moral transaction transpires. Rework that. The state takes the sandwich from the citizen, and hands it to the starving man. The sandwich was not given freely, and the starving man feels entitlement as opposed to gratitude. Morality is removed from the equation. No system which does this can help us realize our potential as Catholics or Christians. Our God is all about free will and our choosing the good, right, and just. Not doing “good” because “Caesar” compels us.

  • Shan Gill

    Our Lord commanded us to care for the poor, needy, imprisoned, sick and ailing, etc. Us. The Community of the Body of Christ.

    Federal programs are paid for with taxes. Taxes are extracted at gunpoint. If you think otherwise, just refuse to pay your federal taxes for a few years and observe the results.

    Christian charity cannot be imposed at gunpoint. It must be offered from the heart.

    Government can NEVER(!) take the place of the Church, either in mission or in purpose.

  • Eileen

    I cannot believe the people here advocating that the Republican party is the “moral” party!! You can really stand there and say what this Republican government has done to this country is moral and just?? They certainly haven’t helped the unborn child avoid abortion in 8 years in office, but the poor are certainly worse off. The rich are doing just fine, and thousands of innocent people have been killed by this administration going off to a a war brought on by falsehoods. The deceit and secrecy that this so-called “moral” party has used over the past eight years to stay in power in disgusting at best and sinful at worse.

    They have even ridiculed the conservative right- wingers that they supposedly represent. And they still blindly follow…

    I am a church going, Christ believing, pro-life, charity giving Christian and I can guarantee that I will not vote Republican in the next election. And with all my heart and soul, I am ready to answer to our Lord for what some may call a “frivolous action.” I hope that all of you ready to condemn those who vote Democratic are ready ready to answer for the Republican party’s sins as well.