Catholic Politicians Betray the Faith…Again

For a long time, Catholics have struggled with the question of whether it is appropriate for Catholic politicians to draw upon Church teachings in the conduct of public life. The Church has a lot to say about the way laws are made and executed. Are Catholic politicians required to act on these principles when crafting policy or selecting personnel? Can they trade one teaching of the Church off against another?

Such questions have animated the debate about what it means to be an American Catholic politician for at least the last half century and probably longer. There can be no doubt that certain privileges accrue in the public mind to those who self-identify as members of a faith community or who present themselves as adherents to a religious tradition. Yet, perhaps out of fealty to the traditional notion of a separation of church and state, many American politicians who identify as Catholics have perfected the art of the split personality, deploying the I-would-never-impose-my-beliefs-on-others expedient at the first hint of association with an unpopular position championed by the Church. Vice president Joe Biden, one of the more prominent Catholics in American politics, has said, “I accept my church’s position that life begins at conception…[but] I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that women can’t control their body.”

Boy, if I had a nickel…

In Connecticut, where I live, the state legislature last week approved the appointment of Andrew J. McDonald to the state supreme court. McDonald, a former state senator and general counsel to Governor Dannel P. Malloy, achieved national notoriety in January of 2009 for introducing a bill in the state legislature to “revise the corporate governance provisions applicable to the Roman Catholic Church.” The bill, which proposed stripping the Church hierarchy of control over parish finances, was widely criticized as a targeted attack on the Church’s constitutional rights. The Diocese of Bridgeport called it “a thinly-veiled attempt to silence the Catholic Church on the important issues of the day, such as same-sex marriage.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement:

Although the proponents of the bill appear to know little about the U.S. Constitution, they appear to know much about the history of the Church in the United States, and especially what laws have been used to make it suffer. Laws of precisely this sort have a well-established, yet shameful, pedigree in our country. In the Nineteenth Century, similar laws were used to foment schism in the Church, often with the encouragement and support of notoriously anti-Catholic groups, such as the Know Nothing Party.

In March of 2009, as the measure was about to be considered by the legislature, thousands of protestors converged on the state capitol in Hartford. The uproar led to the withdrawal of the bill, but for most Connecticut Catholics, Andrew J. McDonald is a name which lives in infamy.

For most Connecticut Catholics, that is, except Governor Dan Malloy.

Newspaper profiles of Malloy invariably reference his large family—he is one of eight children—and his Jesuit education at Boston College as evidence of his deep-rooted Catholic identity. In 2012, much to the delight of Connecticut’s Catholics, Malloy signed a law abolishing the state’s death penalty. He told the Washington Post’s Lisa Miller at the time, “I don’t want to overemphasize my Catholicism here…[b]ut I know my religion. I know religions in general.”

It was probably wise of Malloy not to “emphasize his religion here,” because, according to paragraph 2267 of the Cathechism of the Catholic Church, “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty.” The question, therefore, is not a matter of Catholic doctrine but is left to the prudential judgment of individual policymakers—a subtlety which is often conveniently ignored by Catholic politicians of the political left such as Malloy and his New York neighbor, Governor Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo—whom The New York Times called “a practicing Catholic,” the product of a family and childhood “steeped in Catholicism”—outlined in his recent state of the state address a plan to enact what he called a Reproductive Health Act but that many have called an unprecedented expansion of access to late-term abortion. To the wild applause of those in attendance, Cuomo, the “devout” Catholic governor, chanted his reasoning: “Because it is her body, it is her choice. Because it’s her body, it’s her choice. Because it’s her body, it’s her choice.”

While the Church leaves room for reasonable and well-meaning people to disagree on how best to achieve a host of desirable social goals, she leaves no room for reasonable people—politicians or otherwise—to disagree on abortion. This is not a trifle. This is serious business in the eyes of the Church. Catholics are not obliged to march in lockstep with one political party or the other, but as Peoria, Illinois, Bishop Daniel Jenky has warned, Catholic politicians who “callously enable the destruction of innocent life in the womb…are objectively guilty of grave sin. For those who hope for salvation, no political loyalty can ever take precedence over loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ and to his Gospel of Life.”

On the question of same-sex marriage, which New York archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan has called “irreconcilable with the nature and the definition of marriage as established by Divine law,” both Catholic politicians are equally out-of-communion. Furthermore, Malloy has showered political rewards on a man, Andrew J. McDonald, whom the USCCB has compared to a Know Nothing and who authored what then-Bridgeport bishop William Lori called an “irrational, unlawful, and bigoted bill.”

Politically, Malloy and Cuomo are standard-issue East Coast liberals. As such, their positions on a host of issues ranging from immigration to taxation and, yes, the death penalty, are not particularly noteworthy. What is noteworthy, however, is the frequency with which the media refers to Cuomo and Malloy as Catholics, and the willingness of these politicians to cloak their policy agendas with the mantle of Catholic social teaching. As far as I am aware, Connecticut’s bishops made no statement on the nomination of Andrew McDonald (the Bridgeport Diocese is currently without a bishop). The bishops are nonpartisan and need to preserve the ability to dialogue with and influence all of our leaders, regardless of party or creed. Understandably, they don’t want to get into the business of question the sincerity of someone’s stated religious beliefs. It’s awkward.

But at a certain point, someone has to hold these “Catholic” politicians to account. Someone has to be willing to ask: Is it possible to be a faithful Catholic in public life? Or are politicians like Cuomo and Malloy merely Catholics of convenience, happy to wear the label when the media approves but disinclined to the point of defiance when the Magisterium of the Church conflicts with the party platform?

In fairness, this disease is not merely the product of blind party loyalty. My representatives in Hartford, Senator Toni Boucher and Representative Tom O’Dea—both Catholics and both Republicans—voted to confirm McDonald’s nomination. I’m not entirely sure what the point of being a Catholic politician is—of calling yourself a Catholic, of representing yourself to voters as a faithful Catholic—if not to publicly oppose those who would strip the Church of its Constitutionally protected rights. It’s as if the author of a bill banning hunting rifles was nominated and all the NRA-endorsed legislators stepped up to support him. Moreover, McDonald’s confirmation was assured—the senate vote was 30-3 in favor and the house vote was 125-20 in favor. A “no” vote would have achieved the same result while allowing Boucher and O’Dea to maintain credibility with their Catholic constituents.

It’s almost as if they didn’t care.

Matthew Hennessey


Matthew Hennessey is a writer from New Canaan, CT, and a graduate of Hunter College and Fordham University. You can follow him on Twitter @matthennessey.

  • V

    They should be excommunicated…


    Perhaps things would start to change if the Church would take a stand against these liberal policies. It needs to start excommunicating these politicians. No one is saying that they have to be Catholic but if they wish to claim it then they can either act on it or face the consequences. This also applies to members of the clergy who are in open defiance of the teachings of the Church but are allowed to remain as members of the clergy. The Church needs to deal with those who use its name to promote beliefs contrary to its nature. Its inaction gives tacit approval and only makes things worse.

  • Robert

    Many of these people are completely compromised with the modern world. Their religion is capitalism and consumerism and not Christianity as seen in the recent elections.

    • Micha_Elyi

      Q. How are capitalism and the Catholic Church alike?

      A. Both have not 1 person in 100 who hates it and knows what it really is.

  • NE-Conservative

    Here in New Hampshire – our US Senator/ex-Governor Jeanne Shaheen – aggressively and volubly supports abortion in every way, shape and form – our ex-Bishop McCormick NEVER called her out, but rather treated her as a close friend and confidant – even presiding at a special mass and ceremony for the ‘wedding’ of SHaheen’s abortion supporting daughter.

    So far, BIshop Libacci while making some public statements against abortion, has not challenged any of our ‘Catholic’ pro-abortion politicians. The hierarchy appears to place a higher priority on the RUBRICS of the Mass than it does on the public MAL-PRACTICE and TWISTING of Catholic doctrine by the likes of Pelosi, Biden, Cuomo, etc.

  • Dan Deeny

    Many thanks for this article and the interesting comments. Yes, we need more information on the bishops and priests who indirectly support the abortion business.

  • A_Mighty

    I think the proof of the heart is in the action. Maybe the reason for the lack of response on the part of church leaders is because on some level they agree?

  • Liz

    Apostates all of them!!

  • msmischief

    There were early Christians who convinced themselves that burning incense to the genius of the emperor wasn’t like a religious rite.

  • Bono95

    It’s totally possible to be a Catholic in public life (think St. Thomas More) The problem is, most people in public life, Catholic and otherwise, aren’t willing to lose a cent of their outrageously high salaries, let alone their heads (literally that is, most of them lost their heads figuratively long ago), by standing up for their principles (if they have any).

  • Public excommunications are long overdue. They won’t change the minds of the excommunicated, perhaps — who knows? — but they would give pause to the next generation of Catholic politicians.

    • rightactions

      They’d also give pause to the next generation of Catholics, period.

      Every commission and omission regarding the public acts of Catholic public figures (not limited to politicians!) weakens all the bretheren in the faith. And at the margin, there’s the Catholic who may have been able to muster enough resistance to temptation but for all the public bad examples that have gone without public chastisement – so the poor dear gives in and another soul falls into mortal jeopardy.

      THE TIME TO BEGIN is now. By Ash Wednesday, the heat of the federal election year will have largely passed. In all but a few places, no political seats are now being contested. Catechesis must start now. Today, in the coming Lenten season, and throughout the rest of the year bishops must get up in public, in the pulpit and before any audience they can find, then succintly, with firmness deliver the Church’s teachings on abortion and explain their basis in the natural moral law and where they are affirmed in Scripture. And the priests must also lead, follow, or get out of the way.

      Once the 2014 political season is upon us next year, opportunities to make calm, reasoned cases to people who have not yet bound themselves to candidates and partisan allegiances will be lost. Again.

    • mmac1

      even more important- to prevent scandal- in its canonical sense- the leading of other faithful astray by their example.

  • jaymis

    Unfortunately, there is one explanation that makes perfect sense (political sense only) and allows a perfect rationalization of the justification. It’s About the MONEY. To a very large extent the funding for the Church’s corporal works of mercy is provided primarily through various government programs, loans, grants etc. It’s just a plain fact that has to be dealt with. Now who runs these programs? Politicians and their bureaucrats. Who are the gatekeepers? Need we continue with this? Sooooo your favorite Bishop.(fill in the blank) considers himself to be the “victim” of a Hobson’s choice between publicly admonishing a sinful “Catholic” politician scandalizing the Church versus running the risk of loosing/reducing funding for a “social justice” program aka a “corporal work of mercy”. Being human the Bishop(s) (with a few exceptions) will convince themselves they have no choice but to let God take care of the politician while he, the Bishop, takes care of the “poor”. They sleep like babies while “Rome” is burning and don’t even smell the smoke. Forget changing the Bishops. Pray for them and concentrate on changing ourselves first, then our families, etc….

  • Your suspicion is spot on. They do not care, because they are poorly formed in the faith. I do not mean they are ill-formed in what the Church teaches on abortion, contraception or homosexual acts. They are ill-formed in the four last things…death, judgement, heaven and hell. The absence of backbone in Catholic politicians is mostly because they have a “once saved always saved” Protestant view of Christianity. Their greatest “sin” may not be the laws and poilicies they support, but rather the sin of presumption. The reception of God’s mercy ultimately requires us to seek his forgivness. Our prayer should be for a reawakening of judgment; this will lead to genuine conversion of souls and society.

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  • Patti B

    It would be nice if their respective parish priest or even their bishop would invite them over for dinner(s) and have some teaching and discussions on such topics. (and reviewing the 1st Commandment) That of course would assume that these politicians would come humbly and be willing to listen. I think, and I say this with no malice or condemnation, that they simply do not truly understand Holy Mother Church’s teachings on these subjects-even if it’s purposeful on their part, which probably is the case.

  • Cha5678

    From the article: Malloy signed a law abolishing the state’s death penalty. He told the Washington Post’s Lisa Miller at the time, “I don’t want to overemphasize my Catholicism here…[b]ut I know my religion. I know religions in general.”

    Response: So he’s a theocrat. Same too for the NY Times to promote gun control through faith. Same too for the many left and right whom promote assistance to the poor and mercy for the weak. Same too for the WA and MD governors who invoked their faiths for SSM. Same too for the IL governor who scheduled a press conference after a private rebuke from his bishop to claim how much his political positions are in line with the bishops. Same too for many more of the liberal secularist statists that invoke faith and the metaphysical (fairness, equality, justice) to advance their positions. So many theocrats.

    • t-dahlgren

      Fair weather theocrats at best.

      They’d NEVER proclaim faith informs their actions if they thought it would bring negative political consequences.

  • SteveM

    Hmm… Nothing about Catholic Just War theory and the Catholic politicians who are ardent militarists. Do they get a pass?

    Obama’s new Director of the CIA, John Brennan appears to be a Catholic, (Fordham like Hennessey). Now he is overseeing the CIA drone program that slaughters clusters of people 6,000 miles away with the idea that God will sort them out. Is Brennan a “faithful Catholic in public life”?

    • Ford Oxaal

      Surely, the issues must be prioritized. The next generation of our society is being systematically exterminated privately, legally, and in ostensibly sanitary conditions. Not only that, but to the extent society itself promotes and inculcates this abomination, it is coercive. This is not a personal matter, it is a societal threat. Our children’s future spouses are being destroyed en masse. If the American bishops make the determination to fight and win this battle first, maybe the other battles will be easier to sort out. Wisdom is an understanding of priorities.

    • t-dahlgren

      John Brennan may have been raised in Catholic setting, but I can find no indications that he is practicing, nor that he publicly wears his Catholicism as part of his politics.

      If he is practicing then yes, you are correct that his actions deserve exploration, but as you yourself note, just war principles do permit much from the lawful civil powers acting within their authority.

  • hombre111

    We live in a pluralistic society. It creates huge problems, but to demand the Catholic line only in the midst of complex moral situations belongs more to the Moslem world than the Catholic world.

    • Theorist

      The Catholic line will take precedence because it is the true one. Whether that comes about w/o harming other religions or, perhaps, tyrannically is mostly up to the politicians themselves. These tolerance-mongers don’t even realize that the more they support anti-Catholicism the less they can count on gentlemanly treatment at the hands of Christians in the future! They do not heed the insight of our only Catholic president that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable.”

      • hombre111

        It might be the true one but more than half of all Americans don’t agree with the destruction of Roe. Our endless effort to solve this through political power has helped create the cultural divide. The Church is going to have to develop sound, effective, convincing moral arguments, and give up on trying to find the Repub president who will nominate the right wing justices of the Supreme Court. The conservatives hold the power now. And carefully avoid deciding on Roe. They are more interested in the corporation as a person than the child as a person.

        • mmac1

          Catholics should demand the “Catholic line” of Catholics. Cuomo et al can become Episcopalians without any suffering at al. This is not the dark ages-where leaving the Church could be deadly. This is not at all like the islamicists demands. We simply hold that to be(or claim to be) a member of the faith, you should follow its beliefs.

          • hombre111

            Your plan would push Catholics into a self-chosen ghetto, out of our pluralistic society.

            • mmac1

              the purpose of the faith is to bear witness & to follow Christ- not to help us integrate into society. “to sell ones soul for wales” is a poor choice.

  • John O’Neill

    The common denominator of these so called Catholic politicians like Biden,Cuomo, Pelosi etc. is that they are extremely wealthy people. They have no desire to put their family fortune at risk by uspsetting the masters of the American Atheistic State.. What we need is to clear the air; the American Catholic Church is really two churches; the one follows the teachings of Ted Kennedy and the Kenndy family which states very clearly that the Democrat party always comes first. Many bishops and priests especially those who came from Irish Catholic Democrat urban families are followers of the Kennedy religion. There is another Catholic Church in America which faithfully follows the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Churches Magisterium; these Catholics do not have the money and political influence of the Kennedy Church and will have to go underground like the Church in Communist Poland did. In the long run the Catholic Church will be around for centuries on end while the American Secular State will be a smouldering ruin like its twins Sodom and Gomorrah.

    • mmac1

      the common thread is NOT money or wealth- it is power. They worship power more than the tenants of their faith

  • musicacre

    Crises recently did an excellent article on the life of Bishop Kelly. He should be the role model for all N. American bishops; maybe it would give them strength if they re-acquainted themselves with his unfailingly Catholic, legacy. He never waited for better “conditions” before he proceeded to do the right thing, he trusted God. Can we expect any less from all our shepherds?

  • Notice that almost all these traitorous “Catholics” are on the left politically. Why oh why do Catholics continue to vote and support the Democratic Party? The Republicans may not be perfect, but they are certainly more sensitive to religious issues and they are most definitely not hostile to the Catholic church.

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