David Gibson Photo by Patrick Verel

The Catholic Church is in danger of losing its place in the American political sphere, a religious journalist said on Feb. 28.

David Gibson, a journalist for the Religion News Service and author of The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World, (HarperOne, 2006) delivered that assessment at a lecture at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus.

Although Catholics currently inhabit the offices of vice president, the speaker of the House (current and former), and six out of nine Supreme Court seats, Gibson asserted that the churches’ influence on matters of public policy in the United States is waning.

Nowhere was this more apparent than the recent decision by the Obama administration to not grant a waiver to Catholic hospitals and universities that object to covering the cost of contraceptives to their employees, he said.

When a compromise was announced on Feb. 10 that insurers, not employers, would have to provide coverage, groups such as the Catholic Health Association and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) supported it. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, however, did not, and have since denounced it.

“Why this battle, why now, and why framed in such apocalyptic terms? I think it epitomizes not only the current state of our fractured national polity, but also illuminates many critical aspects of Catholic political dynamics in this year of our Lord, 2012,” he said.

Gibson said three lessons can be gleaned from the current state in this country:
-Politics has become more like religion
-Catholics don’t know how to do politics well anymore
-Catholic leaders have become evangelical

One the first point, he said politics has a kind of substitute religion for many citizens.

“They’re bringing the worst attributes of religious thinking to the political sphere: Ideas like martyrdom and schism, condemnation and alienation, and above all, a purists’ mentality that considers political positions as articles of faith and compromise as a form of heresy,” he said.

Republican presidential candidates who refused in a recent debate to consider a national budget that includes $10 of spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases are guilty of this, as are Democrats who refused at first to grant the health care waiver for religious institutions.

One the second point, he noted that there is division among American bishops about whether to lobby for broad exemption for faith-based organizations or a complete abolishment of the contraception mandate.

This was preceded by the fight that erupted over President Obama’s invitation to speak at Notre Dame in 2009 and the debate over whether to deny Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry communion in 2004.

Both are examples, he said, of how Catholic leaders are trending away from the Democratic party, even though polls show the laity is not. And even though, Gibson said, that the party does advance causes dear to the church—like 40 Democratic congressmen (led by Bart Stupak of Michigan) who insisted that the 2010 Universal Health Care Bill not include funding for abortions.

Gibson called Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum an example of a Catholic leader who is often mistaken to be an evangelical Protestant.

“In a Republican primary where white evangelicals are a key voting block, this has been good politics for Rick Santorum in particular, but it’s a jarring sight for Catholic voters,” he said. “Here you have a Catholic candidate supporting creationism in schools, rallying against immigration, hailing the free market as sort of a panacea, and saying that wanting everyone to go to college—a longstanding dream of Catholic leaders throughout our history—is [snobbery],” he said.

The solution to today’s divisions is not to try to drive the faithful to one political party or another, or even create a third party that is more uniquely Catholic. Gibson suggested, instead, a revival of the “politics of personalism” of the sort that Pope John Paul II practiced.

“This is a mode of relating, not one particular stance, position or party,” he said. “It would start with a recovery of the virtue of prudential judgment on matters of laws and politics, rediscovering the ability to distinguish what is central and what is peripheral, what is contingent and what is a sort of danger to the faith.”

“An apocalyptic mindset characteristic more of the evangelical world than the Catholic world prevails among many Catholics. In that Manichean world, there’s only good and evil, and nothing between the two.
“When all you have is that kind of a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” he said.

Gibson’s lecture was sponsored by the Department of Theology, the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies and the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Ecucation.