Catholics and Political Issues: A Diversity of Opinions

Daniel Barrigan, a Catholic Peace Activist, protesting nuclear weapons

He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. – Luke 1: 52

My Name is Mark Neuhengen and I am a double major in History and Religious Studies with minors in Islamic World Studies, Arabic Language and Culture, and Catholic Studies. I decided to name my blog “I will Go to the altar of God” after the opening of the old pre-Vatican II form of the mass. In the context of liturgy, the phrase represented Catholics bringing all that they had to God and the desire to know him more deeply. I believe that the phrase is a useful metaphor for Catholic involvement in the American political system. Similar to how Catholics in worship brought what is good in their lives to God, Catholics bring what they believe is good to the political sphere. I am excited to learn what Catholics brought to our American system and how certain issues divided them. In this first blog, I am going to discuss political issues that are important to me and to Americans of generations past. This will be followed by a discussion on Catholic opinions on these issues.

People can look at the world and feel a sense of injustice. There is always a political issue or social injustice that we feel should be corrected. I am  not the exception. There are many things that one can get fired up over in our world, but there are three issues that spark my passion. The first issue is Capital Punishment and torture. In my opinion, there is no other issue that gets to the center of the moral character of a nation than these issues. Do we believe that the government has the authority and the clear outlook to end someone’s life? Do we think that our government should put people through unspeakable pain for a higher goal? These are questions that a nation has to ask itself.

Closely connected to that issue is the idea of nuclear weapons. We currently live in a world where a handful of countries have the capability to annihilate all human life on the planet. the ownership and maintenance of these weapons bring up more ethical questions. Should nations be allowed to have such fire power? How does society exist in world with such weapons constantly threatening us? How do we think and remember the victims of nuclear weapons. The third issue for me is access to education and literacy. I am a firm believer that ignorance is the cause of many ills in the world. If we could only experience the lives of others, we might be able to become more human to each other. One way to do this is through education. By having people read and learn about our collective humanity, we might be able to understand each other better.

The Catonsonvile Nine, A group of Catholic Peace Activists, burn draft cards

I believe that the political issues that were important to Americans of prior generations change depending on the era. For example, the Americans of the late 1960’s were concerned about the American war efforts in Vietnam. Forty years later, many Americans were divided regarding the American invasion of Iraq. These are just two examples of issues that people were concerned about. It would take a book to write out every issue that was important to Americans throughout history.

When it comes to the Catholic vote on these issues, I believe that there might be a divide between the official teaching of the Church and the laity at large. Regarding my first issue, capital punishment and torture, the Vatican has been vocal on condemning both. Because of this official condemnation, I believe that many Catholics would vote against these measures. There is evidence that not all Catholics share Rome’s opinion. For example, the current Catholic governor of Nebraska Pete Ricketts has largely ignored Pope Francis’ recent labeling of the death penalty as inadmissible. I also believe that Catholic opinions on torture might learn more negatively, but there are still people within the Church who support it.

Catholic opinions on nuclear weapons might be more complicated. There is a historic precedence of Catholics such as Father Dan Barrigan building their ecclesiastical careers on an opposition of nuclear weapons. Pope Francis has also condemned the use of such weapons. There was also a community of Jesuits living in Hiroshima when the bomb went off. In a religious world view that values life above other characteristics, it makes sense that the Catholic Church would be opposed to a weapon that can annihilate all life on the planet. Regardless of the official teaching of the church, I can understand that there might be a group within the church that understands Nuclear weapons value in defending the nation. Once again, the issue is a controversial one with no easy solution.

I believe that Catholic opinion on education and literacy is more clear cut. With a history of Catholic schools, the Roman Catholic church advocates for people to learn about the world and the ideas that fill it. The controversy among Catholics and education may involve how that education should function. Should Catholic schools receive federal funding? How much control should the government have regarding what is taught in Catholic schools? Catholic voters would have different opinions depending on their priories and the extent that they believe in the justness of the issue.

In regards to how Catholics voted on historical political issues, I believe that it differed depending on the issue. Whether it was Vietnam, Iraq, or any other controversial topic, one can always guess that the Catholic vote would be the result of many different factors. I believe that the greatest factor that one has to consider when looking at how Catholics historically voted is the prime motivator for Catholics; life. At the center of Church teaching is the idea that life is sacred and should be protected and nurtured. How this idea manifests in the world may differ from person to person. For example, a Catholic in 1965 might argue that the U.S. was protecting life by going to war with North Vietnam. A different Catholic might have said that such an effort would only cause more harm and destruction. While both Catholics have the same end goal, advocating for life, how that vote manifested was different.

The Catholic church and American politics is a complex subject matter with many different dimensions. I am excited this semester to come to a deeper understanding of the issues that Catholics fought for and against during the Great American century.

A 1926 anti-Catholic cartoon from the KKK


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