Catholic Identity & Political Conviction


How does Catholic identity inform political conviction? Since the Catholic vote could very well swing the upcoming national election, this is a good question. Without belaboring the obvious, not everyone who claims to be a Catholic has thoroughly embraced the Catholic faith. So, what shape does Catholic identity take?

  1. Nominal Catholics. The Catholic tradition plays a minimal role in how they form their judgment. Their beliefs are formed more by cultural factors than their religious tradition. If you asked them how they came to their political conviction with reference to Faith, they would have nothing to say.
  2. Ideological Catholics. This group is very vexing. They speak the Catholic lingo with passion and some degree of knowledge and awareness. But, their prior (political) ideological convictions determine how they appeal to their Catholic faith. They came to their Catholic faith with an ideological agenda, then they pick and choose elements of their Catholic Tradition that support their political agenda while conveniently putting on blinders to those Catholic elements that don’t support their agenda.

These “cafeteria Catholics” domesticate the Catholic faith. They tame it to fit the rules of their political household. They basically say, “I’m going to take my Catholic faith and shape it and mold it to fit my political agenda.” Ideological Catholics are found in all ends of the political spectrum—conservative to liberal—and probably includes most of us to some degree. Mea culpa!

  1. Conscientious Catholics. A goal to which we should aspire; namely, to embrace Catholic social teaching as a whole and work to have their Catholic faith shape their political attitudes and behaviors. Our faith shapes our political conventions, not visa versa. When the USCCB put out their document on Faithful Citizenship on Catholics and political elections, they’re after this third group.

Regarding the last one, our bishops said our moral precepts and judgments should be shaped by our Catholic faith and should take precedence over our attachment to a particular party. Ideally, our participation should transform the party to which we belong. We should not let party affiliation trump or transform our fundamental moral precepts. We want to avoid the temptation of what the great Protestant theologian Reinhold Neibuhr said, “to make our God the great Sanctifier of what we prefer to do anyway.”


A ‘Moral Revolution’ Against Nukes. Beatrice Fihn (Ex. Dir. Of the Int’l Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, based in Geneva) wrote a piece in the recent issue of Sojourners (August, 2016) in which she says that “It’s impossible to eliminate nuclear weapons and “upgrade” them at the same time.” She makes a very compelling case. The following is a condensed version of her reflection.

“ The International community has agreed that nuclear weapons should be eliminated…

“President Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit Heroshima, Japan, the site of the first nuclear weapon used in war, and his speech there in May was beautifully crafted….However, his words haven’t matched his actions as president.

“Not only have the U.S. and other nuclear-armed states failed to fulfill their commitments to nuclear disarmament, but each is currently pursuing enormously expensive upgrades and modernization programs. These countries are developing new, more-modern nuclear weapons and delivery systems, extending the planned possession of nuclear weapons for decades to come.

“ Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, more than 15,000 nuclear weapons still exist. Nine nations still possess them: the U.S. and Russia have 93% of the world’s nuclear weapons…

“By allowing such a large number of nuclear weapons to remain, the risk of an accident increases. Nearly 1,800 nuclear warheads are kept on high alert, ready to launch within minutes. New research paints a worrying picture of near misses, security breaches, and other events that could cause a catastrophe. Some say that the risk of a nuclear detonation is higher today than at the end of the Cold War.

In Hiroshima, Obama called for a “moral revolution” in order to reach a world free of nuclear weapons. But such a moral revolution will not be led by those who possess these weapons of mass destruction. Instead, the world is witnessing a surge in leadership from around the globe. A new focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons has emerged that looks at these weapons for what they are: indiscriminate, inhumane, and unacceptable.

“ Eliminating nuclear weapons is a task for people all over the world, not just a few selected states. We all have a duty, and a right, to work together towards this goal. The push for a treaty banning nuclear weapons is motivated by a fervent desire to ensure that no one else ever suffers, as the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did from these despicable weapons”


Why Catholics should be proud. Several years ago while attending the Religious Education Congress (REC) at Anaheim, I was dining at a crowded restaurant when a man belted out to his table companions, “I love being Catholic!” How great to feel and say that!

Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, president of DePaul University, reflected last year for America magazine (November 12, 2015) on many reasons why Catholics should be proud of the many services that U.S. Catholic institutions provide for the benefit of all.

  • 1/6 of Americans get their health care from a Catholic institution.
  • More than 1/5 of Americans living n poverty are served by Catholic charities.
  • Catholic schools are the largest provider of private K-12 education, enrolling nearly 1M students. In addition, the national Catholic school graduation rate is 99.4% of high school students. 84.9% of thee graduates of Catholic schools go on to college, compared with 39.5% of public school graduates.
  • The Catholic Church is the largest re-settler of refugees in the country.
  • U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services serves nearly 100M people in need in 93 countries.
  • The Society of St. Vincent de Paul serves over 14M people in need in the U.S. each year.


Most Americans agree with Pope Francis on Controversial issues. A KofC-Marist poll conducted shortly after Pope Francis’ visit to the United States found that the vast majority of Americans agree with him on a host of issues, including controversial ones. The majority of those surveyed agree with Pope Francis that:

  • We should support religious freedom—85% agree.
  • We should be more respectful of the earth and the environment—84% agree.
  • We should support life at every stage of development, including for the unborn—62% agree.
  • We should allow people to opt out of taking actions that go against their religious beliefs—57% agree.
  • We should view marriage as between one man and one woman—55% agree.
  • However, less than half (46%) agree with the pope on opposition to the death penalty.


            The ‘Francis Effect’ on attitudes towards climate change. A report from George Mason University compares national survey results before and after the publication on June 18, 2015 of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si (subtitled On Care for our Common Home) and presents these key findings:

Americans are more concerned about global warming.

  • More agree that global warming is happening—Americans overall from 62% in March to 66% in October; American Catholics from 64% in March to 74% in October.
  • More worried about global warming—Americans from 51% in March to 59% in October; American Catholics from 53% to 64%.
  • More say that the issue of global warming has become very or extremely important to them personally—Americans from 19% to 26%; American Catholics from 15% to 23%.


Parishes without resident priests. The 2015 edition of The Official Catholic Director indicates that there is a significant shortfall between the number of active diocesan priests and the number of parishes in the U.S. Currently, there are 3,448 U.S. parishes without a resident pastor. Most, 89%, are administered by non-resident pastors. 4% of parishes without a resident pastor are entrusted to a deacon, 3% to lay men or women, and 2% to a religious sister.

The dioceses that are impacted most by this shortfall are in the Midwest. The Diocese of Green Bay, WI has 81 parishes without a resident pastor. La Cross (WI) has 55 without, and Superior (WI) has 69. Outside the Cheese state, Dubuque, IA leads the parish pack with 97 parishes without a resident pastor, followed by Sioux City (IA) with 63.

St. Cloud (MN) has 71, Richmond (VA) 40, Rapid City (SD) 56, Springfield (IL) 73, and Winona (MN) 64.

One way the Catholic Church in America has adjusted to this priest shortfall is to consolidate parishes. The number of parishes peaked at 19,705 in 1989. Since that time the Church in the U.S. has reduced its total number of parishes by 2,381 nationally, a decline of 12% even though the total Catholic population has increased substantially during that time.


Reasons for leaving the Catholic priesthood. One reason for the priest shortage is the number of men who left the priesthood during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Twenty-five years prior to Vatican II it was a rarity for someone to leave the priesthood. The annual rate among diocesan priests did not reach one in thousand, according to priest-sociologist Joseph Fichter (SJ). But after Vatican II, priestly resignations skyrocketed over 40-fold to 4% a year. This phenomenon finally stabilized as the number of resignations have down by almost 50% since 1990.

Why they left. The majority left because of their desire to marry (59%). Other reasons include disagreement with Catholic moral teaching (36%), think more in a Protestant manner (29%), disappointment after Vatican II (20%), poor treatment (12%), burned out (5%), and other (10%).


Who are the atheists? The increasing number of people falling into the ‘none/other’ category re. religious affiliation raises the questions about their make-up. The Barna Group, which specializes in studies of evangelical or born-again Christians combines atheists and agnostics into one group, which they call ‘skeptics.’ Skeptics represent 25% all un-churched adults. Nearly 33% of skeptics have never attended a Christian church service in their lives. Their findings show the following demographic trends among them:

  • They are younger. Some 34% are under 30; in contrast, the proportion who are 65 or older is 7%.
  • They’re more educated. 50% of skeptics have a college degree.
  • More are women. In 1993, only 16% of skeptics were women, but 2013 that figure had nearly tripled to 43%.
  • They’re more racially diverse. While 74% are white, 26% come from varied ethnic backgrounds.
  • They’re more dispersed regionally. In decades past, they tended to be concentrated in the Northeast and West. They are now broadly dispersed across all nations.

(cf. “2015 State of Atheism in America,” March 24, 2015, which appeared in The Barna Organization (


Pope Francis on witness and taking a risk. Since the beginning of our Holy Father’s pontificate, I think I’ve read nearly anything he has published: Sunday homilies, Wednesday General Audiences, encyclicals, Apostolic Exhortations, reflections to special groups, etc. But, my favorite ones are his daily Mass homilies given at Domus Sanctae Marthae and his off-the-cuff interviews given on the papal airplane or other venues. These interviews are fascinating because he really speaks what is on his mind in a coherent and compassionate matter. His remarks drive some to distraction, but they are always worthwhile to plug into because they reveal what the Holy Father is thinking in an unedited fashion. Recently, the Pontiff met in the faculty chapel of Villa Nazareth with 70 students in which he talked about ‘witness, martyrdom, poverty, work, family, economy, and refugees (cf. L’Osservatore Romano; 15 July 2016).

Here’s what Francis said about giving witness.

            Question: “Holy Father, we young people need credible witnesses. Sometimes we are at a standstill in life, prey to the illusion of success and to the worship of our own ego, and unable to give of ourselves. How can we reawaken the greatness and the courage of comprehensive choices, of the impulses of the heart in order to face …challenges?”

            FRANCIS: Thank you. A key phrase is: “We young people need credible witnesses”. And this is precisely the logic of the Gospel: to bear witness. With our lives, the way we live, the choices made…But witnesses to what? …We Christians witness to Jesus Christ who lives, who has accompanied us: …in pain; he died for us, but he lives. …The witness that young people seek: it is the witness of the “slap”. The slap is a beautiful daily witness! The one that wakes you up and says to you: “Look, don’t delude yourself with ideas, with promises (such as) the illusion of success, (which is) the worship of one’s ego.

(Secular culture encourages us to) look at ourselves, one’s ego. That’s what the narcissism of today’s culture offers us. And when we have not witnesses, perhaps life goes on fine for us, we earn well, we have a profession, a nice workplace, a family…but you used a very powerful phrase: “We are men and women at a standstill in life.”   In other words, people who do not walk, who do not move. Like conformists: everything is a habit, …(which) leaves us calm, we have what is necessary, we lack nothing, thanks be to God….How do we reawaken the greatness and the courage of comprehensive choices, of the impulses of the heart in order to face “academic and emotional challenges?” The phrase I use very often is: take a risk! Take a risk. Whoever does not risk does not walk. But what if I make a mistake?

Blessed be the Lord! You will make more mistakes if you remain still, stagnant: that is the mistake, a bad mistake, closure. Take risks. Risks for noble ideals, risks that soil your hands as the Good Samaritan did. When we are more or less calm in life, there is always the temptation of paralysis, to avoid taking risks: to be calm and quiet….”How can we reawaken the greatness and the courage of comprehensive choices,” you asked, “the impulses of he heart in order to face academic and emotional challenges”?

Approach the problems, go out of yourself and take risks, take risks. Otherwise your life will slowly become a paralyzed life; happy, content, with the family, but at a standstill there…It is very sad to see a life at a standstill: it is very sad to see people who seem more like mummies than living beings. Take a risk! Take a risk. And if you make a mistake, bless the Lord. Take a risk. Move forward! I don’t’ know, this is what came to mind to say to you.

Compiled by Deacon Jim McFadden





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