The elections weigh heavily on the hearts of America’s Catholic bishops who gathered in Baltimore last week for their annual meeting. Not only do the bishops remain conflicted about how to contend with pro-choice politicians -a topic on their agenda - but they are also conflicted with their own Catholic colleges and professors, who played a vital role in turning the Catholic vote to Barack Obama.
Despite the Catholic bishops’ clear disapproval of Mr. Obama’s support for abortion rights - including his pledge to sign the Freedom of Choice Act - which would nullify state restrictions on abortions - many Catholics were persuaded that they could vote for Mr. Obama in good conscience. Exit polls show that he won over self-described Catholics 54 percent to 45 percent, better than the 52-46 split among all Americans. He even made inroads with Mass-attending and white, non-Hispanic Catholics.
For that, Mr. Obama has liberal Catholic professors and Catholic colleges to thank. It was Catholic academics who made the argument for Mr. Obama in the media and in lectures to Catholic audiences. Vocal Obama supporters include Pepperdine law professor Douglas Kmiec, a former dean of the Catholic University of America law school; Boston College theology professor Lisa Sowle Cahill; Duquesne law professor Nicholas Cafardi (former dean of Duquesne’s law school); Notre Dame theology professor Cathleen Kaveny; and a St. Peter’s College humanities professor, Jesuit Rev. Raymond Schroth.
The argument: that Mr. Obama will do more than John McCain to reduce abortions by fighting poverty, reforming health care and otherwise helping Americans in need. Mr. Cafardi has gone so far as to claim that “we have lost the abortion battle, permanently” and therefore Catholics should not be swayed by Mr. McCain’s opposition to Roe v. Wade.
In publications ranging from Newsweek to the National Catholic Reporter, the professors openly attacked several bishops for proclaiming Catholic teaching that the right to life - including legal protections for innocent human beings - is a priority over other serious issues like the economy and health care. Mr. Kmiec accused the bishops of “low partisanship” for urging Catholics to vote in conformity to their faith. Mrs. Cahill blamed the church’s shepherds for “damaging [the] rich Catholic faith tradition” and Notre Dame theologian Rev. Richard McBrien laments a “dearth of pastoral leadership” among bishops appointed by the late Pope John Paul II.
Throughout the campaign, several Catholic colleges and universities - including Mount Mercy College and St. Ambrose University in Iowa, St. Louis University in Missouri and Villanova University in Pennsylvania - hosted political rallies and stump speeches on their campuses. At St. Peter’s College in New Jersey, nearly 3,000 people rallying for Mr. Obama were serenaded by a children’s choir from a nearby Catholic school. An election-eve rally at Xavier University in Cincinnati featured performers Mary J. Blige, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Sean “Diddy” Combs urging votes for Mr. Obama.
Nine members of Mr. Obama’s Catholic National Advisory Committee were professors at Catholic colleges, and their peers were generous donors to Obama’s campaign. Professors at the Jesuits’ Georgetown University were ranked seventh among all U.S. colleges and universities in donations to the Obama campaign, totaling $179,000, according to an October analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
So, why the enthusiasm for Mr. Obama on Catholic campuses? “[W]hile most Catholic pro-life groups, bloggers and some media outlets skew to both the theological and political right,” explains columnist John Allen in the National Catholic Reporter, “a substantial share of the Catholic academy, in tandem with other media outlets and a galaxy of peace-and-justice activists, leans to the political and theological left.” Left-leaning academics are nothing new to the United States, but on Catholic campuses their activism can become opposition to the religious truths which Catholic educators are expected to teach and respect.
Sociologist Anne Hendershott documents the decline of the Catholic academy in her forthcoming book “Status Envy,” and a new national survey by the Center for the Study of Catholic Higher Education (www.CatholicHigherEd.org) drives the point home. Theological dissent, contempt for the bishops and the Vatican, capitulation to the “Sexual Revolution,” and imitation of elite universities and their glorification of academic freedom and cafeteria-style curricula produce graduates from Catholic colleges that are far less committed to the moral, social and political values of their predecessors.
But they do share, it seems, the values of Mr. Obama and American pop culture - so much so that pundits have begun to question whether the “Catholic vote” truly exists any more, as the majority of Catholic voters seem to follow social trends. Only a faithful minority adheres to the teachings of the Catholic bishops.
Dissent in the pews is something the Catholic Church has wrestled with for centuries, long before the 2008 elections. The more contemporary challenge is fidelity among Catholic educators and the apparent consequences when professors are in open conflict with the bishops.
Patrick J. Reilly is president and founder of the Cardinal Newman Society.