The good news is that Catholicism is back in fashion. Gone are the days when Tony Blair kept his papist sympathies a secret in case people thought he was a “nutter”, or when John F Kennedy insisted that his religion was “not relevant” to his presidential campaign. Across Western Europe and North America, politicians are enthusiastically proclaiming the relevance of their Catholicism. Last month, for instance, the 28-year-old socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won a shock victory in a Democratic primary in New York. She has written of how “Christ came to me”, and says her policy positions on criminal justice are rooted in the Catechism and the Lord’s Prayer.
The bad news is … But you’ve already guessed. On her website, Ocasio-Cortez demands “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion, birth control, and family planning services” and an end to “intolerance and bigotry” against “the LGBTQIA+ community”, preferably involving the threat of legal penalties against the “bigots”. Not quite what you’d find in the Catechism.
Catholics in politics have often been conflicted, uneasy or embarrassed. What’s relatively new is their bold, cheerful embrace of a Catholic identity while remaining at odds with Church teaching. In Germany, there is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, often touted as Angela Merkel’s successor-in-waiting, who belongs to the Central Committee of German Catholics and recently called for the ordination of women. In Canada, there’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has ordered every single MP in his party “to stand up for women’s rights to choose”.
In 2011, when one MP asked how Trudeau’s politics could be squared with his religion, Trudeau said he was “surprisingly upset”. Catholicism, Trudeau claimed, was “an extremely important part” of his political values.
It’s touching, in a way, to see that unorthodox believers still have such affection for the Church. But it will be even easier to shut down Catholic institutions or to sack Catholics from their jobs if orthodoxy is seen as optional. (“My local MP is a Catholic and he supports gay marriage – if you oppose it, it must be out of sheer homophobia.”) And it impairs the Church’s mission when Trudeau and others spread doctrinal confusion.
Needless to say, it’s not just over abortion and same-sex marriage that politicians are in tension with the Church. Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini, for instance, likes to brandish his rosary and swear oaths on the Gospel. But he also makes disturbing comments about migrants and has called for a “cleansing” of Roma from Italy’s streets, saying that “Unfortunately, you need to keep Italian Roma in Italy.” In Britain, we have seen a two-child policy – under which poor families who dare to have three or more children are penalised through the tax system – introduced by one Catholic minister, Iain Duncan Smith, and defended by another, Damian Hinds. There was no protest, either, from Jacob Rees-Mogg, a consistent supporter of welfare cuts including the notorious bedroom tax, and sometimes spoken about as if he was the very model of a Catholic parliamentarian.
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