While the influence of the Catholic Church is declining in the U.S., the impact of Catholic ideas seems to be on the rise. That is the contention of Joseph Bottum, writing in the Weekly Standard (Jan. 23).
Bottum cites the priest sex abuse scandal and the general low public profile now taken by most American bishops (partly as a result of the scandal) as showing how the church’s institutional influence is in decline. The loss of a distinctive Catholic vote and the loss of a Catholic political base in the Democratic party has also drained the church of its influence.
But at the same time there is a “rising rhetorical influence” of Catholicism, as “its ability to take a moral impulse born from religion and channel it into a more general public vocabulary and philosophical analysis…[has] come to dominate conservative discussions of everything from natural law accounts of abortion to just-war theory,“ Bottum writes.
Many of these Catholic ideas have been aided and disseminated by the political energy of evangelical Protestants, who, like George Bush, are now drawing on aspects of the church’s social teachings. Bottum adds that it is the “shared ideas” rather than appeal to the “shared membership” of Catholicism (such as made by such Democratic candidates as John Kerry when he spoke of his youth as an altar boy) that carries the most impact today.
One gauge of this impact is the way abortion now occupies the center stage of the moral agenda for a wide range of Catholics and other Americans. Bottum adds that it was abortion that generated this new “rhetoric in which to talk about public affairs in a modern democracy. You can see it among an increasing number of journalists and professors. You can see it, perhaps most of all, among lawyers and judges. You can even see it among nominees to the Supreme Court.”