By Frank Bruni
NOTE: This commentary was first published March 19, 2012, by the New York Times.
If Catholicism is measured by obeisance to the pope, his cardinals and the letter of Vatican law, then Rick Santorum is the best Catholic to ever get this far in presidential politics.
He doesn’t just oppose abortion as a private matter of personal conscience. He has made that position a defining crusade.
He hasn’t just been fruitful and multiplied. He has promulgated the church’s formal prohibition against artificial birth control, yanking this issue, too, into the public square.
On homosexuality, premarital sex, pornography and more, he doesn’t just take his cues from church dictums. He trumpets that alignment as a testament to the steadfastness of his devotion, the integrity of his faith.
And for this he has been rewarded with a truly noteworthy level of Catholic support.
Noteworthy because it’s so underwhelming.
Exit polling suggests that he lost the Catholic vote to Mitt Romney, a Mormon, by 7 percentage points in Michigan and by 13 in Ohio. These weren’t isolated cases. In primary after primary, more Catholics have gravitated to Romney than to Santorum (or, for that matter, to Newt Gingrich, a Catholic-come-lately who collaborated with his third wife to make a worshipful documentary about Pope John Paul II).
This is a hurdle that Santorum must overcome to win the primary in Illinois, whose population is about 30 percent Catholic. And it’s yet more proof of most American Catholics’ estrangement from an out-of-touch, self-consumed church hierarchy and its musty orthodoxies.
For months now the adjective Catholic has been affixed to the country’s strange contraception debate, which began when many Catholic leaders took offense at a federal mandate that Catholic institutions provide insurance coverage for artificial birth control.
But most American Catholics don’t share their appointed leaders’ qualms with the pill, condoms and such. These leaders have found traction largely among people — Catholic and otherwise — concerned about government overreach. And the whole discussion has opened the door to plaints about morality from evangelicals, who warm to Santorum more than Catholics do.
American Catholics have been merrily ignoring the church’s official position on contraception for many years, often with the blessing of lower-level clerics. When my mother dutifully mentioned her I.U.D. during confession back in the 1970s, the parish priest told her that she really needn’t apologize or bring it up again. Which was a good thing, since she had no intention of doing away with it. Four kids were joy and aggravation enough.
Despite church condemnation of abortion and same-sex marriage, American Catholics’ views on both don’t diverge that much from those of Americans in general. These Catholics look to the church not for exacting rules, but for a locus for their spirituality, with rituals and an iconography that feel familiar and thus comfortable. In matters religious, as in “The Wizard of Oz,” there’s no place like home, and Catholicism is as much ethnicity as dogma: something in the blood, and something in the bones.
The Catholic hierarchy, meanwhile, keeps giving American Catholics fresh reasons for rebellion. As The Times’ Laurie Goodstein reported last week, lawyers for the church in Missouri have begun a campaign of intimidation against a support group for victims of sexually abusive priests: they’re trying to compel the group to release decades of internal documents.
This may be cunning legal strategy, but it’s lousy public relations and worse pastoral care. Which isn’t any surprise.
I’ve been monitoring and occasionally writing about the church’s child sex-abuse crisis since 1992, and most of church leaders’ apologies and instances of constructive outreach have come about reluctantly, belatedly or with a palpable sense from many bishops and cardinals that they were the aggrieved, victimized ones.
As they complained about excessive media attention, they frequently lost sight of its heinous root: a great many priests molested a great many children, who were especially vulnerable to them — and especially damaged by them — because they called themselves men of God. And for a great many years, church leaders actively concealed these crimes, which continued.
For the church ever to grouse that critics make too much of this, let alone to retaliate against victims and accusers, is galling. But it helps explain the breach between the hierarchy — invested in its own survival, resistant to serious discussions about the celibate culture’s role in child sexual abuse — and everyday Catholics. They’re left to wonder where they fit into their church and how it fits into the modern world.
They don’t really constitute a voting bloc, because their political allegiances reflect income and education as much as creed. That’s a big part of their resistance to Santorum.
But it’s also true that his particular Catholicism isn’t theirs. It’s the hierarchy’s. And his poor performance among Catholics should cause cardinals, bishops and the candidate himself to rethink the way they approach their religion.
Frank Bruni has been an Op-Ed columnist for The Times since June 2011. He has been a White House correspondent and, for The Detroit Free Press, a movie critic. Many of those experiences are captured in his best-selling memoir, Born Round (2009). To visit his blog, click here.