We all know what a “Kennedy Catholic” is.

For decades our country has been treated to a slew of Catholic politicians, mostly Democrats, who tell us how pious they are, how much they love praying the rosary, and how much their Catholicism shapes who they are and how they see the world.  They then turn around and promote abortion on demand, speak to Planned Parenthood gatherings, advocate gay marriage, label promoters of real marriage as bigots, and generally promote immoral policies that weaken families and culture.  In the view of these Catholics, the Church’s teachings should not play any role in the public sphere–with the possible exception of “social justice” teachings that can be manipulated to seem supportive of the latest effort to trap the poor in yet another layer of dependency.  Vice President Joe Biden, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator John Kerry, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the pro-abortion majority of Catholics in Congress can be counted on to consistently oppose the Church’s teaching on non-negotiable moral issues all fit this mold.

This particular brand of political Catholicism traces its origins to President John F. Kennedy.  While running for President, Kennedy gave a speech to Baptist ministers in Houston, Texas, in which he said that he believed in an America “where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source…”  Though relatively restrained when compared to much of what we hear today from the secular left, this statement undoubtedly contributed to a world where the majority of Catholics in Congress are pro-abortion.

The public policy results of “Kennedy Catholicism” have been a disaster.  But for the last half century Kennedy Catholicism has remained virtually unchallenged as a model for Catholics in public life. Is there any way out?

True, the pro-life movement has been significantly shaped by Catholic moral teaching and has produced some great Catholic political champions, such as the late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL). And as the Democrat Party has drifted further and further to the left, and as it has more and more tightly embraced secularism and rejected religious input in the public sphere, we have seen an increase in the number of faithful Catholics in the political arena who have bravely vote as their faith requires on moral issues and who have not been afraid to weave their Catholic identity and their public identity together.  Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), Governor and former Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), and Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) have been good examples of this promising trend.  Locally in Cincinnati, we have been lucky to have been represented in Congress by Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), a pro-life hero whose votes and positions on the issues are consistent with his Catholic faith on a range of issues from life to marriage to subsidiarity.

At the same time, Catholic public intellectuals like Father Richard John Neuhaus and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput have done important intellectual and theological leg work by articulation a coherent and persuasive vision for how the Catholic faith can and should play a role not just in public life, but in the life and decisions of individual Catholic politicians.  In his excellent book on this topic, Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, Archbishop Chaput wrote:

People who take God seriously will not remain silent about their faith. They will often disagree about doctrine or policy, but they won’t be quiet.  They can’t be.  They’ll act on what they believe, sometimes at the cost of their reputations and carers.  Obviously the common good demands  respect for other people with different beliefs and a willingness to compromise whenever possible.  But for Catholics, the common good can never mean muting themselves in public debate on foundational issues of faith or human dignity.  Christian faith is always personal but never private.  This is why any notion of tolerance that tries to reduce faith to a private idiosyncrasy, or a set of opinions that we can indulge at home but need to be quiet about in public, will always fail.  As a friend once said, it’s like asking a married man to act single in public.  He can certainly do that–but he won’t stay married for long.

[Page 10, 2008 hardcover ed.]

But as promising as these trends are, none of these Catholic men and women have had a sufficiently prominent role in the political world for the average voter pays attention to their articulation of an intellectual alternative to Kennedy Catholicism.

In other words: none of them have run a serious presidential campaign.

Until now.  (Almost.)

As ronkozar already pointed out, presidential candidate Rick Santorum is an orthodox Catholic whose Catholic faith clearly shapes his personal life, his political views, and the entire way he sees the world.  (See his book, It Takes A Family: Conservatism and the Common Good, which I am reading now.)  As someone who has admired Senator Santorum for years, I have been surprised by Santorum’s staying power in the GOP primaries but not by his clear commitment to principle, especially with regard to his defense of life, marriage, and the family.

At the same time, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is a recent Catholic convert who produced a documentary about Pope John Paul II’s challenge to Communism during his June 1979 pilgrimage to Poland.   While Gingrich’s personal history if certainly not consistent with Catholic moral teaching, his defenders claim his conversion is genuine and deep, and that his remorse is real.  (For a more nuanced view, see this article by Catholic convert Francis Beckwith.)  The New York Times, among others, has written about what Gingrich’s candidacy says about the role of Catholicism in political life.  (Ugh, I feel dirty citing the NYT.)

I am not unrealistic.  I realize that Santorum, the candidate whose views are closest to my own, and who I believe to be an excellent example of what a Catholic can be in the political world, is very unlikely to win the nomination.  On the other hand, I realize that Gingrich would be a less than ideal representative of  what Catholicism in public life should be.  (Note: given Santorum’s probable unelectability, I will likely be voting for Mitt Romney–whose conversion to social conservatism I believe to be genuine, and whose word to govern in favor of life and marriage I trust–in Ohio’s March GOP primary.)

In other words, Santorum and Gingrich are unlikely to be in a position to be the modern-day figure who finally “ends” Kennedy Catholicism.  (After all, there will always be Catholics in political life whose Catholicism is simply a fig leaf or a cultural relic, not a guiding force in their life.)  But maybe Santorum and Gingrich don’t have to be that person.  In the end, what Catholics in America need is not necessarily the election of an orthodox Catholic president, but an environment where Catholic politicians are expected and assumed to be Santorums, not Kennedys.

I think the Santorum and Gingrich candidacies suggest, however humbly, that we are moving in that direction.  Maybe slowly, maybe haltingly, but…surely.

So…Cincinnati Catholic politicians: it’s time to step up.

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