‘Universal’ Appeal: Catholicism Offers Democrats, Biden the Moral Framework They Need

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For being a political party rather than a church, the Democratic Party is still quite capable of channeling the adage that a group can be looking for heretics or converts, but never both at once. Following the down-ballot disappointments of 2020, many Democrats lapsed into heretic hunting mode, even as they sought to broaden their appeal. In the House, both Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), leader of the progressive Squad, and Conor Lamb (PA-17), the veteran and moderate from Trump country, vented to the New York Times about whether it was the party’s failure to center progressive ideas or the perceived radicality of those ideas (e.g. “defund the police,” “socialism”) that most harmed the party.

Party isn’t the only affiliation these two emerging voices, both in their 30s, share. Like a full one third of Congress and Joe Biden himself, both are Catholic. This is not some trivial demographic detail. It’s a shared frame of reference for engaging the world, complete with a well-developed — and progressive by U.S. standards — view for reimagining society’s structures, one that is at least vaguely familiar to 70 million Americans. This could offer Democrats a path to deliver substantive change, heal their party, and build a durable coalition.

As we inaugurate the second Catholic US president, it’s worth noting that candidate Biden spoke insistently of “a battle for the soul” of the country to describe the current moment, recognizing the religious lens through which many Americans view their values. In his recent encyclical, Pope Francis called the current moment “a great opportunity to express our innate sense of fraternity, to be Good Samaritans who bear the pain of other people’s troubles rather than fomenting greater hatred and resentment.”

If the Catholicism of AOC, Lamb, and Biden can help accomplish this, it wouldn’t be the first time. A century ago, the “Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction,” formulated in the wake of World War I and the influenza pandemic, outlined vital reforms including senior pensions and unemployment insurance. The document found an outlet when a new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, embraced it to address the crises of his day. The resulting New Deal radically transformed America and forged a coalition that lasted half a century.

AOC is upfront about her desire to affect New Deal levels of reform, even appropriating the label. If that’s the ambition, then it behooves everyone to recognize the bones of the actual New Deal and the happy fact that Catholic social teaching has kept developing through the years — on the dignity of work, racial justice, economic inequality, and even climate change. In just the last year, Francis has endorsed universal basic income (which by itself would make a Biden administration epoch-defining in its domestic policy), urged all Catholics to work to end the death penalty, and called attention to the need that tech developments “always be joined to the common good.” It’s no wonder that none other than Bernie Sanders has repeatedly praised Pope Francis.

Discussions of internal tensions among the Democrats suffer from an unfortunate flattening, with progressives pitted against an “establishment” described as both moderate and centrist. This fails to capture the full reality and the needed realignment. The term “centrist” is associated with Bill Clinton’s acknowledgement that Reagan had changed how Americans think and that Democrats needed to work within that new reality. A centrist hasn’t necessarily moved to the center on social issues but is wonkier and less ideological. A moderate, by contrast, is someone like Conor Lamb: a Catholic veteran in a Republican-leaning district who doesn’t drive wedges on social issues or buy into the neoliberal hubris that fueled the inequality that led to Trump.

If that last part sounds progressive, it’s because Lamb and AOC may be at opposite ends of their party’s spectrum, but the spectrum itself isn’t a straight line; it’s a horseshoe whose ends are closer to one another than they are to the centrists back in the bend. The challenge of a Biden presidency will be to move him out from centrism to a place of tension between moderate and progressive ends. It’s time for Joe Biden’s Catholicism and working-class roots alike to shine. The GOP are already speaking of a “multicultural working class” rebrand of their party. It would be a tragedy for them to continue making inroads with Latinos and Black men, policy merits be damned, because Democrats failed to be authentically present to the needs of various communities.

Impediments to this path would include not only a strident secular streak on the left but also reluctance among faith leaders to view the Biden presidency as a chance to make progress. Both the Democratic Party and the Catholic hierarchy cling to a misbegotten overemphasis on abortion in how they relate to the rest of the world. But when even the pope is on the record in favor of same-sex civil unions, we’ve reached a moment of rare potential in terms of alignment. Organizations like Catholic Charities USA and the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice could be conduits for building coalitions around a moral framework. Progressives should recognize the value of working with them.

This will require being gentle as doves and clever as serpents, to recognize the admonition that all are different parts of the same body: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you.’” (1 Cor 12:21) In this case, AOC might be the lungs, breathing fresh ideas into a tired body, and Lamb might be the circulatory system, ensuring that the life-giving oxygen reaches the farthest extremities. Truth and love need to be connected. Lamb loves his neighbors, but in order to do right by them, he needs to deliver structural change. AOC needs moderate allies connected with constituencies like Lamb’s to affect widespread buy-in for change.

A decade ago, the Tea Party, rooted in shallow soil, sprang up quickly and withered in the heat of Trumpism. The caucus accreting around AOC, by contrast, has a shot at tapping into something real and lasting. Young progressives point us toward a better future that will require putting the dignity of the human person at the center of politics and transcending cultural divisions. Catholic social teaching is tethered to people’s lived reality but at the same time casts the loftiest possible vision. Biden must be held accountable. He should resist the temptation to cut corners for powerful interests. He should be faithful, to what he believes and to the people who entrusted him with this mission.

Don Clemmer is a former USCCB communications staffer and editor of the Lexington diocese’s Cross Roads magazine.