Rick Santorum: ‘More Catholic than a conservative’?

View Photo Gallery: Scenes of religious faith meeting politics in the 2012 campaign. What does it mean to be a Catholic … Continued


View Photo Gallery: Scenes of religious faith meeting politics in the 2012 campaign.

What does it mean to be a Catholic politician in America?

Rick Santorum and I talked about this question last May, just as the GOP debates had begun and not long after his 2 percent showing in a conservative group’s straw poll.

Since our nation’s founding, questions of church and state have generated debate. Before the American experiment, European countries split on whether their sovereigns were Catholic or Protestant, and as the ruler went, so did the country, at least officially.

Our founders chose a different path. They gave us legal safeguards to minimize the wars of religion here. The Constitution bars Congress from establishing a religion or prohibiting its free exercise and expressly prohibits any “religious test” as a prerequisite for government service.

Despite these safeguards, controversy often surrounds a candidate’s religious faith and its influence on policy positions or electability, from Mitt Romney’s Mormonism to Mike Huckabee’s evangelicalism to Newt Gingrich’s newfound Catholicism.

Elected officials also find themselves under evaluation for whether their policy positions accord with the doctrines of their declared faith. Catholics such as Nancy Pelosi, Rudy Giuliani, and Ted Kennedy have worked against the official positions of their church on the issue of abortion.

The ensuing debate over whether bishops could deny Holy Communion to these Catholic politicians brought claims that one side was “politicizing the sacrament” while the other was “cooperating in evil.”

In assessing Santorum’s candidacy, Ann Coulter argued that he is “more of a Catholic than a conservative.” Translation: “He’s good on 60 percent of the issues, but bad on others, such as big government social programs.” More to the point: “He’d be Ted Kennedy if he didn’t believe in God.”

Kathryn Jean Lopez thinks Santorum’s success in Iowa marks a new type of Catholic candidate “who refuses to give up the fight on social justice” both in word and deed.

When Santorum and I discussed these issues, he explained his view of John F. Kennedy’s famous speech as a presidential candidate, in which JFK distanced himself from the church and the influence of its clergy, promising instead to rely on the guide of conscience.

JFK proclaimed “absolute” separation of church and state, borrowing from Jefferson. But, according to Santorum, Jefferson intended the “wall of separation” to protect religious believers from the state, not vice versa. Santorum maintains that JFK wrongly saw the wall of separation as protecting government from people of faith.

Locating Jefferson’s “wall of separation” can be difficult. Justice Jackson lamented that judges trying to decide “where the secular ends and the sectarian begins” in public education would probably make the wall of separation “as winding as the famous serpentine walls designed by Mr. Jefferson for the university he founded.”

Santorum argues that politicians “hide” when claiming simply to be “guided by conscience” because conscience must be “formed by something” and no one is “born with a formed conscience.”

One way of assessing a Catholic politician is to compare his national policy positions with the church’s teachings. Another is to ask whether the politician practices his faith in his everyday life.

Today I spoke with someone who knows Santorum and his family very well. He recalled then-Senator Santorum making pancakes at 5:30 a.m. for all the kids at a youth retreat.

When visitors are in his home, Santorum is on his feet, serving guests and making sure everyone is comfortable and well attended. “He is the real deal,” my friend said of Santorum. “He walks the talk.”

Peggy Noonan has written about Santorum’s contentious Senate race six years ago against Bob Casey. She relates an anecdote “too corny to be true, but it’s true.”

Driving on the way to a debate against Casey, Santorum and his wife, Karen, discussed how brutal the campaign had been. Realizing that the campaign must be hard on Casey and his family too, the couple prayed the Rosary for the Caseys. “We pray for the Caseys every night,” Santorum said. “We know it’s as hard for them as it is for us.”

The Santorums married in 1990 and have six living children. Marriage is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic faith. The Santorums’ fruitful, faithful, and influential marriage reflects Catholic teaching on the sacramental nature of marriage and the gift of children. Many Catholic parents find that the work of being parents draws them back to their faith and strengthens their devotion.

A week after leading the Senate debate on a partial birth abortion law, Santorum learned that his unborn son, Gabriel, was going to die. “It was that maelstrom of what we went through with Gabriel,” Santorum recalled, that “profoundly affected me in a way that ultimately affirmed what I was doing, even though we lost our son.”

Republican voters have yet to decide whether Santorum’s Catholic faith is an advantage, a disadvantage, or simply irrelevant. But Santorum would say that he has a “constituency of one.”

He explained it to me in this way: “If you are serving God in your daily work, what you know is right and you are being transparent about what you are doing and why you are doing it, then it is up for the people then to decide.”

Having just finished Iowa within eight votes of first place, Santorum has come a long way from his 2 percent showing last May. Is he too Catholic for conservatives, or a new breed of Catholic politician? Primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina will soon have their say.

Gayle Trotter is a Washington, D.C, lawyer and a writer for First Things.

  • jimkonos

    Santorum wants to preemptively bomb Iran out of fear that they are building a nuclear weapon.

    Last time I checked bombing anyone is hardly a conservative thing to do. He was hesitant in last nights debate when he started to bring up Muslim Extremism and being Politically Correct. That alone disqualifies him in my opinion. He is using his power to send a religious message that will most certainly result in a Crusade against the Muslims. He scares the hell out me!

    A Wise Man Once Said:

    “There is an inherent problem of trying to intermingle religion with politics. The basis of religion is morality, purity and faith, while that for politics is power. In the course of history, religion has often been used to give legitimacy to those in power and their exercise of that power. Religion was used to justify wars and conquests, persecutions, atrocities, rebellions, destruction of works of art and culture”

  • Robroberts2009

    This country was founded on a profound REJECTION of religion. This is what made us great and was the genius of the founding fathers. Any other interpretation is a fantasy, but then again religions are based on fsntasy, not truth or science.

  • amelia45

    One thing to consider about Santorum and his “being Catholic” is how much he reflects how other Catholics live and think. And he doesn’t.

    Over 90% of Catholic women use forms of birth control that the Catholic Church says are sinful. 54% of Catholics support full civil rights for gay couples who want to marry. Santorum may reflect what the bishops and the official church says, but Santorum and the official church do not reflect the thinking of most Catholics. And, to a Catholic, a fully informed conscience may disagree with a Church teaching in a New York minute.

    I applaud the Santorums choice to not use such forms of contraceptives and to have a large family. But unlike Rick and the Catholic Church, I want the use contraceptives to remain a choice. The Catholic Church, under the guise of “freedom of religion” and so-called “conscience rights” wants to deny the right of the individual to make that choice in favor of the institution of the Church forcing that choice on any women who work for any Catholic affiliated organization. That includes the hundreds of thousands of citizens, Catholic and non-Catholic, who work for Catholic hospitals, medical groups, universities, schools, and charities.

    John F. Kennedy understood the difference between the civil sphere and the religious sphere. .As a Catholic, I can tell you the thought of Santorum becoming president of this country fills me with dread, because Santorum doesn’t get it.

  • SamOsborne

    In March of last year the Boston Globe quoted Rick Santorum telling a group of right-wing Catholics that he was “frankly appalled” that America’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, once said “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

    In characterization of Kennedy, Santorum went further by saying “That was a radical statement,” and did “great damage.” And Santorum concluded, “We’re seeing how Catholic politicians, following the first Catholic president, have followed his lead, and have divorced faith not just from the public square, but from their own decision-making process.”

    Santorum may insist that he is a better Catholic then I am and a better man to be president than John F. Kennedy, but just as freely I view him as a religious bigot that neither speaks for me in matters or conscience nor political affairs. And further, were he to gain the power of the presidency by successfully painting the people’s consideration with his brand of religious fanaticism, it would do “great damage” to our land.

    And frankly, in words of comparative disparagement that Lloyd Bentsen directed at Dan Quayle in their 1988 vice-presidential debate, “Rick Santorum, you’re no John F. Kennedy.”

  • DCkyle

    Many of those founders were religious… it is not a document that rejects religion… it is a document that accepts religious diversity. That not everyone has to be of the same faith. England was the enemy at the time and had it’s own Church of England. Don’t make things up for your cause.

  • DCkyle

    You obviously don’t follow your own church’s teachings though. If you do not believe in the beliefs of the church you choose to attend, why go?

  • amelia45

    DCkyle, I do not follow all the teachings of my Church. But, I do believe in the central message of redemption through Jesus and the love God asked us to give to him, our brothers and sisters, neighbors, and the world. There is much that is beautiful in that faith, in the rites of faith, and in the community of faith. I do not believe that God gave me faith and then told me to turn my brain off or to turn it over to someone or some institution to decide for me what is good, right, or holy. I believe the Church can help me discern – but, since the Church is also made of humans, the Church is also fallible. I love my faith enough to stay with it even when it makes mistakes.

  • mikestech

    Santorum certainly is a “new type of Catholic candidate.” As in, one who actually practices Catholicism. Refreshing, for a change.

  • mikestech

    “I do not believe that God gave me faith and then told me to turn my brain off or to turn it over to someone or some institution to decide for me what is good, right, or holy.”

    Umm, actually, that’s exactly what God did.

    Matthew 16:18: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I give you the keys to the kingdom; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

    There’s a name for people who reject the Catholic Church’s authority on moral matters. They’re called Protestants.

  • ccnl1

    Dear Ricky S,

    The Apostles’ Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen

  • Hoops44

    Could you please explain the “disparagement” in Santorum’s comments. Because it is so hard for folks to accept religion as a context for these conversations – let me put it this way.
    If Kennedy had said his intention as President was to:

    “Place a wall between my education and my office”. Or maybe “between my being a man and my office”.
    “So I will make all of my decisions based on the relativity of the situation and bring none of my educational or personal experiences into my decision making”. Had he said that – then people would have thought he was a lunatic.
    Similarly expected compartmentalization of a person’s religion is as ridiculous as your post.

  • Hoops44

    robbie: please read a history book.

  • ThomasBaum

    mikestech

    It is a teaching of the Catholic Church about the primacy of conscience.

    Jesus did say in the verses that you brought up that it was HIS CHURCH, He did not say that the Church was Peter’s, did He?

    Aren’t we all suppose to be “rocks”, living stones in the Church?

    The Church is not “limited” to the confines of the Catholic religion, this is also a teaching of the Catholic Church, is it not?

    Actually, people are the Church, not the dogma, not the teachings, but the people which in a “mystical” way make up the “building” of the Church, living stones, remember?

    By the way, Jesus did not win the keys to the Kingdom, He did not need to win the keys to His Own Place, Jesus won the KEYS to hell and death by what He accomplished by His Life, Death and Resurrection and He will use these KEYS in due time, God’s Time.

    The captives (those in hell) shall be released and the dead (physical and spiritual) shall be released, you have probably heard this verse/s before, haven’t you: “The captives shall be released and the dead shall rise”?

  • ThomasBaum

    God became One of us so that ALL of us will one day be with God in God’s Kingdom, the new heavens and the new earth, whatever that may be.

    God did not become One of us for any of us to attempt to set up a theocracy in God’s Name.

  • Catken1

    If he made decisions that required other people to have the same education or sex as himself to have civil rights, that would have been problematic.
    One can have a devout belief oneself, even be motivated by it, and still recognize that others are entitled to their beliefs and motivations. One can even make all of one’s own life decisions based on one’s own religious belief, and yet recognize someone else’s right to make decisions that one’s own religion deems sinful. Jews, for example, may choose not to eat pork themselves without finding it necessary to ban the sale and consumption of it the moment they reach public office.
    Do you believe that it’s OK for Christians to be required to follow other people’s religious laws in countries where those others are in the majority, because to do anything else would be requiring them to “compartmentalize” their faith?

  • thebump

    An interesting thought, I guess. What pray tell has it to do with this article?

  • thebump

    “And, to a Catholic, a fully informed conscience may disagree with a Church teaching in a New York minute.”

    Uh, no, not in a New York minute. One must first exhaust every effort to reconcile herself. Then if one is unable to give her full assent, she must remain open to the possibility of later overcoming this difficulty with God’s grace and a more mature faith. Therefore, it is incorrect to say that one “disagrees”, but rather that she has “not yet” been able to give full assent.

    Certainly the cavalier (or worse) tone of your comments on basic moral concerns should be deeply troubling.

  • ThomasBaum

    Sometimes we can get so wrapped up in whether or not someone is Catholic enough, Christian enough, whatever enough that God seems to get lost in the shuffle and just what is the GOOD NEWS and just why did God became One of us.

    Also, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that Christianity is only Christianity when it comes from within and that anything referred to as Christianity that is imposed on anyone is not even close to what Christianity is about.

  • mikestech

    ThomasBaum:

    Yes, the church does teach the primacy of conscience, but it also teaches that one must have a properly formed conscience — actually a topic Santorum himself has talked about. Conscience doesn’t mean just doing whatever you think is right. There’s also a responsibility to LEARN what is right, which is what the church is for.

    As for Peter, you are right, it is Christ’s church, but it was founded ON Peter. As in, Jesus gave the authority for running it to Peter, and subsequently to the church.

    As to the keys to the kingdom, it’s actually a reference to Isaiah 22:20, which refers to the king’s keys being given to his prime minister, who had full authority to act in the king’s stead. Christ didn’t win the keys to heaven, you’re right. They’re his, and he freely gave them to Peter.

    You can’t get around the church’s authority if you acknowledge that Christ did found a church.

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