GOP Catholics

Richard P. McBrien

March 02, 1992|By Richard P. McBrien

PATRICK Buchanan's strong showing in the New Hampshire primary was in sharp contrast to the outcome of the feeble write-in effort on behalf of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Personally and politically, Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Cuomo are miles apart. One is an abrasive and ideological right-wing Republican, given to blunt, bellicose pronouncements; the other a careful and pragmatic liberal Democrat, given to art fully structured and delicately balanced prose.

But the two do have something in common. Both are in their 50s and both are practicing Catholics, formed and nurtured in the same pre-Vatican II church. And yet even here the two are as night and day.

Mr. Buchanan was raised in a home dominated by an opinionated, politically reactionary Irish father, whose heroes included Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

In some families, children rebel against that sort of pressure and stake out a position at the opposite end of the spectrum. Not so in the Buchanan household.

The same jut-jawed spirit infused the family's religious attitudes as well. America was first, and so was the one and only "true church."

The Buchanan version of Catholicism mirrored that found in many contemporary Irish-American homes: militant and tribal. Especially the last. "Us" against "them." Catholics against Protestants. And everyone else.

Catholics always had the advantage in this ongoing battle because they had a direct pipeline to God via the pope and the sacraments. If you followed the rules, you won the game. If you broke the rules, you lost.

Striving for salvation was like running an obstacle course with all sorts of hidden traps, known as "occasions of sin." Victory came to those with the right combination of prayers, devotional exercises (like Mass and communion on nine consecutive first Fridays of the month), and private bargains with God ("If you let me have this, I'll do that for you").

Change in the church was as unthinkable for the Buchanans as change in the 24-hour day or the seven-day week. Catholicism was the way it was because God ordained it so.

But change came with Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. Out went the Latin Mass. Out went the antipathy toward Protestants. Out went the unchallenged autonomy of the clergy. And out went the spiritual autism that had insulated so many Catholics against the obligation to work for social justice, human rights and peace.

The Buchanans, and many Catholics like them, have never adjusted to those changes. Their Catholicism is still the Catholicism of the 1950s, and so is their hard-line politics: anti-communist (now taken away like the Lord from the tomb), anti-foreigner, anti-feminist, anti-gay, anti-Semitic, anti-black, anti-poor.

When Pat Buchanan needs to win votes, as in New Hampshire and Maryland, he's not beneath speaking like a populist. But when he's addressing fellow conservatives, he still preaches the old-time religion. Just the other day, for example, he assured a group of cheering right-wing Republicans in Washington that, if elected president, he would yank out, "root and branch," every affirmative action program from every office of the federal government.

Take that, you blacks, women and Hispanics.

Mario Cuomo was raised during the same time as Pat Buchanan, but in a very different way. His father wasn't a professional man, as Mr. Buchanan's father was; he ran a small neighborhood grocery store.

There wasn't much time for political and ecclesiastical discussion at table. Papa Cuomo and his wife were working every waking hour just to eke out a living for their family.

The Cuomos didn't have much to say about Franco or McCarthy. The Catholic values they passed along to their children didn't have political name-tags on them: honest hard work, concern for others, love of family, openness to all.

Mario Cuomo learned from his parents that, as was quoted in "Diaries of Mario M. Cuomo": "God did not intend this world as a test of our purity but, rather, as an expression of his love. That we are meant to live actively, intensely, totally in this world and, in so doing, to make it better for whom we can touch, no matter how remotely."

Mr. Cuomo's political liberalism came from a different stream -- the mainstream -- of Catholicism than did Mr. Buchanan's conservatism. Mr. Cuomo cares about the poor, the homeless and minorities because such caring is central to Christianity.

St. Francis of Assisi, not Francisco Franco, is what being a Catholic is all about. Concern for others. Compassion for the powerless. Self-sacrifice for those in need. Peace-making, bridge-building, fence-mending.

In this version of Catholicism, there are no slammed doors, no snide put-downs, no I'm-up-pull-the-ladder contempt toward those below.

Pat Buchanan doesn't merely deplore the disappearance of the Latin Mass. He deplores the disappearance of a Catholicism that validated self-righteousness, indifference and even a good fist fight now and again.

Mario Cuomo may have finished out of the money in New Hampshire, but only his vision of Catholicism and public service, not Mr. Buchanan's, has the legs to go the distance.

Richard McBrien is a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame and former chairman of its theology department. He has written extensively on matters relating to the Catholic Church.

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