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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why American Catholics Matter

Today’s papers are full of campaign-style coverage of the conclave now solemnly assembled to elect the next Pope. But aside from quotes from a handful of American Cardinals who are in this faction or that (or more importantly, who will speak to American reporters), you’d think the United States and its 60 million or so Roman Catholics are pretty much irrelevant to the whole thing. Apostate Europe is important; so too are those inhabiting the endangered Catholic turf of Latin America and the promising battleground of Africa. But not America.This treatment of the papal election is, to put it mildly, in sharp contrast to the U.S. coverage of John Paul II’s legacy in earlier weeks, which insistently focused on the Vatican’s relative indifference to the clerical abuse scandal that has roiled the American Church. And it leads one to think that U.S.-based media are finally tumbling to the truth that We Just Don’t Matter in terms of the immediate future direction of the Catholic Church.That’s why I recommend that those of you interested in that future direction read an impressive piece by Notre Dame church historian John T. McGreevy, just up on The New Republic’s site. His argument, basically, is that to the extent the Vatican pursues or even intensifies John Paul II’s battle against worldwide trends inescapably identified with the U.S.–secularist individualism, capitalist globalization, and a hedonistic popular culture–it must come to grips with what Catholics in the belly of this particular beast should do.I’ve already published my own view that the Catholic Church has decisively cast its lot with the global South (a view that’s beginning to creep into coverage of the papal election), but McGreevy advances the argument to another level. If the universal Church is becoming fundamentally anti-American (despite its tactical alliance with U.S. conservatives on abortion, gay marriage, and Terri Schiavo), are American Catholics doomed to a choice between their own country and culture and Rome? Will U.S. Catholics be pushed into a reverse kulturkampf? And if so, will the flash points be those teachings which discomfit the Left or the Right?This is probably a more fruitful issue to discuss than all the pre-election handicapping about which man will get to wear the Shoes of the Fisherman.

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