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Hell is Other Catholics: Review of Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump

Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump. Steven P. Millies. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2018.


There is a familiar English proverb, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” That is the joke behind the title to the recent book published by Steven P. Millies, Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump. Hell is the election of Donald J. Trump in 2016. Millies believes that American Catholics helped pave this road, and he singles out American bishops as the foremen directing the laity to pour and grade the asphalt. What were the good intentions of American bishops? Millies answers that it was their decision to embrace the “culture war” rhetoric of the 1990s and early 2000s to advance the ends of the Church. Not only did this result in a politicization of Catholicism that divided Catholics against themselves, it also came at precisely the time the nation began to learn of the full extent of hierarchical cover-ups or even participation in the sexual abuse of adults and minors. These revelations drove bishops to further their embrace of the culture war in a way that closed discussion in favor of obedience—to the point of denying Catholic political leaders communion for failing to uphold Church teaching. All of this, in Millies’ view, runs contrary to the spirit of the Francis papacy with its call for mercy, dialogue, and compromise.

As one might gather from this summary, the book is not quite what it promises. Millies tells the reader he has written a history of Catholic voters from the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade (in which the Court found that women had a limited right to abortion) until the 2016 presidential race, but only the first half of the book is historical. It covers the years before Roe until the early 1990s. In the second half of the book, Millies criticizes the last twenty years of conservative American Catholicism. The critique does have a historical aspect, as Millies does point to a handful of important events that led to the alliance of conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants on issues like abortion, religious liberty, and the defense of Christian concepts of marriage. However, Millies does not offer an historical account but an unsympathetic ideological reconstruction of these events. As a result, the events Millies identifies seem cherrypicked to amplify the problems he has with First Things or conservative activists like Deal Hudson.

 The first half of the book is a good summary of previous historical scholarship. He chronicles the creation of National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic Conference as separate bureaucracies that were themselves independent of the lobbying arm, the National Right to Life Committee. One can see in these events, occurring during the 1960s and early 1970s, when bishops completed the transition of the older style of personal spiritual shepherding of their diocese to the bureaucratic administration that divided the bishop from the laity with a phalanx of lawyers and professionals—the institutional pretext for treating sex-offender priests as a liability to be managed rather than as violators of canon law that a bishop must try and punish. Unsurprisingly, Millies is strongest when discussing matters surrounding the subject of a previous book, Cardinal Joseph Louis Bernardin, who was Archbishop of Cincinnati from 1972 until 1982 and Chicago from 1982 (elevated to Cardinal in 1983) until his death in 1996. According to Millies, the central dilemma of the Church in a post­-Roe America was whether to engage “the secular world in a dialogue” or confront “secular culture with an ‘authentic’ alternative rooted in traditional doctrine” (65). Bernardin, for Millies, was the one who seemed to have resolved the dilemma best. He remarks:

“As Bernardin learned to his chagrin during the 1976 election, articulated the Catholic position on important issues of the day is not as simple as reciting from the Catechism or even preaching the Gospel. Winning souls does not win votes eventually, but a pastor’s job is not the same as a lobbyist’s. Winning souls is supposed to come first, not winning political battles” (66).

Millies soft-pedals how much influence Bernardin exercised in the American hierarchy. He leaves unmentioned that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops carefully followed Bernardin’s lead, and Bernardin always wanted to make sure that bishops had the ears of public officials. To that end, he focused his attention on Democrats, who had been in the majority for decades, at precisely the time when they were beginning to lose Southerners because of party’s commitment to civil rights. As Millies notes, the bishops hoped that the increasing dependence on northern Democrats, many of whom were Catholic, would mean pushing Democrats to oppose abortion. This effort failed, and the continued efforts at rapprochement led Bernardin to give his famous (or infamous) talk on connection the issue of abortion to other political issues, such as capital punishment and war. Journalists covering the speech began to call it the “seamless garment,” and although Bernardin titled the moral framework the “Consistent Ethic of Life”, the phrase “seamless garment” stuck. Worse, despite Bernardin’s genuine opposition to abortion, the phrase came to signify the weakness of the hierarchy in the face of Catholic Democratic politicians who took up the compromise position of Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, that of being “personally opposed” to abortion but against “legislating morality.” Bernardin and the large number of bishops he influenced had sought a way to resolve the dilemma of preserving moral teaching and political engagement, and they had failed. The “seamless garment” became the ultimate image of that failure.

The second half of Millies book is disappointing. Before explaining what was disappointing, I must give Millies credit for connecting the collapse of episcopal credibility after the sex abuse crisis to the broader failure of the Church to preach Her message. This line of argument should have played a much larger role in the second half of the book; however, Millies’ admiration for Bernardin might have kept him from doing so, as Bernardin proved to have been one of the bishops who accommodated priests committing sexual abuse. While true, Bernardin had also organized a committee to identify abusers, remove them, and hold hearings whenever credible complaints came forward. As laudable as this reform was, the reform itself demonstrates how distant the cardinal had become from governing his own diocese. He and other bishops, it appeared, had decided to emulate the administrative state and defer personal authority over his priests behind committees, hearings, and regulations. I had anticipated precisely this critique given Millies’ view in his acknowledgements that bishops no longer serve their diocese in the way they should. He says, “Much of their time is devoted to tasks that are not really spiritual in any way. That realization came to me as a revelation twenty years ago, as I think it would come to most lay Catholics. The church defines the role of the bishops in three ways—teaching, sanctifying, and governing. Bishops do all three. But day in and day out, even they would agree that governing occupies the bulk of their time” (x). Unfortunately, Millies offers too brief of an account of this problem and resorts, instead, to speculation on conservative Catholic motives and weak, even disingenuous appeals to compromise of Catholic dogma.

To these ends, Millies shifts from a historical approach to a sociological one, with the particular interest in understanding why some Catholics in the Midwest supported Donald J. Trump for president in 2016. He finds the beginnings in the pages of First Things and activism of Deal Hudson to form a coalition of Conservative Catholics and Protestants to support the Republican Party. At first, it seems to succeed, but the efforts collapse in the face of larger forces. To address these forces, Millies appeals to social science to determine what made them suddenly so willing to fight in the culture war as conservatives. He argues that the emerging disagreement on social questions during the 1970s led to a defensive posture among Catholics on questions of group identity. He claims:

“When cultural identity, group identity, or national identity is threatened in some way, a preoccupation with purity, authenticity, and consistency tends to follow. When the identity we have depended on begins to seem uncertain to us, or when those around us seem to be questioning that identity, it becomes natural to begin raising questions about who belongs and who does not” (143).

The passive voice here conceals who is threatening whom and what preoccupations the threatened have, but Millies implies that conservative Catholics are the ones feeling threatened. Who, then, is doing the threatening? Is the threat real? Unhelpful is how Millies positions himself. He includes himself among the Catholics feeling threatened above, but elsewhere he does not. For example, he says, “The lure of the old Catholic ghetto, the sureness about who is outside and who is inside, is powerful in the American Catholic imagination” (146). Earlier, Millies had attributed this division between good and evil to the culture war, but now it seems to be the result of benighted Catholic immigrants of yore. Millies seems to be considering the so-called “white ethnics” of previous generations of immigration, as his references to the Robert P. Jones’ The End of White Christian America indicates (169). Millies arranges his argument to indicate that conservative “white ethnic” Catholics can only be conservative in so far as they long for the old ghettos and fear loss of status. Their beliefs are purely the product of outside forces to which Millies himself appears to be immune. This discussion comes across patronizing and disingenuous. Sociological evidence is helpful for understanding larger trends, but Millies seems to use them as a technique to avoid conservative arguments that the federal government is a real threat to living according to the Catholic faith. Moreover, by the 1990s, American Catholicism had become more complex than the extent of “white ethnic” integration into the mainstream. Hispanic, east Asian, and African Catholics have arrived in large numbers; does he mean to include them among those who wish to live in their ethnic ghettos and fear loss of status, or are these populations invisible to him?

Surprisingly, Millies opposes religious liberty as contemporary bishops have presented it. He refers to Cardinal Francis George, who replaced Bernadin as Archbishop of Chicago, as leading the Church down “a strange path of defining and protecting its religious liberty” (148). Millies does not explain what was strange about George’s view of religious liberty, but Millies’ is plenty strange. He finds the source of American Catholic interest in religious liberty to be the result of Roe, when it really started with the 1634 arrival of English recusants in Maryland and resumed in earnest with the arrival of famine Irish during the 1830s. Moreover, Millies argues that there is “a conflict between the American political tradition and Catholic social teaching” where the American political tradition is “individualist” as evinced by the Declaration of Independence and Catholic social teaching believes persons are “interconnected.” Millies should know better. After all, he refers to Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen in his book but appears unfamiliar with Sheen’s extensive work indicating how to join the American political tradition to Catholic social teaching. Given the revived interest in Catholic integralism, one might suspect he was invoking it to condemn the American founding, but Millies in fact briefly mentions integralism only to condemn it (186).

Millies’ purpose in raising this contrast is to disparage Catholic appeals to religious liberty as a cause for opposing progressive social policy under the presidency of Barack Obama. Instead, Millies argues that Catholics should have happily accommodated the Obama administration’s imposition of contraceptive and abortifacient provision requirements on Catholic institutions. He insists, “The Obama administration granted many religious exemptions, acknowledging and attempting to accommodate the objections of Catholics and others whose religious faiths teach against artificial contraceptives. A ‘war on religion’ was never the point…”  (151). A reader may ask whether the state imposing a definition of marriage contrary to the Church might constitute a “war on religion,” but Millies would accuse the reader, as he does of Cardinal George, of “protecting…constitutional rights over performing corporal works of mercy” (167). By “corporal works of mercy,” Millies does not mean fasting or almsgiving; he means Catholic charities changing their policy on gay adoption.

If religious liberty and the Declaration of Independence are out, what is in? The answer is “dialogue.” What does Millies mean by the term? Millies seems uncertain himself. Rather than the “fixed, rigid” approach of bishops today, Millies wants “real dialogue” that is “full-throated, honest, and sometimes boisterous” and “a dialogue in a way that does not deteriorate into a winner-takes-all struggle” and a “dialogue in the church” that is “different and better than the debate that is had in politics outside of the church” and a dialogue” that “depends on a more open conception of identity” and “a way for people with different perspectives to discover the truth together” and a “dialogue” with participants who do not “think about it as a process of bargaining or negotiating, whittling away at the truth” but a “real dialogue” that “requires two parties to abandon the confidence that they are completely right and to enter a conversation whose goal is to learn…some truth in their discussion” but, of course, “inevitably, both sides will yield some ground” (156, 157). Who is talking to whom? Who is ceding what? Millies refuses to answer directly. The explanation of Pope Francis and synodality is unhelpful and unfortunate, as His Holiness has shown less interest in this approach after the disastrous Amazon Synod and the threats of its abuse in Germany (events that followed the publication of the book).

Finally, the tension between the assurances that no one would “whittle away at the truth” yet both sides “will yield some ground” finds resolution in the subsequence chapter, where Millies admits, “Not every compromise is worth making, of course. But some compromises are worth it. The spirit of compromise holds together a community of people who believe different things” (168). To think otherwise is to belong to “a new insularity” that emerged during the 2004 Bush reelection (when same-sex marriage bans were on state ballots) and now drive conservative Catholics into the arms of right-wing ideologues. In the most baffling passage of the book, Millies offers a conspiracy theory and completely misreads the fissures of conservative Catholic leaders, saying:

Those beliefs never are named by [Steve] Bannon in his presentation at all, beyond their identification with capitalism, which appears, in his telling, to represent the summit of Judeo-Christian civilization. The significance of where capitalism sits in Bannon’s hierarchy of being is not found in how it draws our attention to Bannon’s Harvard Business School education or his background with Goldman Sachs, his apparently sympathy with a certain strain of Catholic social thought (Michael Novak, Robert Sirico) that sees market forces and capitalism as promoting human dignity, or his support for a billionaire presidential candidate. Rather, it is the way Bannon sees those Judeo-Christian values (capitalism) in conflict with Islam as a civilizational threat to our values—again, capitalism—by those who do not share them (174).

These parenthetical asides are Millies’ own opinions and have no corroboration. What the late Michael Novak or Father Robert Sirico have to do with Steve Bannon is held together by their common interest in, evidently, the preservation of capitalism, but Millies has to interpret capitalism into Bannon’s description of “Judeo-Christian values.” The fact is that Novak and Sirico have a commitment to capitalism that came from an Anglo-American revision of Catholic social teaching by way of figures like Lord Acton. They had nothing to do with Bannon, whose appeals are to reactionary figures like Joseph de Maistre and Charles Maurras. If there is some overlap between the pro-capitalism of Novak and Sirico and the reactionary politics of Bannon, then Millies needs to do more than imply it with parenthetical insertions. Is Millies committed to dialogue or not?

There is a desperate need for historical work on American Catholicism from the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council until the abrupt resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. The trouble with writing this history is that there is a strong temptation to write it in a way that favors one’s own views on where the Church should be headed. Millies seems to have given in to this temptation. The closer he comes to the present, the less able he is to control himself, and his book falters as a result. There are glimpses of the book he should have written—the bureaucratization of large diocese, the shift from personal, prophetic authority to professional lobbying, the persistent trauma of the sexual abuse crisis on Church credibility. These are the real subjects for this history, but Millies runs from them as soon as he raises them. And for what? Tortured defenses of surrendering religious liberty to side with the Affordable Care Act? Not even the Democratic Party defends the ACA anymore. Why surrender the birthright of libertas Ecclesia for a spoiled mess of pottage? Talk about the road to hell.

James PattersonJames Patterson

James Patterson

James M. Patterson is an Associate Professor of Politics at Ave Maria University, where his research focuses on religion, race, and American political development. He is author of Religion in the Public Square: Sheen, King, Falwell (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019) and has published academic research in Journal of Church and State, American Political Thought, and Perspectives on Political Science as well as in First Things, Law and Liberty, and Public Discourse.

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