Catholics and Democrats in Chicago: Hanging on for Dear Life

Why is it that many Chicago Catholics support a political party and vote for candidates who advance policies opposed to their faith? Furthermore, how is it possible to be a faithful Catholic and a Democratic politician in Illinois?

A drive through the old, immigrant neighborhoods of Chicago will show what has happened to both party and church over the past fifty years. On that drive you will see that the Catholic immigrants to Chicago built beautiful, European-style churches that are now mostly abandoned. The sons and daughters of those immigrants have moved to the suburbs, leaving behind the worn-out furniture and ideas of their parents.

The old patronage workers who kept the Chicago Democratic Machine humming along and remain in the city must wonder what went wrong. They voted Democratic and went to Mass every Sunday their whole life, only to see the Party and the Church turn against their beliefs. On top of that, even their pensions are now being threatened.

There is more needed to an answer our questions than just a drive through the old neighborhoods. David Hume tries from another point of view to answer the question, "Why are Catholics Democrats?" He writes, "...the rise of the Democratic party as we know it was to a great extent concomitant with the first waves of Irish Catholic immigrants to Northern cities."

"The historical details of this are well known... (and) the ties still are operative. According to the exit polls, last fall Barack Obama won 47% of white Catholics. He only won 34% of white Protestants..."

Perhaps this difference in percentages can be explained by remembering that the high point for Church/Party relations in Chicago was the election of a Catholic as president of the United States in 1960.

Kennedy was the ideal for many Catholic Democrats in Chicago. "...(he) was born into a rich, politically connected Boston family of Irish-Catholics... Kennedy was the youngest person elected U.S. President and the first Roman Catholic to serve in that office... The promise of this energetic and telegenic leader was not to be fulfilled, as he was assassinated near the end of his third year in office."

After Kennedy, it was the civil rights movement and its evolution in Chicago that set the tone for today's Chicago politics. Although there is debate over where Barack Obama was born, there is no doubt that Chicago Democrats were his political parents.

The Catholic Church in Chicago, with its base of working-class, European parishioners was overwhelmed by the events of the Civil Rights movement. The Church hierarchy decided to follow the Democrats who preached integration while going along with those parishioners who fled the city and in doing so, caused more racial segregation. The transformation of St. Rita high school and chapel in Chicago, and the destruction of the Englewood neighborhood, remain a classic examples of this duplicity.

Although the Democrats and Catholics who run Chicago, talked about civil rights and social justice, Chicago is still the most segregated city in the nation. This is the case, after more than 50 years of civil rights agitation.

Catholics in Chicago abandoned blacks while at the same time embracing the symbolism of civil rights. The data show that blacks are not converting to Catholicism in Chicago. Nor are Catholics sending missions to the black community in the city.

"About 24% of all Americans identify themselves as Catholic, but in the black community... just 3%, or 3 million Americans, identify themselves as both black and Catholic. Further, just 250 of America's 40,000 priests and only 16 of the 434 bishops in the United States are black."

Seen in retrospect, the civil rights movement in Chicago has been a sugarcoated lie for the sake of keeping political power. Now, the lie will be repeated soon with illegal aliens from Mexico, who are expected to fill the pews of abandoned churches and vote for Democrats in Chicago.

Over the span of 50 years the Democratic Party and the archdiocese arrived at a mutual understanding. Each would protect and support the other. Each would deal with scandals and corruption by looking the other way. The sheepskin of civil rights hid the wolf of minority segregation.

As the Church became more insular, the Democrats became more liberal. The passage of same-sex marriage in Illinois demonstrated the price the Church paid for the marriage of convenience between Catholics and Democrats.

In spite of this duplicity, many Democrats like those in the group "Catholics for Obama" still believe that the most anti-Catholic president in U.S. history is something other than what he is. They claim, "Americans are weary of being pitted against one another over issues of race, disparity of wealth, and religion...Obama has made bringing Americans together to solve common problems the central theme of his campaign..."

The truth is that after Obama's reelection, "...reality bites once again... in 2012, America remains more divided than ever in terms of wealth, in terms of values... and in terms of tribal identity politics." The mystery of transubstantiation seems more believable than the Catholics for Obama's hope that the president will turn the water of division into the wine of community.

Given the connections between Democrats and Catholics, how will Chicago- area Catholics vote in the next election? In the last election, many Catholics had the moral responsibility to choose between the lesser of two evils, and they chose the greater evil. They voted into office an enemy of the Catholic Church. Will they do the same again?

In this regard, Bishop William Lori (not from Chicago) reminds us, "The question to ask is this: Are any of the candidates of either party... standing for something that is intrinsically evil, evil no matter what the circumstances? If that's the case, a Catholic... shouldn't be voting for such a person."

Perhaps an analogy may be the best way to explain, going forward, the future relationship between the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party. Imagine that the Church and Party hang between heaven and hell. The Church grasps with one hand the hook of heaven, and in the other hand holds on to the Democratic Party: from Gov. Quinn, to Speaker of the House Madigan to Rep. Moylan, the Church tries to lift them up.

The Party, however, holds on to the Church with one hand while in the other hand, it holds on to the lead weight of corruption and lies. Both Church and Party seem to be hanging on for dear life. What are they to do?

The Party can let go of the weight that pulls it to ruin, and hold on to the Church with both hands. Yet, to do so means a loss of political power, the Party's only reason for being.

The Church can let go of the hook of heaven, as well, and sink with the Party into a lake of fire, or it can let go of the Party and hold on to its beliefs with both hands.

The weight of habit, like the force of gravity, is hard to overcome. The habit Chicago Catholics have of voting Democratic, and the habit the Church's hierarchy has of going along with the Irish Catholic core of the Democratic Party in Illinois will be difficult to break.

Conservative and moderate Catholics in downstate Illinois may not be able to lift the weight of habit among Catholic voters or Democratic politicians in Chicago. The passage of same-sex marriage in Illinois is a sign of the leaden, downward tug to come.

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