“And Kennedy cut that wall down,” Dr. Mazzenga said.
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” the soon-to-be president said in a poignant address to the all-Protestant Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September of 1960, “where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”
With his emphatic embrace of liberalism, he laid those hoary ideological objections to Catholicism to rest; with his sophisticated comportment and demeanor, he slew the remainder. Catholics could present themselves for election to public office without suspicion, and they could confidently call themselves members of the white middle class.
“Capturing the presidency was putting the cherry on top of this movement into the American middle class,” Peter Cajka, assistant teaching professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, told me. Since then, he said, “Catholics have become more assimilated into middle-class American whiteness, losing their ethnic base.” Thus they became, with some exceptions, indistinguishable from white, Protestant America. In other words: They got exactly what they asked for.
“One of the things that I have found interesting over the years,” Greg Smith, associate director of religion research at the Pew Research Center, told me, “is that if you look at Catholics’ opinions about a variety of political issues, what we see very clearly is that Catholic partisans tend to express opinions that are more in line with the positions of their party than the positions of their church.” When it comes to abortion, Republican Catholics favor bans in most or all cases; where it comes to an expanded border wall, they’re very supportive. The reverse applies for Catholic Democrats, though Pope Francis has spoken emphatically against abortion and in favor of migrants and refugees. Mr. Kennedy’s speech in Houston was prescient indeed: No prelate, dead or alive, seems capable of influencing American Catholics’ politics now.
Indeed, censure by official church figures means little to Catholic politicians of either party. In 2012, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published several letters it had written to the heads of congressional committees, calling upon Congress to heed the tenets of the faith in shaping the federal budget for 2013 — specifically, to refrain from slashing funds for food stamps and other welfare programs. Representative Paul Ryan, a vocal Catholic, misrepresented and then ignored them. In 2008, Bishop John Ricard wrote an open letter to then-Senator Biden to question, in the gentlest terms, whether he ought to receive communion given his opposition to abortion restrictions. Bishop Ricard was joined by a number of other bishops in short order, and Mr. Biden was refused communion as recently as last October for that very reason. As in the case of Mr. Ryan, none of it has changed a thing.
And this is as much a result of what those hopeful Catholics of 1960 gained as what they lost.
The Catholic right has hasn’t lost political purchase — on the contrary, several wealthy, right-wing Catholics are vocally supportive of Mr. Trump, including Kenneth Langone, the billionaire behind The Home Depot, and Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza. All five justices in the conservative majority of the Supreme Court were raised Catholic.
It’s just that the Catholic right is no longer recognizably Catholic. Its politics are more or less identical to those of the other members of the right-wing Christian coalition. A Pew poll conducted in August found that roughly 60 percent of white Catholics plan on voting for Donald Trump — identical to the number of nonevangelical white Protestants who plan to vote for him.