On the morning President Bush nominated Samuel Alito to become the fifth Catholic on the Supreme Court, I was sitting on an airplane next to a joke-teller, one of those people whose idea of travel is the chance to pass along to strangers all the latest gags. "So," he began, patting his jovial belly, "have you heard this one? A doctor, a lawyer, and a priest are on a ship when it hits a rock and begins to sink. 'What about the women and children?' the doctor worries as the three pile into the only lifeboat. 'Screw the women and children,' the lawyer replies. 'Do you think we have time?' asks the priest."
This may be the best time in American history to be a Catholic, and it may also be the worst: a moment of triumph after 200 years of outsiderness, and an occasion of mockery and shame. It is an era in which a surprisingly large portion of the nation's serious moral analysis seems to derive from Catholic sources. But it is also a day in which Monsignor Eugene Clark — an influential activist and Fulton J. Sheen's successor as rector of New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral — can be named an adulterer in a divorce petition and photographed checking into a hotel with his hot-panted secretary, to the weeks-long titillation of New York's tabloids: "Beauty and the Priest," ran the headline in the Daily News. Catholicism is the most visible public philosophy in America, and the Catholic Church is a national joke.
That's not necessarily a contradiction. Indeed, there might even be a connection between the rising rhetorical influence of Catholicism and the declining political influence of the Church. Since its founding, the United States has always had a source of moral vocabulary and feeling that stands at least a little apart from the marketplace and the polling booth — from both the economics of capitalism and the politics of democracy that otherwise dominate the nation. For much of American history, that source was the moral sense shared by the various Protestant denominations, and it influenced everything from the Revolution to the civil-rights movement.
Somewhere in the last 50 years, however, the mainline Protestant churches went into catastrophic decline. The reasons are complex, but the result is clear. By the 1970s, a hole had opened at the center of American public life, and into that vacuum were pulled two groups that had always before stood on the outside, looking in: Catholics and evangelicals.
Their meeting produced one of the least likely alliances in the nation's history, and it can be parsed in dozens of different ways. "Evangelicals supply the political energy, Catholics the intellectual heft," the New Republic claimed this month as it attempted to explain the Catholic ascendancy on the Supreme Court. That explanation is, as Christianity Today replied, mostly just a condescending update of the Washington Post's old insistence that evangelicals are "poor, uneducated, and easy to command." But the New Republic was at least right that the rhetorical resources of Catholicism — its ability to take a moral impulse born from religion and channel it into a more general public vocabulary and philosophical analysis — have come to dominate conservative discussions of everything from natural-law accounts of abortion to just-war theory.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy won 87 percent of the vote of Mass-going Catholics, but it has been a long time since Catholics achieved that kind of electoral unity. Indeed, there's an interesting question whether the leading evangelicals would grant Catholicism its current role if Catholics still had the kind of ethnic-voter unity they used to show. We may be seeing the emergence of one of those uniquely American compromises: A Catholic philosophical vocabulary is allowed to express a moral seriousness the nation needs, on the guarantee that the Catholic Church itself will not much matter politically.
The Catholic clergy's particular sins, especially against children, produced a shame that is deep and well-deserved, and through their class-action suits, the victims are about to strip away the endowment left by five generations of ethnic believers. The bricks-and-mortar Catholicism of the last hundred years — the intense desire of all those hard-working immigrants to build a visible monument of parishes, schools, hospitals, and orphanages — may well have disappeared by the time the total damage is calculated.