This doesn’t surprise me at all. Catholic voters seem to view Rick Santorum the same way they view the Catholic hierarchy in general – with indifference. Romney trounces Santorum among Catholic Republicans. Less than half of Catholic Republicans even knew Santorum shared their faith.
That’s probably because their faith teaches them such different things than Santorum’s. The Catholic Church’s leadership is more interested in its crusade against sexuality than in its members. But Catholics are willing to forgive their leaders such peccadilloes. Sexual frustration doesn’t come without some consequences, and American Catholics are nothing if not patient with their hobbled priests and bishops.
The church is not a democracy, as it repeats endlessly. And that is an important point to keep in mind. The church leadership can take even the most extreme stands, and not have to worry much about consequences. It is easy for Catholics to ignore church teachings, and live their lives according to a more reasoned, personal morality, and the dictates of conscience. Church teachings are ultimately advisory.
But civil laws are not. When Catholics back away from Santorum, it is because they seem to understand the separation of church and state in a far more sophisticated way than Santorum and their church leaders do. The government really can ban abortion and contraception, and crack down on same-sex relationships and many other things. The only checks on government power are found in the constitution, and if a candidate is promising to change even that, political ambition can exceed the authority of any church in the modern world.
I say “ambition” because some constitutional changes are simply beyond the reason of the American people – such as a ban on contraception. Even Santorum seems to realize that political reality.
But Americans in general, and American Catholics in particular, demonstrate a moral generosity that exceeds that of their leaders on issues like same-sex marriage and even a secular right to abortion. And lay Catholics seem to recognize that other Americans don’t always have that same compassion and respect for the opinions of others. That is why they cannot back Santorum. He takes the bishops too seriously, and is appealing to people whose views are aligned with the worst, not the best of their church’s morality.
The rejection of Santorum by Catholics is the mark of the vitality of American Catholics. They demonstrate the cardinal (you should pardon the pun) virtue of a democracy, respectful dissent. By prohibiting that dissent among its leaders, the Vatican ultimately inspires, and even encourages individual moral reasoning and sometimes resistance among its members.
Santorum’s Vatican-approved anti-sexual crusade has little appeal among his fellow worshippers, but there will always be some zealots somewhere fervent to light a torch. What are a few doctrinal differences among voters?
Santorum’s only headache — and ours — -is that he’s not running a church, he’s running a campaign.