Pence’s Prayer Breakfast Appearance Underscores Fractured American Catholicism

The annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast is hardly a bipartisan or nonpolitical event. It was founded in 2004 as part of an effort to cement ties between conservative Catholics, the Catholic hierarchy, and the GOP. Among those associated with it are noted right-wing luminaries like Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, Austin Ruse of C-FAM, former Senator Rick Santorum, and conservative organizations like the Knights of Columbus and Americans United for Life.

In fact, President George W. Bush, along with various prominent Catholic prelates, headlined the event from 2005 until 2008, including an appearance with Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput in 2004. The first post-Bush breakfast in 2009 featured the conservative Catholic dream team of Justice Antonin Scalia and Cardinal Raymond Burke.

In 2012, when the Catholic bishops were enmeshed in a make-or-break effort to cripple the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act and link it to a larger “religious liberty” effort, Knights of Columbus President Carl Anderson used the breakfast to try and strike fear into the hearts of God-fearing Catholics over their scrambled eggs, telling them, “Never in the lifetime of anyone present here, has the religious liberty of the American people been as threatened as it is today.”

So it’s hardly surprising that at his address to the breakfast Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence, who was introduced by Anderson, played to the crowd, touting the Trump administration’s executive order on “religious liberty” and plans to eviscerate the contraceptive mandate:

President Trump stands for the religious liberty of every American and the right of our people of faith to live out your convictions in the public square. … Just last month, the Little Sisters of the Poor were at the White House, and on that day, I had the high honor to stand as President Trump signed an executive order to restore religious liberty in the public square. I couldn’t have been more proud.

And in case anyone needed reminding, he also vouched for Trump’s anti-abortion bona fides, including a dramatically expanded Mexico City policy and the measure that would allow states to withhold funding from Planned Parenthood:

I couldn’t be more proud to serve as Vice President to a President who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life. … Since day one of this administration, President Donald Trump has been keeping his promise to stand for life, and life is winning in America again.

But Pence’s overriding message was that “American Catholics have an ally in President Donald Trump.” And while he paid lip-service for the need for Catholics to pray, not so much “for a cause as for country,” it was clear that his job was to seek reciprocity for that support by rallying conservative Catholics to the rapidly eroding bastions of the besieged Fort Trump.

Pence’s appearance was, in many ways, a coda to the effort that began in the run-up to the 2000 presidential election to fuse conservative Catholics and evangelicals into a reliable right-wing electoral bloc, delivered, appropriately, by a man who personifies the rise of evangelical Catholics or, in Pence’s case, catholic Evangelicals.

Pence’s appearance, coming after 60 percent of white Catholic cast their vote for Trump, signals the end of anything that could remotely be called a cohesive Catholic laity in America. There are now three distinct American Catholicisms. One is a shadow church of ex-Catholics that’s helped fuel the rise of the “nones.” Many of these former Catholics retain a cultural affinity for Catholicism and an attachment to the social justice values of the church, but no longer identify as Catholics and tend to be Democrats or Independents.

The second is the besieged and shrinking progressive wing of the church—people who still identify as Catholics and attend Mass, at least sometimes, but are seeing their power in the church and the larger culture shrink as progressive Catholicism atrophies due to the aging of the Vatican II generation and the loss of Gen X and Millennial Catholics to “none-ism.” The only growing part of this wing is the Latino Catholic population, but that too is being eroded by disaffiliation and defections to evangelical churches.

Finally, there is the evangelical Catholic wing of the church which the Republican Party has so assiduously cultivated for the past twenty years and dominates the public life of the church, despite the efforts of Pope Francis to push back with the appointment of more moderate and less political prelates like Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich.

This wing of the church is now wholly fused with the political and policy priorities of the Republican Party, ignoring Pope Francis’ entreatments regarding climate change and its effects on the environment, global income disparities, and compassion for immigrants. And, as Michael O’Loughlin noted in America, “The founder of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, Joseph Cella, was an early supporter of Mr. Trump and helped organize Catholic support for the G.O.P. nominee.”

These “Cathangelicals” are, for all intents and purposes, today’s Catholic Church—at least in the public square—and Pence is their preacher.