During the 2004 presidential election, Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs and Archbishop Ray Burke of St. Louis let it be known that they would deny pro-choice politicians communion. It was a pointed rebuke to the first Catholic Democratic nominee since JFK, John Kerry. Turning the altar rail into a battlefront in the culture wars was unprecedented, but the Vatican did not take any steps to rein in the bishops--in fact, a later memo from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith seemed to support their actions. For Kerry, Catholic opposition may have been fatal: He lost the Catholic vote in Ohio 44-55, a six-point drop from Al Gore's numbers there in 2000. If Kerry had managed to hold on to those six points, he would have won in Ohio by 41,000 votes--and gone on to win the country.
So it's understandable that the pro-choice Democratic contenders for 2008 might look toward the impending U.S. tour of the former Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, with trepidation. Luckily for them, however, Benedict won't make waves with his pronouncements on abortion--that's old news. Instead, the trip's most eye-catching theme will be Benedict's plea for compassion toward immigrants, culminating in the pope's final U.S. event, when he will pray the rosary in 23 different languages for an audience of 3,000 immigrants inside a hangar at JFK Airport in New York. Benedict's liberal approach to immigration actually puts him to the left of both potential Democratic nominees--and it points a way for Democrats to diffuse this potentially dangerous issue.
Three years ago, when the papal conclave elected Ratzinger as pope, liberal Catholics around the world despaired. A vocal critic of rock music, feminism, leftist "liberation theology," and all forms of moral relativism, Ratzinger was nicknamed "Der Panzerkardinal." But, when it comes to immigration, the Catholic belief in the inherent dignity of every human being and the priority the Church places on keeping families together pushed Benedict leftward. In 2006, to celebrate the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, the pope began his statement by recalling that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees when they fled from Herod, then encouraged his followers to work toward keeping immigrant families together. For the 2008 celebration, Benedict issued a letter that focused on the needs of young immigrants, calling on the Church's host communities "to welcome the young people and the very young with their parents with sympathy, and to try and understand the vicissitudes of their lives" so that the immigrants "can overcome the obstacles and the material and spiritual difficulties [they] encounter."
In the United States in particular, the Catholic Church has long sided with immigrants over those who would restrict their movement. Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, gave a major address in 1999 on church policy toward Latino immigrants in the United States, saying that the Church is "committed to spare no effort in developing her own pastoral strategy among these immigrant people, in order to help them settle in their new land and to foster a welcoming attitude among the local population, in the belief that a mutual openness will bring enjoyment to all." The American bishops have proven a strong lobbying force for immigration rights: In 2006, the Church helped organize a series of nationwide protests to argue for more liberal immigration reform; Cardinal Sean O'Malley told a crowd assembled on Boston Common that "the immigration policy we need in the U.S. must be based on the cornerstone of respect for the dignity of every human person."
Of course, in arguing for immigration reform in America, Catholics are protecting Catholic Latinos, the demographic future of the Church. With trends in U.S. birthrates favoring Hispanics, Catholic support for immigration into the United States has some immediate benefits in terms of pure numbers.
But there's a more important reason why the Church is siding with Latino immigrants: the fear that restrictions on immigration will tear families asunder. Catholic social thought always begins with the family. In most instances, this leads to political conservatism, as with abortion and gay marriage. But, in the case of immigration reform, the vital importance of the family as a single, Catholic unit means that Catholics are on the other side of the spectrum entirely.
During Benedict's U.S. trip, which takes him from Washington, D.C., to New York over six days in mid-April, the pope is expected to speak about immigration when he meets with the American bishops and possibly when he makes remarks at the White House. His two large public Masses could also see him address the issue, and both will be given in Spanish as well as English.
If Benedict highlights immigration during his major addresses, Democrats would do well to take notes. The pope's pro-family stance is extremely resonant with Latino voters, many of whom come from families with mixed legal status: a wife with a green card and an undocumented husband, for example, or undocumented parents with citizen children. Fine-tuning the Democratic appeal to Latinos could represent quite the electoral trove in November: Latinos have turned out in record numbers for the 2008 primaries.
Moreover, keeping families together is not just the principal concern of Latinos, but an idea evangelicals and white ethnic Catholics respond positively to as well. The idea of separating families is deeply repugnant to many voters. After a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services factory raid in a conservative town in Arkansas in 2006, The Boston Globe reported that neighbors contacted lawmakers to fight deportations and collected food and clothing for the arrested workers' families: "Rather than feel reassured that immigration laws were being enforced, many believed their community had been disrupted."
Consider all the virtues of following the pope's pro-family plea: What's more humanizing than portraying immigrants as mothers and fathers and sons and daughters? What's more un-American than ripping the very fabric of families? For so long, conservatives have successfully portrayed immigrants as "aliens" and "criminals," beyond sympathy. With a genius stroke of rhetoric, Benedict has shown Democrats how to beat back these attacks. In contrast to the harm the Church inflicted on Kerry, this surely counts as papal absolution.
Michael Sean Winters's book, Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats, will be published in June.
By Michael Sean Winters