By many measures, liberal Catholics outnumber conservative Catholics in the United States, but in the U.S. political system of state-by-state, winner-take-all presidential elections, small electoral shifts can have huge consequences.
During the last election, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote a letter to U.S. bishops while the campaign was in progress, instructing them to deny Communion to any Catholic candidate unwilling to criminalize abortion. Ratzinger's letter did not win anything close to unanimous agreement, even among the American bishops, yet he succeeded in creating a public question about John Kerry's status as a Roman Catholic.
The shift among Catholic voters in 2004 was small in absolute numbers -- President Bush increased his support among Catholics by 6 points from 2000 to 2004 -- yet, according to one analyst, it was large enough to turn the election in Ohio, Iowa and New Mexico. Arguably, then, Ratzinger won the election for Bush.
Today, the United States faces an unprecedented Bush administration effort to use religion to bring about one-party rule in the United States, and once again U.S. Catholics may provide the margin of victory. The Republicans seek to eliminate effective Democratic opposition, beginning with what they call -- all too unmistakably -- the "nuclear option," a move to prevent Senate filibusters against judicial nominations. Once filibusters against judicial nominees can be eliminated, they can be easily eliminated for any other matter before the Senate.
A key part of the Republican strategy is to claim that it is hatred of religion that has moved the Democrats to oppose these judicial nominees. "Justice Sunday: Stop the Filibuster Against People of Faith," a TV program produced by evangelical leaders, was simulcast Sunday via the Internet, just as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was preparing to call for a vote on the anti-filibuster measure. Evangelical Protestants have led the way in portraying Democrats as enemies of God, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has chimed in on the issue of judicial nominees in a mass mailing to parishioners timed to yield constituent letters just as the matter comes to a vote.
If the Republicans succeed, they will not just have crushed Democratic opposition in the Senate but will be en route to a dramatic weakening of the independent judiciary. Tom DeLay, the ultraconservative Republican leader of the House of Representatives, recently said, defiantly, to a group of reporters: "We set up the courts. We can unset the courts. We have the power of the purse." In an audio recording obtained by the Los Angeles Times of Protestant leaders at a private meeting, the most influential among them, James C. Dobson, provided chilling detail: "Very few people know this, that the Congress can simply disenfranchise a court. They don't have to fire anybody or impeach them or go through that battle. All they have to do is say the 9th Circuit doesn't exist anymore, and it's gone."
No successful putsch ever announces itself as such. The putsch likely to be attempted soon will be presented as a simple change in the Senate rules, and it will succeed unless at least six GOP senators dare to break with the radicalism of the Bush administration and join with all the Democratic senators (and one independent) to defeat it: Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, John McCain? The roster of the brave is ominously short.
Last January, Fritz Stern -- a German emigre historian who witnessed the rise of Nazism -- was asked whether the United States could ever become an authoritarian state. Stern, who has steadfastly resisted facile comparisons, replied: "My hope is that the real conservatives of this country may catch fire, the ones who regard civil rights and the Constitution as fundamental, and that on those grounds they may rise up against the foreign and domestic excesses of this administration and say, finally, 'No! You are not going to get away with this!' Three or four senators could be enough to turn the tide." But will there be even that many?
And the German pope? In what mood does he witness the rising threat to democracy within the U.S.? During the presidential election, each candidate had an issue that he could exploit to claim Pope John Paul II as an ally. Kerry had Iraq, which the pope opposed; Bush had abortion. But Ratzinger would have nothing of such evenhandedness. "Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia," the future pope wrote to the U.S. bishops. "There may be legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not, however, with regard to abortion and euthanasia."
What his letter seemed to suggest was that if Bush gave Rome what it wanted on the abortion issue and the (now strategically inflamed) euthanasia issue, Rome would do its best to give Bush what he wanted regarding the death penalty and, above all, war. The question that now arises is whether Rome is offering a similar deal with the U.S. Constitution at stake: If Bush backs Rome on abortion and euthanasia, Rome will do what it can to turn U.S. Catholics against the filibuster. The fact that the mass mailing will swing only a minority of the country's Catholics against the filibuster is irrelevant. The minority, as it did in the last election, may make the difference.