Politicians are ever more confident in declaring their Catholicism. But when it comes to the crunch, they are not exactly St Thomas More

The good news is that Catholicism is back in fashion. Gone are the days when Tony Blair kept his papist sympathies a secret in case people thought he was a “nutter”, or when John F Kennedy insisted that his religion was “not relevant” to his presidential campaign. Across Western Europe and North America, politicians are enthusiastically proclaiming the relevance of their Catholicism. Last month, for instance, the 28-year-old socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won a shock victory in a Democratic primary in New York. She has written of how “Christ came to me”, and says her policy positions on criminal justice are rooted in the Catechism and the Lord’s Prayer.

The bad news is … But you’ve already guessed. On her website, Ocasio-Cortez demands “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion, birth control, and family planning services” and an end to “intolerance and bigotry” against “the LGBTQIA+ community”, preferably involving the threat of legal penalties against the “bigots” (Ocasio supports the Equality Act’s proposed restrictions on religious liberty). Not quite what you’d find in the Catechism.

Catholics in politics have often been conflicted, uneasy or embarrassed. What’s relatively new is their bold, cheerful embrace of a Catholic identity while remaining at odds with Church teaching. In Germany, there is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, often touted as Angela Merkel’s successor-in-waiting, who belongs to the Central Committee of German Catholics and recently called for the ordination of women. In Canada, there’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has ordered every single MP in his party “to stand up for women’s rights to choose”. In 2011, when one MP asked how Trudeau’s politics could be squared with his religion, Trudeau said he was “surprisingly upset”. Catholicism, he claimed, was “an extremely important part” of his political values.

It’s touching, in a way, to see that unorthodox believers still have such affection for the Church. But it will be even easier to shut down Catholic institutions or to sack Catholics from their jobs if orthodoxy is seen as optional. (“My local MP is a Catholic and he supports gay marriage – if you oppose it, it must be out of sheer homophobia.”) And it impairs the Church’s mission when Trudeau and others spread doctrinal confusion.

Needless to say, it’s not just over abortion and same-sex marriage that politicians are in tension with the Church. Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini, for instance, likes to brandish his rosary and swear oaths on the Gospel. But he also makes disturbing comments about migrants and has called for a “cleansing” of Roma from Italy’s streets, saying that “Unfortunately, you need to keep Italian Roma in Italy.” In Britain, we have seen a two-child policy – under which poor families who dare to have three or more children are penalised through the tax system – introduced by one Catholic minister, Iain Duncan Smith, and defended by another, Damian Hinds. There was no protest, either, from Jacob Rees-Mogg, a consistent supporter of welfare cuts including the notorious bedroom tax, and sometimes spoken about as if he was the very model of a Catholic parliamentarian.

People like to argue about which is worse: “left-wing” Catholic politicians who contradict the Church on marriage and abortion, or “right-wing” Catholic politicians who neglect the Church’s teaching on immigration and on the state’s duty to correct some of the injustices of the market. The debate is interminable and largely pointless. It is, though, fair to say that the most intractable conflicts relate to that cluster of issues around sex, gender and reproduction. For supporters of abortion, gay marriage and the new theories of gender, there is a clear set of dogmas which cannot be transgressed; the same is true for Catholics. While sexual ethics are not central to Church teaching, they are an essential part of it – just as the windpipe is not a major organ, but if it is blocked even for a few minutes the whole body will perish.

In Ireland’s abortion referendum, it was pretty clear that the Catholic position was to support legal protection for the unborn. But several Catholic politicians came forward to argue that the Church was wrong. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, a self-described “Catholic lad”, now tells Catholic hospitals that they must provide abortions. His culture minister, Josepha Madigan, said during the referendum campaign that her religion was “extremely important” to her and was “reconcilable” with supporting legal abortion. More recently, Madigan declared that “my faith in God is integral to who I am”, while advising the Church to ordain women in order “to be truly reflective of its people”.

In the aftermath of the Irish vote, the British MP Conor McGinn celebrated the result and called for abortion in Northern Ireland, too. He also wants Westminster to bring same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland. Was there a contradiction with his Catholicism? Not at all: “I am living the message of the Gospel,” McGinn told Parliament. He is a founding member of Catholics for Labour, a group of MPs which claims to endorse Catholic social teaching but whose politics are barely distinguishable from those of Labour’s non-Catholics.

We could go on adding one sad example after another. But the phenomenon is much broader than politics. The temptation for Catholics, whether in Parliament or anywhere else, has changed in recent years. An anecdote which may illustrate the point: I remember an acquaintance saying to me, “I heard you’ve become Catholic.” Knowing her views, I braced myself for an interrogation. Instead she said: “That’s so great, that you’ve made that choice for yourself.” I appreciated her kindness. But the remark hinted at an assumption – that Catholicism is just another personal choice, helpful for some people, less so for others. When the Church is viewed as a sinister and regressive force, it’s tempting to hide your faith. But if Catholicism is seen as one lifestyle choice among many – perhaps even an appealingly unconventional one – the temptation is to present an acceptable version of the faith, with the unpopular parts left out.

John Henry Newman believed that “a civilised age” might put a nice, unthreatening religion in place of the Gospel. “Benevolence” would become “the chief virtue; intolerance, bigotry, the first of sins.” The “dark side of religion”, the risk of eternal punishment, the awfulness of disobeying God, would be airbrushed from the picture.

That easy-going religion is still with us – not just in politics but in showbiz, the media and the arts. In a world which celebrates multiculturalism and spiritual seeking, Catholicism can have a certain glamour. This kind of religion may loudly call itself Catholic, may even make a big deal of the saints and the sacraments and other markers of Catholic identity; but when it comes to the crunch – which, today, is fairly likely to be over the Church’s teachings on intrinsically immoral acts – it will refuse to come into conflict with the world.

Such conflicts, however, are inevitable. Yes, Catholicism is a religion of love, forgiveness and joy, rather than a club for gloomy obsessives. But in the Gospels, Jesus clearly expects his followers to clash with the world: a duty which is not simply discharged by denouncing Donald Trump or, for that matter, denouncing abortion.

Both the clergy and the laity have a role to play here. We remember great figures like Archbishop Rummel of New Orleans, who in 1962 excommunicated prominent Catholics for supporting racist segregation. As for the man or woman in the pew, it is up to us to demand more integrity from our Catholic representatives, rather than being overwhelmed with gratitude because a Cabinet minister says their “values” were shaped by going to a Catholic school 40 years ago.

In 2000, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger suggested that any future persecution would be directed not against Christianity in general, but against a subset of Christians defined as “fundamentalist” or extreme. The future pope noted that the authorities would never “openly persecute Christians; that would be too old-fashioned and unsuitable. No, they are most tolerant; they are of course open to everything. But then there are all the more definite things that are excluded and which are then declared to be fundamentalist.” It may be only when a crisis comes – a crackdown on faith schools, say – that Catholics find out who their real friends are.

In the meantime, there is a serious obstacle to evangelisation. When the demands of the Faith are publicly downplayed, Catholicism stops looking like the narrow way to eternal life, and starts looking like an optional extra.

Nothing will be achieved by raging against politicians; but we can at least be aware that “Catholic” is more than ever a contested term. We might even need to make it unfashionable again.

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald

This article first appeared in the July 13 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here