Last week, the National Catholic Register and my friend Salena Zito wrote about Jo Ann Nardelli, a former Democratic Party official in Pennsylvania who switched to the GOP on the basis of her faith.  As with most conversions, a moment of epiphany occurred in Nardelli’s political life, and her experience shows the problems that Barack Obama and Democrats will have in holding onto their 2008 coalitions in areas like the Rust Belt:

She said it started a few weeks ago, ironically as she and her husband were getting ready for Mass and watching Meet the Press when Joe Biden, a Catholic, cited his support for gay marriage.

This shocked her. She said she’d always related to Biden. She said he reminded her of her father. But this announcement shocked her. And then, shortly after, President Obama announced that he’d “evolved” into supporting gay “marriage.”

And then as a Democratic committeewoman she received her agenda from the party espousing the same position. “To stand up and agree and sign off on this I couldn’t do it,” she said. “So I talked to our priest.”

While she didn’t say what they talked about, she said Monsignor Little warned her that she would be the focus of much criticism.

His words have proved prophetic. Nardelli said she’s heard from people saying she hates gays or that she’s a bigot. It got so bad that she started screening her calls. And she didn’t know who was calling to say something terrible or something nice to her. She said that even when Republicans call her, she’s afraid to pick up simply because she doesn’t know them.

“I’ve been a Democrat for over 40 years,” she laughed. “I don’t know any of the Republicans.”

She has paid a price for her decision in her community:

The longtime Democrat from Blair County quit the party and registered as a Republican, and then boldly walked in a Memorial Day parade in support of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“A couple of people who I thought were friends turned their backs on me, literally, as I was walking in the parade,” she said on Tuesday. “I have to admit it made me sad, but that is the way it is.”

Nardelli, 59, a former borough council member in Newry, outside Altoona, registered as a Democrat after high school and rose to the party’s executive board. She was vice president of the women’s caucus and first vice president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Democratic Women when she quit last week. …

Nardelli said she quit the party not because she lost an election for county commissioner, as her critics contend, but because the party is moving away from her values.

The final straw was Obama’s support for gay marriage, she said. “That, and the tug-of-war between the Catholic Church and the administration over the (health care) mandate have pushed me over the edge.”

Nardelli will have new friends, of course, as most organizations welcome converts rather readily — and I suspect even her previous friends will rethink their hostility after the election.  Converts made a lot of news this past week, with Artur Davis’ open letter describing himself as a center-right thinker drawn more to the GOP than his former Democratic Party allowing for some bragging rights among Republicans and conservatives.  Converts reinforce our own belief systems, which is probably why apostates (in the political sense) make us angrier than the entrenched opposition, especially when the “apostates” (converts in the other direction) become very vocal about their views.  That’s why Nardelli is seeing turned backs in her hometown parades this week, and why both sides reserve special ire for converts/apostates in general.

For today, though, I’d like to focus on a couple of issues about faith and politics.  Some of our readers express surprise that faithful Catholics can ever be Democrats in the first place.  Conservatives — especially pro-life conservatives — focus on Democratic Party support for abortion and declare the party anathema, and I have a lot of sympathy for that position, quite obviously.  The heart of the Catholic mission is the dignity and sacredness of human life as a reflection of our creator God, a dignity and sacredness that begins at conception, a consistent teaching of the Catholic Church for two thousand years.  It’s the very basis of our teachings on social justice; without that acknowledgment of dignity granted by God, social justice becomes a hobby rather than a calling, and humanity is reduced to utilitarianism.  Why bother spending public and private money on the poor and infirm if they could have been discarded with no consequences at the earliest stages of their lives?

However, while Republicans and conservatives embrace the pro-life part of the equation, they tend to run away from the social-justice mission that must necessarily follow from that pro-life embrace.  In fact, the very term social justice inevitably creates hostility, in part because some confuse it with liberation theology, a philosophy that the Catholic Church has rejected, including our present Pope Benedict XVI, who decried much of it as a “Marxist myth” while still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.  Social justice is nothing more or less than the mission to which Jesus Christ called his church — the care of the poor, the infirm, the imprisoned, and the hopeless.  It is a call to Christians of all denominations to ensure that we share our blessings with those less fortunate and find ways to lift them out of their misery, as brothers and sisters under God, conceived in the same dignity and sacredness as were we all.

There is a great deal of debate on how best to achieve these goals, and Catholics are given no set plan as doctrine on these matters.  Each of us has a personal call to participate in the mission, as does the Church itself.  That is why we (and our brothers and sisters in other Christian denominations and other faiths) open hospitals, charities, and schools in service to our mission and to the world.  Incidentally, that’s why the HHS mandate is so absurd in its arrogance and ignorance; these are not just businesses, but an expression of our core religious practice and mission.  The center of our religious practice is the Liturgy and Eucharist, but our mission is outside of the four walls of the church, not within it.

However, even while we do our best on a personal and institutional level within the church, our community, state, and nation have an impact on the scope and depth of the societal and human ills we hope to alleviate.   Some Catholics feel that significant involvement of representative government represents the best and most direct way to achieve our mission, and support the political party that more closely aligns itself with that philosophy and agenda — Democrats.  Others feel that the mission is best directed at a personal and institutional level and oppose significant government involvement as wasteful, impractical, and counterproductive, and those Catholics are more likely to be Republicans.

As such, these fellow Catholic liberals (many of whom do oppose abortion) do not deserve our scorn or a condescending attitude; they come to these positions honestly and faithfully.  We may disagree on the best approach to the mission at hand, but we are at least united on the mission itself.

In fact, try reading the position papers at the USCCB website to see how some liberal Catholics might rightly ask how Catholics can be conservatives, especially on immigration policyhealth care, the death penalty, economic justice and safety-net spending, and so on.  However, a thorough reading of these positions offers lessons to Catholics across the political spectrum.  The bishops do not make these doctrinal positions, but instead offer their considered (and very nuanced) approach to these issues that relate to the church’s social-justice mission, with plenty of acknowledgment of well-intentioned disagreement on how best to achieve success in these and many other areas.  That is why bishops and pastors wisely treat these subjects with a great deal of respect for diversity of opinion in the parishes themselves, and rarely if ever lecture on these positions from the pulpit or insinuate that disagreement separates parishioners from the church or Eucharist.

Catholic conservatives sometimes feel as though we are sometimes scorned for our approach, though, because Republicans and conservatives rarely offer a coherent philosophy on how best to deal with the very real social problems in our communities, other than insisting that more government won’t solve them.  I was glad to see Paul Ryan discussing subsidiarity in his defense of his budget proposal, as many conservative Catholics see the overwhelming entitlement growth as a threat to personal and institutional action — perhaps less so than the HHS mandate, but the mandate itself springs from that accumulation of power to entitlement-program bureaucracies that conservatives within and outside of the faith see as dangerous.  Few conservatives in American politics offer that kind of coherent approach, though, and to Catholics who rightly see the pain and suffering of the poor and infirm as a priority, that makes the Democratic Party look legitimately like a better option.

Right now, the excesses of the Obama administration on the HHS mandate, abortion, and perhaps even gay marriage make it less urgent for conservatives to address these shortcomings.  However, if Republicans and conservatives want to win more converts from Catholic ranks, they will have to find ways to address the social-justice priorities of these voters without spitting at the term or ignoring it altogether.  And perhaps there is some value in having committed Catholics, firm in their opposition to abortion, remain within the Democratic Party to pull that organization away from the culture of death and back to its historical position as a representative of traditional working-class values.  That would be an honorable mission indeed for Christians of all denominations, if perhaps a nearly impossible one, at least in the present time.  In the meantime, we Catholics across the political spectrum need to acknowledge and respect the viewpoints of our fellow parishioners as we try to fulfill our mission in the best way we see to succeed.

In the end, the mission is the focus, at least in terms of our faith. To the extent politics enters into it, it should remain subsidiary to the faith and the fellowship, not the other way around.

Update: How important is the Catholic vote?  Salena followed up yesterday:

In every modern presidential election, the Catholic voting bloc has been a harbinger of the popular vote, said Catherine Wilson, a Villanova University political scientist who specializes in religious voters.

“They are the ultimate swing vote. Where they go, so goes the election,” she said.

Though many Catholics decried Obama’s support of abortion and embryonic stem cell research in 2008, he won 54 percent among Catholic voters against Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Update II: Dustin Siggins demonstrates the virtues of respectful engagement in this must-read Green Room piece.

Update III: Cleaned up a couple of grammatical issues.

Update IV: Lisa Graas advises to put not your trust in princes and parties.