The above quotation is from Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. He writes to discuss two burning issues for New Yorkers where he in his role of Catholic leader is vehemently opposed by the Democratic Party: school choice and abortion. (He is for the first and against the second.) As has always been the case in my limited experience reading Dolan’s writings, he is very politic and polite.
I’m not. I’m freed from the need to attempt to work with New York politicians, and so can be more forthcoming. The images that sprang to mind with the word “embraced” were a strangler’s embrace of his victim’s neck, or shackles embrace on a prisoner. The relationship of the Democratic Party to Catholics has never been one of equals, but one of useful peons paid off by their political betters. This is both painfully obvious and painful to behold in the eternally enchanted loyalist Democratic Catholics.
Dolan only slips up once in his role as peace-maker and pleader, when he mentions his Grandmother’s whisper: “We Catholics don’t trust those Republicans.” That’s a lot more representative of the attitudes of the Catholics I grew up around: it’s not we Catholics, as sheep among wolves, make necessarily uneasy and conditional alliances trying to be, as Christ commanded, wise as serpents – it’s that we trust one party and distrust the other.
Why? The history of the relationship between the Democratic Party and the Catholic Church is one of Catholics being used, marginalized and discarded. Tammany Hall, in Dolan’s own New York, was coextensive with the Democratic Party, legendarily corrupt – but by 1817, took care of Catholic and other immigrants as they stepped off the boats.
Tammany Hall was a political force in New York City from its 1789 inception as a benevolent association to mayoral campaigns in the 1950s. Frequently its leadership was identical to the Executive Committee of the local Democratic party, and it was a major or controlling faction in the party in 1821-1872 and 1905-1932. Key Tammany bosses through the years included William M. Tweed, Richard F. Croker, and Charles F. Murray.
Although its name was synonymous with corruption to many, Tammany Hall’s popularity and endurance resulted from its willingness to help the city’s poor and immigrant populations. Irish immigrants forced Tammany Hall to admit them as members in 1817, and the Irish thereafter never lost their tie with it. Because in the 1820s Tammany successfully fought to extend the franchise to all propertyless white males, it was popular with the working class. A close association with the Democratic party was also forged in the Jacksonian era.
“Willingness to help the city’s poor and immigrant populations.” This “help” was in exchange for absolute political loyalty: woe to the immigrant who dared to support any other party! With local ward bosses in near complete control of every neighborhood, and surrounded by neighbors and relatives who owed their jobs to the machine, the Tammany Hall bosses were assured that they would grow richer and more powerful if only they kept the unwashed mass of immigrants contented.
(Orestes Brownson went to New York City in 1829 as part of the Working Men’s Party, in order to get men paid for work performed, which wasn’t always happening under the more direct beneficiaries of Tammany’s largess. Those who bribed their ways into valuable city franchises were not always completely fair and honest with their workers. Go figure. This action seems to have motivated and cemented the convention that, no matter how corrupt Tammany Hall got, you still had to pay the little people to keep them in line, so that the big dogs can get richer.)
Imagine an Irish or Italian immigrant stepping off the boat in New York circa 1850. He’s fleeing oppression, poverty or both, having lived under governments that exploited him at best and actively tried to kill him and his family at worst. Somebody meets him on the docks, makes sure he has a place to sleep and food, and gets him in touch with people who can help him find a job.
It would be like being greeted by St. Peter at the gates of Heaven, only without that whole uncomfortable judgement thing. The only thing they ask in return, a very little thing, is that you support your benefactors forever more. You might notice they are corrupt – but compared to what you just escaped from? Tammany Hall looked like Boy Scouts compared to the British in Ireland! Small price to pay.
Small price to keep paying. On and on. Generation after generation. And don’t trust the Republicans.
Similar things were done in Chicago, Boston and other Democratic cities. Loyalties to the local ward boss were rolled up to the city, state and eventually national level. Catholics were just assumed – almost always correctly – to be Democrats.
All this Catholic loyalty culminated in the nomination of Al Smith in 1928 as the first Catholic to run for President from a major political party.
He lost in a landslide. Many non-Catholic Northern Democrats and virtually all Southern Democrats (effectively none of whom were Catholic) were hesitant, to say the least, to vote for a Papist. Smith carried much of the South, as the typical Democrat had to decide if he hated Catholics or Republicans more, and went with Republicans.
Live and learn. What happened next is what’s really instructive. In the 1932 elections, the Democrats ran Roosevelt over Smith’s strenuous opposition – but, good American Catholic that he was, he gave a key speech in favor of FDR, who won in an equally large landslide.
Roosevelt then began to pursue exactly the policies Smith had opposed, leading to the formation of the American Liberty League, which Smith joined. Much more telling: the assent of Catholics within the Democratic party was sharply curtailed. By 1940, about the only prominent Catholic FDR appointed was Joe Kennedy, who was ambassador to the UK – safely out of the way, as it were – who he nonetheless replaced when Joe was perceived as too negative about Britain’s chances in WWII.
By Roosevelt’s time, it had been firmly established that the Democrats needed Catholic votes, but didn’t really need to do much to get them. Joe Kennedy’s sons became the poster children for Catholics You Can Use: they maintained their Catholic identity while rejecting any loyalty to the Church’s teachings in favor of whatever the Democratic party wanted. And were rewarded handsomely for it.
To this day, Catholics have been played for fools by the Democratic Party. Like Esau, we trade a birthright for a full belly. Worse, lead by the likes of Ted Kennedy, we’ve learned to shed any moral qualms we might have about the particulars of the Democratic platform and not merely hold our noses and allow them, but to actively embrace them. Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden, anyone?
Maybe Dolan’s timid letter, which reads more like the laments of a jilted lover than of an independent leader, will be the beginning of change. Only when the Democratic Party knows it can’t assume the Catholic vote is there any hope of meaningful change. As it is, we’re still wedded to the party of abortion, destruction of marriage, and the limitless state. These are not Catholic values. It’s only been so for about 50 years. Now we notice?
Politics is always messy and dirty. We can’t just not play. But Christ sent us as sheep among wolves and commanded we be wise as serpents. Wedding ourselves to one party or the other is not wise. Being used for somebody else’s gain at the cost of our souls is worse than stupid.