GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a proud Catholic who often speaks about his faith on the campaign trail, is attracting some formidable buzz from pundits who view his strong showing in the Iowa caucuses as a sign that the former Pennsylvania senator might have enough mojo to rally a coalition of religious and blue-collar voters. New York Times columnist David Brooks waxed poetic Monday about Santorum's Catholic conservative sensibilities and touted the candidate as an authentic antidote to "the corporate or financial wing of the party." Evangelicals are also taking notice. Writing on CNN's Belief blog, Chris LaTondresse, the founder and CEO of Recovering Evangelical, calls Santorum a post-religious right candidate "whose concern for poor and vulnerable people" is "firmly rooted in his Catholic faith."
It's easy to see why Santorum might appeal to some culturally conservative Catholics and moderate evangelicals who are wary of Democrats but also turned off by the Republican Party's cozy embrace of economic libertarianism and tireless defense of struggling millionaires. Santorum is more comfortable with communitarian language, has been a strong supporter of foreign aid to impoverished countries and connects with personal stories of his blue-collar upbringing.
But it's a political delusion to think Rick Santorum is a standard-bearer of authentic Catholic values in politics. In fact, on several issues central to Catholic social teaching -- torture, war, immigration, climate change, the widening gap between rich and poor and workers' rights - Santorum is radically out of step with his faith's teachings as articulated by Catholic bishops and several popes over the centuries.
Immigration Catholic bishops, priests and women religious have been at the forefront of the fight for comprehensive immigration reform. Catholic leaders have called for an earned path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and consistently oppose draconian policies that break up families. Santorum has publicly challenged the Catholic bishops on this issue, telling the Des Moines Register: "If we develop the program like the Catholic bishops suggested we would be creating a huge magnet for people to come in and break the law some more, we'd be inviting people to cross this border, come into this country and with the expectation that they will be able to stay here permanently." While promising he doesn't want to "break up families," Santorum recently justified massive deportations that do, in fact, separate parents from children. He blithely said of those facing deportation to Mexico (a country currently ravaged by grinding poverty and gang violence) that "we're not sending them to any kind of difficult country." Tell that to the student brought here as a young child who doesn't even remember the country of her birth and doesn't even speak the language.
Poverty, Inequality and Financial Regulation Pope Benedict XVI has decried the "scandal of glaring inequalities" between rich and poor, and Catholic social teaching supports a more just distribution of wealth. Santorum, in contrast, told the Des Moines Register: "I'm for income inequality. I think some people should make more than other people because some people work harder and have better ideas and take more risks, and they should be rewarded for it. I have no problem with income inequality." As a Senator, Santorum voted for massive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, which greatly exacerbated the gap between the top 1% and the rest of us.
The Vatican also recently released a major document on the need for more robust financial regulation of global markets to protect workers and the common good. Santorum clings to the thoroughly debunked lie that regulation caused our nation's financial collapse. He told MSNBC's Ed Schultz that "it wasn't deregulation...it was government regulation" that in part led to our current economic problems. In Congress, Santorum also voted for the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which deregulated risky financial schemes that led to the economic crisis of 2008.
While Catholic bishops defend vital government programs that protect the most vulnerable, Santorum recently voiced support for Rep. Paul Ryan's immoral federal budget plan -- a plan the bishops expressed deep concern about because it would cut life-saving programs while spending trillions on massive new tax breaks for the rich. Even worse, Santorum said that the poor who receive government aid could learn by suffering more. When questioned about how his economic views clash with the Catholic demand for a "preferential option for the poor" in public policy, Santorum was completely unfamiliar with this bedrock Church teaching.
Workers' Rights The Catholic Church has defended the vital role of unions since 1891, when Pope Leo XIII released Rerum Novarum, an encyclical that puts the dignity of work and labor rights at the center of Catholic social teaching. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church clearly states that workers have a right to "assemble and form associations" and that unions are "a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensable element of social life." Rick Santorum, on the other hand, has argued that all public sector unions should be abolished. In a presidential candidates' debate, Santorum said he would "support a bill that says that we should not have public employee unions for the purposes of wages and benefits to be negotiated."
Climate Change and the Environment Pope Benedict XVI, who has been dubbed the "Green Pope" for his attention to environmental justice and climate change, recently urged world leaders meeting for climate talks in Durban, South Africa, to "reach agreement on a responsible, credible response" to the "disturbing" effects of climate change. Catholic dioceses across the country have encouraged Catholics to limit their carbon footprint, and national advocacy organizations like the Catholic Climate Covenant work to educate Catholics about their faith's teachings on environmental stewardship. Santorum must not be listening. In an interview with Rush Limbaugh, he described the fact that climate change is caused by humans as "patently absurd" and a "beautifully concocted scheme." Just this week, Santorum blasted a new Environmental Protection Agency rule limiting emissions of mercury and other air toxins from coal-fired power plants. Catholic bishops hailed the ruling as "an important step forward to protect the health of all people, especially unborn babies and young children, from harmful exposure to dangerous air pollutants."
Torture and War Many Catholic conservatives ignore the Church's teaching about "a consistent ethic of life" and excuse a candidate's position or record on the economy, immigration and the environment by downplaying their moral importance compared to the issue of abortion. Catholics can disagree in good faith on some issues, they assert, but not over "intrinsic evils." Unfortunately, even under this standard, Santorum fails. When it comes to torture, which the Church calls an "intrinsic evil," Santorum is a proud proponent. The Catholic bishops describe the barbaric practice as an assault on the dignity of human life. "The use of torture must be rejected as fundamentally incompatible with the dignity of the human person and ultimately counterproductive in the effort to combat terrorism," they wrote in Faithful Citizenship, a political responsibility statement released before every presidential election. But Santorum eagerly endorsed "enhanced interrogation" techniques during the first Republican primary debate.
Santorum's predilection toward pre-emptive war also clashes with mainstream Catholic theology. When the late Pope John Paul II warned against the invasion of Iraq, Santorum vocally championed the war. And while the Catholic bishops repeatedly called for a responsible withdrawal, Santorum remained a staunch defender of the occupation -- blasting the "media" and "liberals" for undermining support for the war.
Catholic politicians across the spectrum will all find aspects of Church teaching that challenge their ideological agendas in discomforting ways. But for too long Catholics in public life have only been scrutinized when it comes to abortion and same-sex marriage. This does a disservice to voters, ignores the Catholic social justice tradition's broad moral agenda and lets Catholic candidates like Rick Santorum off the hook even when they consistently disregard their faith's teachings on key moral and political issues.