WASHINGTON -- When Nancy Mitford asked novelist Evelyn Waugh how he could behave so atrociously while claiming to be a practicing Catholic, he responded, "You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic."
In Congress, we are about to test the ameliorative effects of Catholicism in practical ways, particularly among Republicans. Before the November election, there were 97 Catholic Democrats in the House and 36 Catholic Republicans. Now there are 68 Catholic Democrats in the House and 64 Republicans. The overall number in the House Catholic caucus remained steady, but its composition is decidedly more conservative.
What influence is this shift likely to have? Judging from the broader behavior of Catholics in American politics, not much. A century ago, many Catholics voted Democratic out of ethnic solidarity. Today, most Catholics vote almost exactly like their suburban neighbors. Catholics are often swing voters in elections precisely because they are so typical. So it was a sign of the times when last year a poll found 58 percent of Catholics sympathetic to tea party protests.
There is something vaguely disturbing about the precise symmetry of any religious group with other voters of their same class and background. One would hope that an ancient, demanding faith would leave some distinctive mark. A reflection may move and smile, but it lacks substance and will.
But though it is hard to identify a distinctive Catholic voter, there is certainly a distinctive Catholic teaching on politics -- a highly developed and coherent tradition that has influenced many non-Catholics, myself included. Human life and dignity, in this view, are primary. The common good takes precedence over selfish interests. Local institutions -- families, churches, unions, religious schools -- should be respected, not undermined, by government. The justice of a society is measured by its treatment of the poor and vulnerable.
These distinctive commitments have created tensions with liberal Catholic politicians who elevate autonomy and choice as the highest political values -- higher even than the rights of the weak. But the Catholic tradition also challenges elements of conservatism, particularly when it comes to tea party excess.
Some of this challenge is tonal. A revolutionary populism has seldom been the Catholic style -- especially since Catholics have often been the victims of such populism in American history. Catholicism asserts the value and dignity of duly constituted authority, both religious and political, which cannot be dismissed as "elites." Further, in a direct assault on the spirit of the age, it teaches that genuine freedom is found in submission to just authority. The alternative is the "freedom" of a fish liberated from the sea. Neither radical individualism nor disdain for government is an option.
But the tension is also substantive. Catholic social teaching is simply not libertarian. Neither, of course, are most conservatives. But where Republicans veer toward libertarianism, they will run smack into the bishops.
The Catholic tradition asserts the necessity of limited government. The establishment of justice and acts of compassion should be done at the lowest, most human levels of society, instead of by distant, centralized bureaus -- a perspective fully consistent with the designs of America's founders. But gaps in the justice and compassion of a society require government intervention to secure the common good, which is not common until it includes the poor, the immigrant, the sick, the disabled, the unborn. Catholic teaching elevates the primary importance of families, charities and strong communities -- while rejecting the simplistic notion that such institutions render government unnecessary. In determining the proper balance between civil society and government, there is much room for political debate. But the search for that balance is a source of sanity in our political life, involving the rejection of both collectivist and libertarian utopias.
So how will Catholic Republicans respond to these arguments? The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, after all, has no canonical standing, just a moral authority that has been recently diminished by scandal.
But there will likely come a point when red lines get crossed and Catholic and other religious leaders declare: Contempt for immigrants, even illegal immigrants, is not a moral option. Or, cutting AIDS and malaria funding violates pro-life principles. Or, health care repeal without a serious alternative is not responsible.
At that moment, one hopes, the faith of politicians has sunk deeper than the skin -- and that they will be less nasty than they otherwise would have been.