Historical Background for a Catholic Third Party


Historically, third parties have not done well in the United States. Would a Catholic party be any different? And just because it might be difficult to start one, does that mean we should not try?

The last third party to become successful in the United States was the Republican Party, which grew to become one of the two major political parties today. The Republican Party was formed in 1854. At that time, in the period before the Civil War, the Democratic and Whig parties refused to take a definite position for or against slavery. The Republican Party was formed in oppostion to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which had the effect of overturning the Missouri Compromise and allowing slavery into federal territories in the west north of 36˚ 30ˊ.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was supported by the Democratic Party, in particular by Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, the chairman of the committee on territories. Douglas’s position, referred to at that time as “popular sovereignty,” held that each state or territory should have the right to decide for itself whether to allow slavery within that state or territory or not. Thus, in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Kansas and Nebraska were each allowed to vote on whether to accept slavery or not. Douglas viewed this as a compromise between those Americans who believed that slavery should be allowed throughout the United States, and those who wanted it abolished throughout the nation. Douglas said he did not care whether slavery was voted up or voted down and said that it should be left up to the people in the democratic, American way. Douglas’s “popular sovereignty” position was similar to the “pro-choice” position on abortion today, which asserts that a woman should have the right to choose whether she has an abortion or not. “Pro-choice” supporters, similar to Douglas, claim that this is the American way–that a woman should have the right to choose whether she aborts an unborn child or not.

Lincoln and the Republicans opposed Douglas and “popular sovereignty,” saying that slavery should not be left up to a popular vote but was a moral matter of right and wrong. Similar to Lincoln and the Republicans in 1854, pro-life people today oppose the “pro-choice” position that holds that the moral issue of abortion should be up to an individual’s choice. They hold that the unborn child has a fundamental right to life, and whether the child can live should not left up to individual choice. Abortion today is a fundamental moral issue similar to slavery in the nineteenth century.

The Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973 was intended to settle the issue of abortion. It has not. Forty-three years later, abortion is still a moral issue that divides the United States. This is similar to slavery in the nineteenth century—a divisive moral issue that had existed since at least the founding of this country and refused to go away even when Congress (in the Kansas-Nebraska Act) or the Supreme Court (in the Dred Scott Decision [1857]) tried to “solve” it. The issue of slavery in the United States was only settled by the Civil War. The issue of abortion has not yet been settled.

One important step in opposing the evil of abortion would be to take a stand on this moral issue the way Lincoln and the Republicans did on slavery in 1854. The modern-day Republican Party has done this by opposing abortion. In this, it is in the place of the old Republicans and Lincoln at the time of slavery. But in my view, the Republicans are compromised by their positions on other issues, which are less in accordance with Catholic social teachings (such as care for the poor and respect for the environment) than Democratic ones. Therefore, in my view, a new political party that fully adheres to Catholic Christian values is needed to represent the true Catholic position.

As stated in the beginning, third parties have not been very successful in American politics. None has been successful since the Republicans in 1854. To note only some of the more prominent examples, the Liberal Republican Party of Horace Greeley failed in 1872, the Populist Party of William Jennings Bryan failed in 1896, the Progressive Party of Theodore Roosevelt and Robert LaFollette failed in 1912 and 1924, the Union Party of William Lemke failed in 1936, the American Independent Party of George Wallace failed in 1968, the Reform Party of Ross Perot failed in 1992 and 1996, and the Green Party of Ralph Nader failed in 2000. The odds would certainly seem to be against a third Catholic political party. One can only say that this is no reason not to do the right thing. If one believes that the Catholic Church has the fullness of truth, and that Catholic Christian values are not sufficiently embodied in the two major existing political parties, and that there at least at the moment seems little likelihood of influencing these two parties to modify their positions into greater conformity to Catholic values, then the formation of a new third Catholic party would seem to be the right thing to do.

The Republican Party formed over a fundamental moral issue, and a Catholic Party would also be formed on moral issues. That is a promising basis for success. There may be a group of voters that would be the basis of this proposed party. Catholics who adhere to the full teachings of the Church would, of course, be the nucleus. But there are many other Christians who also hold “conservative” social views and “liberal” economic views who would find a natural home in such a party. (The “middle” Catholic position on these issues brings to mind the Catholic Center Party of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany.) There are likely non-Christians such as Muslims, Jews, and other people of good will who also hold views similar to those of the proposed party. This is still probably not close to a majority of the American people. For the rest, we must leave it up to evangelization. Pope John Paul II spoke of the “new evangelization.” This third party would be a branch of that, applying the broader religious new evangelization to the political realm. The evangelization of so many people needed to form a critical mass for this new political party will not be done in a short period of time. It would probably take decades if not longer, if it can take place at all. But Christ will not abandon His Church. Nor will He abandon the values that His Church expresses and that apply to the political realm. Christ does not promise us victory in this earthly realm of the City of Man. But, again, that is not a reason not to try to the fullness of our ability to fulfill His will in this way as in every way.

David Bovée


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