It was sometime during the hearings into whether Judge Priscilla Owen was fit to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals that Father John F. Kavanaugh faced a hard question.
All 10 Democrats on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee voted against her and killed her recent nomination, even though the Texas Supreme Court Justice received the American Bar Association's highest ranking. The problem was that she favored restraints on abortion rights, including parental-notification laws.
"This was the first time in history that someone with her qualifications had been rejected in committee," said the nationally known Jesuit writer. "I couldn't believe it. ... That was when I had to ask: Why am I still a registered Democrat?"
Kavanaugh poured his feelings into a column in which he argued that it's time for Catholics to cut the political ties that bind and register as independent voters. While the priest stressed that he believes Catholic Republicans may also need to declare their freedom, he entitled his provocative piece "Goodbye, Democrats."
It helps to know that Kavanaugh is an old-school progressive, the author of books with titles such as "Following Christ in a Consumer Culture," "Faces of Poverty, Faces of Christ" and "Who Counts as Persons? Human Identity and the Ethics of Killing." This is one Jesuit who would never "wrap a rosary" around a conservative agenda.
Kavanaugh said he remains firmly opposed GOP doctrine on tax cuts, labor laws, welfare reform, the death penalty and a host of other issues. In the past decade, he noted, Democrats have compromised on all of those issues. But there is one issue on which his old party has steadfastly refused any compromise.
"One thing the Democrats really stand for, however, is abortion -- abortion on demand, abortion without restraint, abortion paid for by all of us, abortion for the poor of the earth," wrote Kavanaugh. "I am not a one-issue voter, but they have become a one-issue party. ... If traditional Democrats who are disillusioned with the selling out of the working poor and the unborn simply became registered Independent voters, would not more attention be paid?"
In recent national elections, researchers have been watching for any signs that America's 60 million Catholics are changing their voting habits.
For generations, Frost Belt Catholics have been a crucial part of all Democratic coalitions. Today, Catholic trends are crucial in an era when Hispanic voters are gaining clout in Sunbelt politics. Thus, it matters that nearly three-fifths of the Catholics who said they frequently went to Mass voted for George W. Bush in 2000.
The question is whether this change is part of a fundamental realignment in the role that faith plays in American politics, according to two political scientists at Baruch College in the City University of New York.
Once, Southern evangelicals and northern Catholics were loyal Democrats. Once, the mainline Protestant churches were the heart of the Republican Party. But everything has changed. Today, liberal Protestants have joined a rising tide of "secularists" and "anti-fundamentalists" as the most loyal members of the Democratic establishment.
"The importance of evangelicals to the ascendancy of the Republican Party since the 1980s has been pointed out ad nauseam," noted Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio, in a paper presented to the Southern Political Science Association. "But if the GOP can be labeled the party of religious conservatives, the Democrats, with equal validity, can be called the secularist party."
And, they added, any list of nonnegotiable issues for secularists and leaders of the religious left would begin with abortion rights.
At some point, said Kavanaugh, Catholics must find a way to be active in politics without writing off the poor, the weak, the defenseless and the unborn. This is what their faith teaches. Right now, he believes that this means letting the political world see visible evidence that Catholics are no longer tied to one party.
"It's not just the unfettered worship of 'choice' that we see in the Democratic Party today, which some would even call a form of libertarianism," he said. "There has also been a capitulation to the power of money. ... It's painful to say this, but right now I see as much hard-heartedness in the Democrats as I do in the Republicans."