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Santorum Surges: Fr Longenecker Asks 'What is a Santorum Catholic?'

By Fr Dwight Longenecker
February 13th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Now along comes Rick Santorum. A father of eight, he not only supports a pro-life message--he lives it. This Catholic politician doesn't come from a wealthy family who can buy elections for him. He doesn't rely on the mobsters or the political machine to fix elections. His grandfather was a coal miner, and he's made it on his own. Here's a Catholic politician who doesn't speak down to the working classes, but speaks up for the working classes.His pro life credentials are complete. He is not just against abortion, but genuinely pro life--in favor of assistance for the poor, helping the fight against AIDS, and looking to build community in order to help the needy on a local level. (Fr. Dwight Longenecker)

GREENVILLE, SC (Catholic Online) - As Rick Santorum surges in popularity people may be scratching their heads about his Catholic faith. The American public are used to Catholic politicians, but not this kind of Catholic politician.

I grew up as an Evangelical Protestant. We were prejudiced against Catholics. In our mind, Catholics were Democrats--and that was not good. We knew many of the blue collar folks were Catholics, but Catholics were also fat cats.

The Kennedys were Catholics and we had no respect for old Joe Kennedy who made his money as a bootlegger, nor for his philandering sons with their assumed air of American royalty. The Catholics we knew did not help to correct our prejudices. In our Puritanical Protestantism we didn't smoke or drink or play cards or gamble or go to the movies. The Catholics did all that bad stuff.

I know now that my prejudices were just that. Among the worldly and sinful Catholics were many good and holy Christians. Likewise, among us Puritanical Protestants it turned out that there were many fallen and hypocritical Christians. That is really not the issue here. What my Protestant prejudices reveal is what Protestants in America have long thought about Catholics.

Protestant Evangelicals combined their theological disagreements with Catholicism with the bad example of Catholics in public life. Every time a Kennedy misbehaved the Protestants sneered and had their suspicions confirmed.

Whenever Catholic politicians like Pelosi and Biden and Kerry stood against their own church in public, the Protestants pointed fingers. When the Catholic bishops did nothing to discipline the wayward politicians Protestants raised a knowing eyebrow saying, "That figures."
 
Furthermore, the Kennedy Catholics in Washington were put there by the Kennedy Catholics in their own neighborhood. When they met local Catholics, more often than not they met lukewarm, badly catechized, non church going people who were only Catholic because they were Irish or Italian.

Now along comes Rick Santorum. A father of eight, he not only supports a pro-life message--he lives it. This Catholic politician doesn't come from a wealthy family who can buy elections for him. He doesn't rely on the mobsters or the political machine to fix elections. His grandfather was a coal miner, and he's made it on his own. Here's a Catholic politician who doesn't speak down to the working classes, but speaks up for the working classes.

His pro life credentials are complete. He is not just against abortion, but genuinely pro life--in favor of assistance for the poor, helping the fight against AIDS, and looking to build community in order to help the needy on a local level. Furthermore, he is open and obvious about his faith in a way that no other Catholic politician before him has dared to be.

Since Kennedy's famous promise that he would not let his Catholicism influence his political decision, the Catholic politicians have followed in his footsteps with disastrous effect. The majority of high profile Catholic politicians have not allowed their faith to influence their decisions--and that has been the problem.

Santorum is unapologetic about his faith and affirms that it is faith and family and freedom that will actually solve the country's problems at the root level. This profound insight is grounded in a Catholic faith that is fully informed, actively engaged and vitally involved. It is popular, positive, optimistic and upbeat, and the American people have never seen anything like it.

What is the response? The mainstream media seem bewildered by Santorum. They would like to paint him as an angry, anti abortion extremist. But he's clearly a nice guy. He's sensible. He listens. He insists that his platform is wider than the one anti abortion plank. The mainstream media also seem bewildered by Santorum's version of Catholicism.

The East coast elite, like the Protestants of my childhood, are also prejudiced about Catholicism. They also have also considered all Catholics to be Kennedy Catholics. But they are starting to notice that the Kennedys aren't around any more. They thought the Catholics were an alliance of big Bishops, big politicians and union leaders with huge resources and a hefty voting base. Santorum has jarred those prejudices.

Santorum has also jarred the Catholics themselves. For the last decade the Kennedy Catholic  Church in this country has been in decline. Cultural Catholics--those who are Catholic simply because of their ethnicity-- are increasingly aged and uninvolved in their faith. The young Catholics are better catechized, more pro life, more zealous for their faith and more active in the world, and Santorum represents this new wave of what we call the John Paul II generation of Catholics.

What must be most frightening to those who are instinctively against Santorum is his popularity with the Protestants. This is unprecedented in American politics. The Protestant Evangelicals were always wary of Catholic politicians because--that's right--they were all Kennedy Catholics. I don't think America has yet woken up to what an earthquake occurred within American religion when a group of Evangelical pastors prayed and joked with Santorum in Texas last week.

For the first time a Catholic politician is popular not only with Catholics, but with Evangelicals. Is anybody out there really opening their eyes to just how huge this new alliance could be? The fact that Santorum is openly admired by Evangelical Protestants also reveals another shift that has been going on for years.

For many cultural, historical and theological reasons, over the last thirty years the hard line between Protestants and Catholics has been softening. Evangelicals are far more likely now to regard Catholics like Santorum as allies rather than enemies.

Whether Santorum wins his party's nomination and ultimately the White House is a totally different issue. What is fascinating is how his appearance on the public scene has articulated existing shifts within Catholicism, within Christianity in America and within the culture as a whole.

The shift is catching the imagination of the whole of America and should make all of us wonder the true impact Santorum Catholicism will have on the future of the United States.

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Fr Dwight Longenecker is parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He is a prolific author, blogger and sought after speaker. Visit his website and blog at dwightlongenecker.com

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