The National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, held Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C., is an annual confab founded in 2004 ostensibly to promote John Paul II's "New Evangelization" (these cloying neologisms are one of the less fortunate aspects of that great saint's legacy). I say "ostensibly" because the prayer breakfast is really just another appendage of what I like to think of as "Social Conservatism Inc."
I am not someone who makes a point of dumping on social conservative activists. For one thing, I agree with them that abortion is murder, that there is no such thing as same-sex marriage, and that the Little Sisters of the Poor should not be buying anybody rubbers. But as a Catholic I also go much further. For me, whether these sweet ladies or their insurers are cutting the check is a lame procedural question that cannot be answered with mere accounting tricks. The fact that contraception is even legal is wrong, and a judgment on the nation. (A winning platform, I know: Please cut the checks to Walther For President 2032.)
Baby steps are better than no steps at all, of course, and it is thanks to the tireless efforts of Christians of all stripes that procuring an abortion is virtually impossible in states like Kentucky and West Virginia, which are not exactly hotbeds of Catholic fervor. Some 80 percent of white evangelicals now oppose abortion. It was not always thus. For decades even Billy Graham took a moderate, conciliatory view; as late as 1997 he argued that "sincere Christians may differ on whether abortion is ever justified." His son Franklin comes closer to the Catholic position when he says that "God cannot bless a nation that embraces the murder of innocent children."
Though I am gloomy about the pro-life movement's prospects for the future, I am pleased that this coalition exists. What I am not pleased about is the prayer breakfast committee's scandalous decision to invite Vice President Mike Pence, a man who has publicly renounced the Catholic faith, to speak at a nominally Catholic event on issues pertaining to faith and morals.
You may be surprised to hear Pence — whom The New York Times calls "one of the country’s most outwardly religious and socially conservative legislators" — get thumped by a traditionalist Catholic. But Pence has renounced Catholicism. Why on Earth are Catholics asking him to stand for us?
My coreligionists who protest that it doesn't matter because he is faithful to the right causes are missing the point. To the devout, the only cause that matters is that of Catholic truth, ancient and undefiled. Schism is a mortal sin, one that endangers his immortal soul. Pointing this out is not bigotry or crotchetiness on my part, much less zealotry, in which I am shamefully lacking. I have friends and relations who have left the Church, people I love dearly. I do not subject them to daily harangues about their persistence in schism. But I would also never dream of asking them to hold forth in a public forum on religious questions. Sorry, not sorry.
Pence grew up one of four brothers who served Mass at St. Columba in Columbus, Indiana. The Pence boys were so experienced at the altar that even as college students they would receive phone calls from the rectory inviting them to vest up during their summer vacations. It was while he was an undergraduate at Hanover College that he found himself seeking "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ" (which is admirable, though it should be noted that as far as personal relationships go, literally eating someone is a pretty high bar to clear). According to Father Clement T. Davis, Pence's mother, Nancy, was despondent when her son left the Catholic Church and became an evangelical Christian.
Pence came of age during a period of crisis in the Church, the years of confusion and experimentation and indifferentism following the Second Vatican Council and the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Mass. Its fruits are everywhere in evidence: empty pews, a decline in vocations to the priesthood, the near-collapse of women's religious life, people taking Communion every week who have not been to confession in decades, ostensibly catechized adult Catholics who do not realize that the Mass is a sacrifice at which the priest asks the archangel Michael to carry his offering to Christ's altar in heaven rather than a tawdry historical re-enactment of the Last Supper with breaks for hand-holding and quaint little songs.
These trends are only now beginning to reverse themselves now at the hands of Catholics a generation or two younger than Pence. His story is one that could be told by any number of lapsed conservative Catholics in his age bracket (John Kasich, for example). That is why it was so strange hearing him at the prayer breakfast. He described himself with evident affection as "the son of two devout American Catholics" and noted how proud his mother would have been to see him on that stage. He joked about being "from a mid-sized Catholic family: only six children." And he spoke almost wistfully of the role that "the hymns and liturgies of the Catholic faith" played in his youth. "I stand before you today as Michael Richard Christopher Pence," he said, referring to his confirmation under the patronage of St. Christopher. Here my hair stood on end. Intentional or not, this sounded like a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that, despite his willful attempt at separation, he is still one of us.
Though we disagree about many things, I like Pence. He is my kind of politician, a charming, down-to-earth Midwesterner and a fundamentally decent man. Which is why I am praying that the vice president will repent and submit to the pope. I am worried about our vice president's immortal soul.