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Orphaned by the church

THIS STRANGER, our church.

With news of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's selection as the new pope, the phrase ''progressive Catholic" sounds more and more like an oxymoron. Can you be one during the reign of Benedict XVI?

The mainstream US media grant elevated status to Catholics who hold liberal views about gay marriage, married priests, birth control, and choice. But the Roman Catholic Church is less exalting. It has been telling so-called progressive Catholics to wake up and smell the incense: The Vatican is not progressive, nor is it a democracy. Accept the views or leave the pews.

The message, delivered sternly in the past, promises to be delivered even more so under Pope Benedict. Still, the disaffected, from partially lapsed to completely collapsed, call themselves Catholic. A prominent Boston businessman heavily involved in archdiocese matters recently explained how he keeps the faith: He ignores what he doesn't like, blocks out what he doesn't want to hear and defines for himself what it is to be a good Catholic.

The average American ''cafeteria Catholic" has long been picking and choosing. It can still be done, but following such a path means facing hostility from fellow Catholics who follow the rules as defined by the pope. And the rules are grimly unambiguous.

At Mass, the Prayer of the Faithful now calls upon the congregation to proclaim marriage a sacrament between ''one man and one woman. . . . Let us pray to the Lord." From the pews, you can feel the church flex new political muscle, making it harder to draw a personal distinction between political belief and religious belief. In addition to the old antiabortion material, there are new handouts against stem cell research.

The subplot to the religious story is a political story. As Rome goes, so goes the White House, empowering conservative Catholics, weakening liberal Catholics.

George W. Bush became the first sitting US president to attend a papal funeral. In 2004, John Kerry, a Democrat and Catholic, lost to Bush, a Republican Methodist. As the conservative American Spectator crowed after election day, ''Because he lost Catholics -- an amazing fact when one considers that Kerry himself is Catholic -- he lost the race."

Democrats are reaching the same painful conclusion. On March 29, DemocracyCorps, the consulting group headed by celebrity Democratic strategists James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, and Bob Shrum, issued a memorandum entitled ''Reclaiming the white Catholic vote." It was based on a survey of 1,033 Catholics conducted between Feb. 22-28.

The first paragraph delivers the bleak truth: Bill Clinton carried the white Catholic vote by 7 points (48 to 41 percent). Al Gore lost the white Catholic vote by 7 points (45-52 percent). And John Kerry lost the white Catholic vote by 13 points (43 to 56 percent) -- ''a 20-point swing against the Democrats over three elections."

Their conclusion: ''The drop in Catholic support is a big part of the 2004 election story, as Democratic support dropped sharply compared to 2000 in nearly all the Eastern states, including New England. Kerry also lost some ground among Catholics in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan."

The DemocracyCorps memo identifies ''defectors" -- Catholics who call themselves Democrats but voted for Bush because of conservative views on culture issues, greater trust of Republicans on security issues, and general skepticism about Kerry. For defectors, the sharpest break with the Democrats comes over social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Ever pragmatic, Democrats are looking to recapture these defectors.

According to this survey, Democrats win their greatest support from less-observant Catholics, from ''those looking for a more modern church." That is the group most disenchanted by the selection of Cardinal Ratzinger as successor to John Paul II. In other words, at the national level, Democrats draw their strongest support from American Catholics with the least influence as a political force and with the least influence within their own church.

The church is clearly moving away from progressive Catholics. How long will progressive Catholics stick with the church?

There is something slightly irrational about the stubbornness to stick to a religion despite irreconcilable differences. It is the one relationship we won't divorce, even if our partner is more than happy to show us the door.

The willingness to be marginalized as a political force and a religious one may be stranger than the church to which we cling.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

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