The last time the Chair of St. Peter stood vacant, during Pope John Paul II's funeral in 2005, the Roman Catholic Church enjoyed a wave of unusually favorable coverage from the U.S. press. The Polish pope had a way of disarming even his most stringent critics, and that power extended beyond his death, turning his funeral into a made-for-television spectacle that almost felt like an infomercial for the Catholic faith.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the mid-2000s were the last time the Catholic vision of the good society -- more egalitarian than American conservatism and more moralistic than American liberalism -- enjoyed real influence in U.S. politics.
At the time of John Paul's death, the Republican Party's agenda was still stamped by George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism," which offered a right-of-center approach to Catholic ideas about social justice. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, was looking for ways to woo the "values voters" (many of them Catholic) who had just helped President Bush win re-election, and prominent Democrats were calling for a friendlier attitude toward religion and a bigger tent on social issues.
That was a long eight years ago. Since then, the sex abuse scandals that shadowed John Paul's last years have become the defining story of his successor's papacy, and the unexpected abdication of Benedict XVI has only confirmed the narrative of a church in disarray. His predecessor was buried amid reverent coverage from secular outlets, but the current pope can expect a send-off marked by sourness and shrugs.
The collapse in the church's reputation has coincided with a substantial loss of Catholic influence in U.S. political debates. Whereas eight years ago a Catholic view of economics and culture represented a center that both parties hoped to claim, today's Republicans are more likely to channel Ayn Rand than Thomas Aquinas, and a strident social liberalism holds the whip hand in the Democratic Party.
Indeed, between Mitt Romney's comments about the mooching 47 percent and the White House's cynical decision to energize its base by picking fights over abortion and contraception, both parties spent 2012 effectively running against Catholic ideas about the common good.
This transformation suggests that we may have reached the end of a distinctive "Catholic moment" (to repurpose a phrase from the late Catholic priest-intellectual Richard John Neuhaus) in U.S. politics, one that began in the 1980s after John Paul's ascension to the papacy and the migration of many Catholic "Reagan Democrats" into the Republican Party.
This was hardly the first era when Catholic ideas shaped American debates. (New Deal-era liberalism, for instance, owed a major debt to Catholic social thought.) But it was the first era when the Catholic vote was both frequently decisive and genuinely up for grabs, and it was an era when Catholic debates and personalities filled the vacuum left by the decline of the Protestant mainline.
The fact that the Second Vatican Council had left the church internally divided limited Catholic influence in some ways but magnified it in others. Because the church's divisions often mirrored the country's, a politician who captured the typical Catholic voter was probably well on his way to victory, and so would-be leaders of both parties had every incentive to frame their positions in Catholic-friendly terms. The church might not always be speaking with one voice, but both left and right tried to borrow its language.
If this era is now passing, and Catholic ideas are becoming more marginal to our politics, it's partly because institutional Christianity is weaker overall than a generation ago, and partly because Catholicism's leaders have done their part, and then some, to hasten that de-Christianization. Any church that presides over a huge cover-up of sex abuse can hardly complain when its worldview is regarded with suspicion. The present pope has too often been scapegoated for the sex abuse crisis, but America's bishops have if anything gotten off too easily, and even now seem insufficiently chastened for their sins.
The recent turn away from Catholic ideas has also been furthered by a political class that never particularly cared for them in the first place. Even in a more unchurched America, a synthesis of social conservatism and more egalitarian-minded economic policies could have a great deal of mass appeal. But our elites seem mostly relieved to stop paying lip service to the Catholic synthesis; professional Republicans are more libertarian than their constituents, professional Democrats are more secular than their party's rank-and-file and professional centrists get their encyclicals from Michael Bloomberg rather than the Vatican.
Nothing that happens in Rome over the next few months is likely to convert the Acela Corridor's donors and strategists and think tankers to a more Catholic-friendly worldview. The next pope may be more effective than Benedict, or he may be clumsier; he may improve the church's image in this country, or he may worsen it.
But if there is another Catholic moment waiting in our nation's future, it can only be made by Americans themselves.
Ross Douthat is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.