Catholics in the Legislature

Protestants may have ruled in colonial Massachusetts, but there’s little doubt who’s in charge on Beacon Hill today: Catholics. Massachusetts is one of the most Catholic states in the country, with about half the population considered adherents. (By contrast, only about one-fourth of the U.S. population is Catholic.) By some measures, Massachusetts has the second largest Catholic population in the nation, after Rhode Island.

Their reach extends to the highest levels of state government. Not only is Gov. Paul Cellucci a Catholic, but so is most of the Legislature, including powerful House Speaker Thomas Finneran. In fact, more than two-thirds of the members of the House and the Senate identify themselves as Catholic (though some acknowledge their church attendance is sporadic at best). At least 110 of the 160 House members who began the 1999-00 session are Catholic, as are 27 of the 40 senators, according to the Center for Leadership Studies, which surveyed the last Legislature, and CommonWealth research on new members and non-respondents.

While many legislators resist the notion that their religion dictates their votes, it’s hard to deny there’s a Catholic feel to the State House. The Rev. Robert F. Quinn, chaplain to the House of Representatives, begins each day’s session with a prayer and the sign of the cross. Usually Catholic members join in. Boston legislators often identify themselves as coming from a particular Catholic parish. And there are many a darkened foreheads on Ash Wednesday.

But does the presence of so many Catholics have any kind of a practical impact on public policy?

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“It clearly does not,” says House Republican Leader Francis Marini, proud to be of the majority religion though the minority party. Religion rarely even comes up in discussion, formal or informal, he says. “Other than helping individuals form a value system, I think it plays no direct role I’ve ever seen.”

Certainly many Catholic members hold views at odds with church teachings–including Marini, who supports the death penalty and is pro-choice. Marini notes the state’s dioceses have a lobbyist on Beacon Hill, but adds, “I don’t think he’s any more successful than anyone else . . . . The organized church does not have particular power here that I’ve ever seen.”