Ross Douthat is having a sad because Catholicism's influence on American politics seems to have declined since the last time the Church lost a pope:
... 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 Bush win re-election, and prominent Democrats were calling for a friendlier attitude toward religion and a bigger tent on social issues....Wait -- what? Apparently Douthat really believes that voters, Catholic and otherwise, looked at "compassionate conservatism" and thought to themselves, "Why, this seems strikingly reminiscent of the Catholic church's mix of traditional morality and belief in good works! So I'm voting Dubya!" In fact the point of "compassionate conservatism" was to sing the praises of private (especially religious) charities as a means of undermining church-state separation and attacking the government's social safety net without seeming heartless. And it didn't do Bush very much good -- he lost the popular vote (and the Catholic vote) in 2000, when he was still talking a lot about "compassionate conservatism," then in '04, when he barely mentioned "compassionate conservatism," he won (among all voters and Catholics) because he'd rallied the electorate around 9/11 and two ongoing wars (the second of which the Vatican opposed).
But no, Douthat, thinks that was the continuation of a "Catholic moment" that started in the Reagan years:
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 American 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.It may seems as if the Reagan era started a "Catholic moment," but the culture war in which Reagan and the GOP won big victories was only partly concerned with abortion and gays, and far more concerned with popular culture, drugs, crime, foreign policy, communism, race, and guns. Reagan was on the same side as a lot of white ethnics (Catholic and otherwise) on all these issues. Those white ethnics had grown up in a world in which they felt looked down upon by swells and elitists -- and now the Republican Party had persuaded them that the inheritors of that contemptuous elitist tradition were liberal Democrats, who were caricatured as hoity-toity overeducated sophisticates with contempt for decent, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth Americans.
If the Catholic Church seems to have little influence in American politics now, it's not (as Douthat believes) because Benedict is less charismatic that John Paul, or even because of priestly pedophilia. It's because the Reagan Democrats, Catholic and otherwise, are dying off, and younger Catholics don't feel that sense of tribalism. It's also, obviously, because younger Democrats don't feel that premarital sex and birth control and gay marriage and, God help us, birth control and in vitro fertilization are world-historical horrors, which is what the Catholic Church believes.
The Church does sometimes talk about what really does matter to younger voters -- economic inequality, for instance, or war or immigration -- but it talks in whispers. Meanwhile, it shouts about sex. No politician will ever be denied communion for reveling in war or torture or the death penalty or increasing economic inequality or hard-heartedness toward immigrants -- you only get that treatment if you're pro-choice or pro-gay.
So the Church has nothing constructive to offer. If it's politically marginalized, it's the Church's own damn fault.