Catholic Voters No Longer Beholden to Bishops and Abortion

Catholics have often been urged by their clergy to be single-issue voters when it comes to abortion. But this year a much broader social justice agenda is guiding these voters.

Catholics have often been urged by their clergy to be single-issue
voters when it comes to abortion. But the tide has turned, and this
year a much broader social justice agenda is guiding these voters.

Abortion used to be the litmus test of Catholic orthodoxy. Now the
measure is far broader, more catholic (small "c"). How it happened, how
it will play in the 2008 election, and what it means for the future of
the Catholic community are all in question.

A Little History

1928, Al Smith ran against Herbert Hoover as the first Catholic
candidate for president of a major party. (Another Catholic, Charles
O’Conor, ran in 1872 against President Grant but only got a smattering
of votes.) Smith counted on and got a huge Catholic vote, including
many women who voted for the first time. (Full disclosure: my
grandmother canvassed her neighborhood in Syracuse, NY, for the
candidate, proud that a Catholic was in contention.)

But even
with the support of the bishop, Smith lost miserably to President
Hoover—both the booming economy and anti-Catholic prejudice were likely
to blame.

In 1960, when John Kennedy accomplished what Smith
did not, the Catholic question was reconfigured. Assurances that he was
a Democrat—not a Catholic—running for president, and that he would
follow the Constitution—not the Pope—were apparently enough to gain him
a small but sufficient margin of victory.

Many immigrants were
well-established, living in the suburbs, and seeming more and more
“American” every day. Fears were calmed when Papal Guards were never
drafted into the US military, and the Popes (John XIII and Paul VI
during his presidency) never took up residence on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Ironically, some bishops were bothered by Kennedy’s vehement claims for
the separation of church and state, especially when it meant limiting
funding for parochial schools.

In 1984, the candidacy of
Representative Geraldine A. Ferraro for vice president, with Walter
Mondale against incumbent President Ronald Reagan and Vice President
George H.W. Bush caused the next major Catholic stir. Even though
Ferraro was personally opposed to abortion, she ran on a pro-choice
ticket. This caused conservative bishops, notably Bernard Law of Boston
and John O’Connor of New York (both of whom were elevated to the
cardinalate in 1985, not so coincidentally), to speak publicly against

In response, the Catholic Committee on Pluralism and Abortion took out an ad in the New York Times
on Sunday, October 7, 1984, a month before the election, to claim that
“a diversity of opinions regarding abortion exists among committed
Catholics.” The text continued: “A large number of Catholic theologians
hold that even direct abortion, though tragic, can sometimes be a moral
choice.” The ad included a call for “candid and respectful discussion
on this diversity of opinion within the Church” and urged that those
“who publicly dissent from hierarchical statements and explore areas of
moral and legal freedom on the abortion question would not be penalized
by their religious superiors, church employers, or bishops.” Mondale
and Ferraro lost the election by a Republican tsunami in favor of the
happy days of Reaganomics, but the US Catholic community was never the
same again.

The 97 signers of the ad were in fact penalized
every thinkable way. The 26 nuns who belonged to 14 canonical
communities were asked by Cardinal Jean Jerome Hamer of the
Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes to retract their
signatures publicly or be dismissed from their orders. The nuns varied
considerably in their responses, some recanting, others refusing, still
others “clarifying” the matter as best they could given the pressures
on them and their communities. The one diocesan and one order priest as
well as the two religious brothers who signed were confronted with
similar demands, with which they complied quickly.

The other 67
signers, including theologians and activists (full disclosure: I
signed), were also sanctioned—but differently. Many lost jobs, tenure,
and/or promotion in Catholic institutions. Virtually all were excluded
from certain dioceses for speaking or teaching engagements, a ban that
remains in some places to this day. As the chilling impact of the
Vatican’s wrath trickled down, many signers were simply referred to as
“not Catholic” by the increasingly empowered anti-abortion movement
that arose in the wake of this incident.

The New York Times
ad was a decisive chapter in American Catholic history because it made
transparent how the hierarchical Church works in enforcing its view.
The aftermath was a painful reminder that priests and members of
religious communities according to Catholic Canon Law are “public”
persons in the Catholic Church whose dissent from the hierarchy’s view
is considered scandalous, thus punishable.

The hierarchy made
good on its threats to reign in those who teach, counsel and preach in
its institutions. It further served as a warning to Catholic
politicians to mind their doctrines when they run for office. In all,
it showed a certain ecclesiastical muscle that has grown flaccid since,
in large part due to the priest pedophilia and episcopal cover-up

In the late 1980s, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin
in Chicago championed the so-called Consistent Ethic of Life or
“seamless garment” approach to the question of abortion. In this view,
abortion, while important, is joined by moral concerns about war,
capital punishment, euthanasia, economic justice, racism, and the like.
There is dispute among adherents as to whether abortion is the
preeminent concern or one among equals in this approach. This
discrepancy is key to the current shift among anti-abortion Catholic
citizens who are choosing pro-choice Barack Obama over anti-abortion
John McCain.

Catholics and the 2008 Election

into the 2008 election, Catholic voters were considered a crucial
cohort since they have been in the majority of those casting popular
votes for the winner in the last nine presidential contests.
Nonetheless, no one claimed that Catholics were anything close to being
monolithic in their political opinions, nor that clergy could deliver
votes on one side or the other. But there was every reason to think
that abortion would still be the touchstone of orthodoxy, with
politicians dancing around their personal convictions and political
necessities in a religiously pluralistic democracy.

events have served to dislodge abortion and install a much broader
social justice agenda that guides Catholic voters. An economy teetering
on recession and a failed war in Iraq have shifted the moral focus for
most people from personal to social ethics, from abortion to the common

A few bishops continue to rant that abortion is the
sole criterion for voting. For example, Bishop Robert J. Herman of the
Archdiocese of St. Louis told Catholics in his diocese that “…this
coming election may very well be judgment day,” since “The decision I
make in the voting booth will reflect my value system. If I value the
good of the economy and my current lifestyle more than I do the right
to life itself, then I am in trouble.” While some parishioners feared
for their immortal souls, most, I suspect wondered who appointed Bishop
Herman judge. Likewise, Bishop Joseph F. Martino in Scranton,
Pennsylvania, railed away against pro-choice candidates whom he alleged
“support homicide,” an overreach of episcopal proportions.

The real story is with bishops who have taken to heart their own November 2007 document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States.”
Rather than dictate policy, they wrote, “We bishops do not intend to
tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote. Our purpose is to help
Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth. We
recognize that the responsibility to make choices in political life
rests with each individual in light of a properly formed
conscience….” (No. 7) They go on to say: “There may be times when a
Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to
vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this
way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to
advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a
fundamental moral evil” (No. 35).

This formulation allows some bishops to counsel against single-issue
voting. For example, Bishop J. Terry Steib of Memphis, Tennessee,
claimed that a well-formed conscience could include voting for
candidates “who may not support the Church’s position in every case”
(read: Senator Obama). Similarly, Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala of the
Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Bishop-President of Pax Christi,
a US Catholic peace group, urged talking about life issues, “beginning
with abortion but including all of them.” It is clear that these
bishops have not backed off of abortion, but it is equally the case
that they have not so focused on it that they miss the many
conditions—racism, poverty, sexism, war, among others—that form the
context in which abortions are necessary, the context that needs to
change if the number of abortions is to be reduced. This larger context
constitutes “gravely moral reasons” why a Catholic could, some might
say should, vote for Obama over McCain despite their respective
positions on abortion.

Theologians and other Catholic scholars
have led the way on this approach. Pro-choice Catholic scholars have
long argued that one can favor legal abortion from a Catholic
perspective as part of a broadly conceived agenda for social justice.
But it is hard to overestimate the sea change that is happening when
those who oppose abortion recognize and articulate the need for such an
agenda even if it is promoted by a candidate who is pro-choice. Boston
College theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill’s approach is to criticize those
bishops that “have come dangerously close to making implicit political
endorsements by telling Catholics that abortion trumps all other moral
issues and lashing out against the Democratic Party.” She is a Catholic
scholar who opposes abortion but recognizes that “at a time of profound
economic crisis, understanding the connection between poverty and
abortion taken on even greater urgency.”

The former dean of the
Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America, Douglas
Kmiec, now professor at Pepperdine University, surprised his fellow
anti-abortion supporters by deeming Senator Obama quite Catholic for
his views on the war in Iraq, health care, and other bread-and-butter
justice issues, despite Obama’s pro-choice position. Another law
professor, Nicholas Cafardi of Duquesne University, has also assessed
the scene and concluded that there is more than one “intrinsic evil” in
the world, a safe bet given the myriad challenges to human life abroad
among us. He has said that Barack Obama will do a better job of
operationalizing Catholic values than his opponent.

defections from the anti-abortion camp, these respected scholars are
simply broadening their definition of “pro-life” and moving toward a
“seamless garment” view which allows for more than one issue to be the
basis of a well-formed Catholic conscience.

Professor Cafardi, both a civil and canon lawyer, suggested that even overturning Roe v. Wade
will not end abortion as the matter would revert to the states. The
logic and persuasiveness of these arguments by anti-abortion Catholics
signals change. In fact, at the 11th hour of the campaign, several
heads of committees of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a
statement reinforcing another part of their 2007 statement: “Both
opposing evil and doing good are essential obligations.” (No. 24). One
wonders if the bishops do protest too much, if in the rough and tumble

of politics they really want a candidate who opposes abortion but
favors fiscal, military, and social policies that run counter to much
of Catholic social teaching.

Predictably, George Weigel and
other Catholic conservative writers are also deeply disturbed by this
turn of events. They are realistic about how hard it is to make a case
for the Republican platform on the basis of Catholic social teaching.
Even if abortion were not on the table, Senator McCain’s approaches to
health care, tax policy, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be
a hard sell to well-formed Catholic consciences. I presume that the
Weigels of this world are boxed in on the abortion issue in ways that
make it hard to move. Or, less likely, they are still enamored of
President Bush’s failed economic policies that have impoverished the
middle class and threatened the existence of those who are poor.
Perhaps they prefer to support bans on abortion than lay out their
economic priorities for public Catholic scrutiny in light of teachings
in favor of the common good, the preferential option for the poor, and
other traditional Catholic ways of saying that the earth’s good belongs
to all of the earth’s people.

In any case, the tide has turned.
While there is no Catholic consensus, there is now clearly a move
toward seeing a range of issues as “life” issues, including war,
poverty, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and environmental destruction.
That Catholics will vote their consciences is not in question. That
they have informed them on more than matters of abortion is a welcome

Catholics of Tomorrow

The first
test of this new consensus will be in the presidential election itself.
My crystal ball is out of commission, the polls can be wrong, and
anything can happen two weeks out. But I expect that Catholics will
vote for Obama in large numbers. I am not sure this is because of or
even in spite of his position on abortion. Rather, I think it may be a
sign that the centrality of abortion for Catholics is over. Even the
bishops in their nuanced statement did not insist that any single issue
ought to determine one’s vote. And even if they had, I think the genie
is out of the bottle and Catholic hierarchical leaders do not have the
clout they might have had in the 1980s.

No matter the
outcome of the election, there will undoubtedly be backlash from those
who will keep their focus on abortion and perhaps even try to make
contraception harder to get and pay for. Already “pro-life” pharmacies
are springing up that do not stock even condoms. Given the HIV/AIDS
pandemic, this alone is morally unspeakable.

The larger
picture is more promising in my view. A broader understanding of
Catholic social justice teaching will prevail. War, want, and greed
will be shown up for the contradictions they present to abundant life
for all. New energy and new coalitions will emerge among those
Catholics and many others who commit to creating a context in which
peace, prosperity, and shared resources are the norm. How one
cooperates in this effort, how one contributes to the common good, will
be the hallmark of tomorrow’s Catholics.

This article was first published at Religion Dispatches.