Catholics in the Pews Vote Their Conscience

Is Barack Obama the best and most principled choice for
Catholics seeking to foster a culture of life in the United States and abroad, or is he
the most extreme pro-abortion presidential candidate ever to appear on a
national ticket?

In the past few weeks, Catholic leaders have staked out
ground that far apart.

Prominent anti-choice Catholics who have endorsed Obama, including
Doug Kmeic and Nicholas
, emphasize Obama’s pro-prevention policies as a more effective
means of reducing the rate of unintended pregnancy. They also call attention to
Obama’s support for a stronger social safety net, and his position on a host of
other issues they see as moral imperatives – war, the environment, health care,
and poverty.  Two Catholic organizations,
Catholics United
and Catholics in
Alliance for the Common Good
, which calls for a "consistent ethic of
life," are promoting the idea that Catholics can vote their consciences by
supporting candidates who favor health care access and stronger social services
for pregnant women.

Other Catholics, both ordained and lay, have been vocal opponents of
Obama’s candidacy.  The latest Washington
Post/ABC News poll
found that Catholics favor John McCain by 54% to 41%. 

But although the Catholic Church hierarchy is
unqualified in its opposition to legal abortion, Catholics, the Post/ABC poll
found that Catholics are divided over the issue of abortion, with slightly more
saying it should be legal in most or all cases.

If you’re Catholic and a regular church attendee, it’s not as easy as it
once was to simply support and vote for candidates who hold positions with
which you agree.

Catholic hierarchy members are lashing out at fellow Catholics for daring to
examine presidential candidates who do not pass a litmus test for abortion. Over
the weekend, Denver Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput told a Catholic
women’s group, "To suggest – as some Catholics do – that Senator Obama is this
year’s ‘real’ pro-life candidate requires a peculiar kind of self-hypnosis, or
moral confusion, or worse."  It’s nothing
new – when John Kerry ran for President in 2004, he was denied communion by
some Catholic churches solely because of his support for access to abortion
services for women. There was little response from fellow Catholics then.

But in this election season, Catholic religious leaders are being
challenged. And they don’t like it. Fellow
Catholic religious leaders, pro-life scholars, church-goers, and Catholic
organizations alike are revealing that their Catholicism does not
mandate voting for a candidate based on a single issue. They are also saying
that they will no longer stand for certain religious leaders interpreting
Catholicism on behalf of all Americans.

Catholics grappling with their upcoming choice are buzzing
on the blogosphere, too — including plenty who can’t understand Catholics who support Obama.

On Public
, Robert George made the "most extreme pro-abortion candidate" charge,
on the grounds that Obama supports the Freedom of Choice Act and opposes the
Hyde Amendment, which outlaws federal funding for abortions.  As Amie wrote last week, and I’ll write this
week, neither support for FOCA nor opposition to Hyde is radical or
extreme.  Both merely ensure that
reproductive rights as outlined by Roe are just that – rights, not privileges
based on geography or socioeconomic status.

Writing on the American
, Robert Stacy McCain claims that the interventions proven to
reduce the unintended pregnancy rate – comprehensive sexuality education and
access to contraception – themselves can’t be supported by staunch Catholics:
"Catholic doctrine…is directly at odds with the ‘comprehensive sexuality
education’ (CSE) philosophy that Obama and the Democrats support. Not
only is CSE pro-homosexuality, but it mandates
explicit instruction in the use of condoms and contraceptives (‘safe
sex’), which are forbidden by Catholic teaching."

Mollie at GetReligion
teases out Kmiec’s stance on legal abortion, and on the difference between
being personally pro-life and believing that that belief should be expressed in
law and public policy.  She cites a
recent Kmiec op-ed in the LA
, in which Kmiec writes, "The way out is to remember that when there
are differences among religious creeds, none is entitled to be given preference
in law or policy. Sometimes the law must simply leave space for the exercise of
individual judgment, because our religious or scientific differences of opinion
are for the moment too profound to be bridged collectively."  For Mollie, that position means Kmiec
shouldn’t claim the "pro-life" label: "[I]f Kmiec is arguing that abortion
should be legal because of a lack of consensus on the issue, it makes it a bit
difficult to call him pro-life. How is that position different from that of
pro-choicers such as former Gov. Mario Cuomo or Sen. Joe Biden?"

features an exchange between a Catholic concerned about hunger
issues, health care and capital punishment and using those concerns as his or
her mandate for selecting a candidate, and a Catholic who argues that Catholics
should vote based on a candidate’s position on "unquestionable evils" that
cannot balanced against other positions or policies the candidate holds.

No matter how Catholics break on November 4, this year’s election has seen unprecedented engagement with what "voting your conscience" really means.

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  • invalid-0

    Actually there is very little divide for Catholics on abortion compared to what the media and this post contend.

    A Marist College poll taken earlier this month finds 63 percent of Catholics say abortions should be permitted in none or almost no cases by opposing all abortions, all abortions except to save the mother’s life, or all abortions except to save the mother’s life or in cases of rape or incest.

    That puts 63 percent of Catholics opposing about 98 percent of all abortions, according to Alan Guttmacher Institute information about when abortions are done.

    The poll also showed 77 percent of Americans, and 79 percent of Catholics, support parental notification while just 19 percent of Americans and 17 percent of Catholics are opposed.

    These are clear majorities…

  • paul-bradford



    You’ve done a good job at reporting on this very interesting drama.  I’m glad that people like you are trying to make sense of it.


    For Catholics, abortion is a moral issue.  It’s about recognizing the humanity of a class of people whose humanity is regularly overlooked.  To be Catholic is to see opposition to abortion not merely as a religious preference but also as a call to justice.  It’s not enough simply to avoid abortion or to advise against it — one must also be an advocate for the voiceless.


    Sadly, though, the leadership of our Church has decided to make abortion a legal issue as well as a moral one.  We have been told that the strategy of working to restrict access to abortion is the proper "Pro-Life" strategy.  I dispute this.  It is possible, even desireable, to endorse an arrangement where mothers have the final say about whether to bring a pregnancy to term while, at the same time, speaking truth to power and urging those mothers to take the well being of their children into account as they make their pregnancy decisions.


    It is not a requirement of the Pro-Life position to be anti-choice.  Pro-Life should be about advancing the cause of human rights, not moving backwards on the issue.  It ought to be obvious to anyone that women are the ‘deciders’ when it comes to making choices about their own bodies — but with choice comes responsibility.  Urging people to take responsibility for their decisions is part of what it means to take morality seriously.  We are ‘each other’s keepers’ when it comes to our response to right and wrong.


    Barack Obama has consistently repudiated efforts to restrict a woman’s access to abortion — but he has done a better job than his opponent at actually advancing programs that will enable all of us to increase our respect for the unborn.  The "Culture of Life" that Pope John Paul II advocated will be a response to an increased concern about all life everywhere.  It can’t be manufactured by restricting a woman’s options.


    Anyone who takes it upon herself, or himself to try to increase respect for the unborn must also demonstrate respect for the mothers of the unborn.  The more Pro-Lifers come to realize this fact, the better job will we do at advocating for the very young.


    Paul Bradford

    Pro-Life Catholics for Choice

  • invalid-0


    Interesting commentary… as a Catholic, you are aware then that the Catholic Church has been against abortion since the first century, right? They are not “turning this into” anything. As Catholics we are required to vote our conscience. Your organization’s name is an oxymoron. No one today would accept this statement from any public servant: ‘I am personally opposed to human slavery and racism but will not impose my personal conviction in the legislative arena.’ Likewise, none of us should accept this statement from any public servant: “I am personally opposed to abortion but will not impose my personal conviction in the legislative arena.” It does a disservice to your faith to confuse the position of the Catholic Church.

    The part that is rarely stated is that this is not a rule for Catholics alone. All are encouraged to vote their conscience on all issues. When any of us go to the polls, we do ourselves, our community, our faith, and our country a HUGE disservice if we do not. If I vote “for my neighbor” then I actually have no representation! If your friend votes pro-life to appease you, the same disservice to the democratic process (and the issue of conscience) has been enacted.

    Catholics have realized for a long time that they are a minority in a Protestant country. To their credit, Catholics are for or against positions, not people. If there is a ‘moral’ position the Church holds that comes up for a vote, the Catholic needs to (in good conscience) vote as required by his faith. Otherwise how do you, me, or anyone else have any respect for them! Why would I respect your proclaimed Catholic faith if you vote Pro-Choice, Paul? I respect you when you stand for what you say you stand for, not when you buckle at the first (and one of the easiest) opportunities to express it.

    Look, I feel very sorry if you are struggling so hard with your faith. But if Catholic leaders say this is “foundational” and you see that as a “debate inside the Church,” maybe you should choose a different faith. That way you could continue to play both sides of the fence.

  • invalid-0

    I hit “return” too fast. I agree that this is a well-written article, Emily. This is not an easy issue for Catholics. And you did a very fine job of not insulting our faith while accurately representing the “struggle.” Catholics generally understand that pro-life candidates do not make abortion “magically” disappear. We understand that it just means we have a “shared value.” Period.

    Neither party has ever fully addressed Catholic concerns… and that is probably good. We appreciate the social policies Sen. Obama would like to enact, but his selection of a pro-choice Catholic really kind of put salt in a wound…. especially after the ’04 election. Had Sen. Obama selected a pro-life non-Catholic or a pro-choice non-Catholic, it would have been easier to swallow. But to actually feel like we are voting for someone a part of the team who is misrepresenting our faith is quite disturbing. At least with the pro-life non-Catholic Sen.Obama would have been able to show that he wants to bring America together on all issues and would have captured the Catholic (and most likely the Evangelical) vote easily. But regardless, good article!!