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 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.

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  • invalid-0

    I noticed that you did not quote “The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.” (No. 28) and “In making these decisions [on how to vote], it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions” (No. 37) in the USCCB document

      Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States

    . Yes, this document can be twisted in many ways but but the intent of the document is clear.

    You also put your own interesting spin on things. For instance, you say ‘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).’ Unless you supply more evidence, I would not say this statement shows support for Senator Obama but that the bishop is merely saying that there will most likely be no perfect candidate that supports all of the Church’s postions or that a voter could run into a situation “When all candidates hold a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.” (No. 36)

    Another interesting spin – you say ‘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.’ No, Professor Cafardi is merely pointing out the hard reality that the work is not done if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

  • invalid-0

    In the 80s, most of this Bishops indicated their flocks should only vote for Democrats. I don’t remember abortion being mentioned at all. It was more about nuclear war.

  • invalid-0

    Whatever the issue, MANY Catholics resent being told how to vote and the threat of excommunication. It’s a large world. In my part of it, many Catholics have just moved away from the Catholic Church into other Christian environments which better represent the morality they BELIEVE to be that which Christ represents.

  • http://JesusWouldBeFurious.Org/ invalid-0

    “Liberal Catholicism” in America was a temporary historical aberration and “it’s over”.

    The Roman Catholic Church was redirected from the liberalism of Jesus of Nazareth into the conservatism of Paul of Tarsus in the very first or second generation of “Christians” and it became totally identified with earthly power and materialism when the Bishop and Rome and the Emperor of Rome became partners. And little has changed over the centuries in that respect.

    The only reason that the Catholic Church in America was allowed to become “liberal” for a time was that, despite the United States being a despised “democracy” and a haven for free-thinking Protestants and other non-Catholics, the massive immigration of Catholics from Europe had the potential of taking over that democracy. Since the power structure in America was largely “non-Catholic” and the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed were the largely Catholic lower class, the Roman Catholic hierarchy and clergy abandoned their normal allegiance with the ruling class, and became liberal champions of the lower class.

    But that period in American history is now long gone. America’s already had one Catholic president, is about to have the V.P.. Catholics have the Speaker of the House, the MAJORITY of the U.S. Supreme Court, many of the leading U.S. Senators and Congressmen, many governors, etc. etc.

    And the Vatican, which is firmly back in the hands of the conservatives who have ruled the church for most of the last two millenia is making sure that the U.S. has nothing but very conservative bishops, who are doing their best to make sure there is nothing but conservative clergy and theologians to mold the minds of current and future Catholics.

    At the moment, the situation in the country is so dire that the hierarchy aren’t pushing their weight around, knowing that their flock might well rebuff their efforts. But as soon as they get the chance, the conservative hierarchy will be pushing their weight around to crush the fewer and fewer liberal Catholics who want to run for or stay in political office.

    Check out my CatholicArrogance.Org/ web site for more.

  • invalid-0

    There is a name for Catholics who do not believe in the teachings of the Catholic Church…they are Protestants. Move along, Mary, stop claiming to be Catholic when you do not believe in what it means to be faithful. Church teaching on this issue is very clear. Be honest with yourself. I do not believe what Mormons believe, hence I am not a Mormon. You do not believe what Catholics believe, hence you are not Catholic, despite what you claim to the contrary.

  • invalid-0

    Mary Hunt’s “Catholics of tomorrow” will still call them Catholics, even when they are following the orders of their furor, Herr Barack Obama, by packing the Latin Mass Traditionalists into box cars destined for the concentration camps.

    God help us.

  • invalid-0

    What good is world peace and all of our social programs if we are killing the very children who would benefit? Abortions do not just destroy infants, they can also cause great remorse and grief for the parents. Abortions also cause a decline in a society’s general repect for human life. I just do not understand your arguments, especially when you are trying to justify them from a Catholic perspective

  • invalid-0

    One thing came to mind while reading this column…”women’s movement.” Bishops on down can have their opinion and agenda. We had a warning, Timothy II, Chapter 4, vers 3, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine: but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears,” Guidance from the pope is clear. Abortion is the main issue to decide who to vote for, only after that is it within Catholic teaching to decide who to vote for. Abortion is state-sanctioned infanticide, abortion trumps all other concerns. McCain may finally achieve what so many pro-life advocates have worked so hard to finally see accomplished, repeal of Roe v Wade. October 7, 1984 add, to vote on one issue on Nuclear war over abortion, a possible sin man did would be judged by God. Allowing abortion and the killing of innocence of children, who have a right to exist in God’s image and according to his divine plan is an individual choice we will be judged on. Remember the commandment “Thow shalt not kill.” I pray for this country and all and for the over forty million aborted souls.

  • invalid-0

    Hmm. Last time I checked a person can choose to be Catholic or not. Not sure why people who so strongly disagree with the Church about something so fundamental as the right to life would want want to be part of the club. You don’t show up to a PETA meeting wearing a fur coat and get indignant that they won’t let you stand in the picture they’re taking for their brochure. Might be best to start your own club in such a case.

  • truth

    "And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."


    I have said this before, but our friends here on this site don’t want to acknowledge it for some reason? The Catholic Church is not a Republic. It’s an extension of the Kingdom of God run by the Holy Spirit through the Pope on Earth as the Vicar of Christ.

  • http://JesusWouldBeFurious.Org/ invalid-0

    How dare you, David Werling, compare Obama voters to the Nazis, (by saying they might “pack the Latin Mass Traditionalists into box cars destined for the concentration camps.”)
    when most of the most powerful Nazis were conservative Roman Catholics, including # , i. e. Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Josef Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, Rudolf Hoess, Julius Streicher, Fritz Thyssen, Klaus Barbie, and Franz Von Papen and R. C. Leon Degrelle who was head of the Nazi state of Belgium.
    # R. C. Emil Hacha who was head of the Nazi state of Bohemia-Moravia.
    # R. C. Ante Pavelic who was head of the Nazi state of Croatia.
    # R. C. Konrad Henlein who who was head of the Nazi state of Sudetenland.
    # R. C. Pierre Laval who was head of the Nazi state of Vichy-France.
    # R. C. Henry Petain who was head of the Nazi state of Vichy-France.
    # R. C. priest, Fr. Josef Tiso who was head of the Nazi state of Slovakia.
    See much MORE about all this at my JesusWouldBeFurious.Org/NaziLeadership.html site.
    These conservative Catholic friends of yours didn’t just pack Jews into box cars destined for the concentration camps, but liberal Catholics, and Catholic Poles as well.
    It’s sick for “traditionalist” Catholics to imagine themselves to be threatened in a country where they are so powerful that they have 4 if not 5 of the seats on the 9 member U.S. SUPREME COURT!!

  • http://LiberalsLikeChrist.Org/ invalid-0

    Actually, Misnomer is right when he/she says
    “Move along, Mary, stop claiming to be Catholi\c when you do not believe what Catholics believe. You don’t have to follow me in every respect, but I would recommend that you do something like what I did 40 years ago.
    I joined thousands of other priests and perhaps millions of lay people and left the Catholic Church when I faced the fact that it would be dishonest of me to continue claiming to be a Catholic when I didn’t believe what the church teaches.

    See my LiberalsLikeChrist.Org/
    and CatholicArrogance.Org/ web sites.