Catholic Voters No Longer Beholden to Bishops and Abortion

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

In 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 her.

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 scandals.

In the late 1980s, Joseph Cardinal Bernard 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

Going 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.

Recent 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 good.

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.

Hardly 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 change.

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.