Catholic Bishops Ponder How to Sharpen the Church's Anti-Abortion Message When ... Catholic Voters Help Elect a Pro-Choice President

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Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY

Tom Masters said he's "disturbed" that a majority of his fellow Catholics voted for Barack Obama despite the Democrat's well-known support for abortion rights.

It shows "a great disregard of church teachings by Catholics," said Masters, a parishioner at Holy Spirit Parish in Jacksonville and leader of the local chapter of Catholics United for Life, an anti-abortion group.

But the Northside's Shirley Mills couldn't see it any more differently. A parishioner at the mostly African-American St. Pius V Parish, Mills said she voted for Obama because of his support for universal health care and his opposition to the Iraq war - two stances supported by Catholic social teaching. It also didn't hurt that Obama, like Mills, is black.

"I had many reasons to go with Obama," Mills said. "It was more than just the abortion thing."

The primacy abortion should or shouldn't have in Catholic voting has been a growing subject of contention within the American church since exit polls showed 54 percent of Catholics voted for Obama, compared with 45 percent for Republican rival John McCain. Conservatives, including many bishops, say the centrality of abortion, embryonic stem cell research and other "life" issues in Catholic moral teaching must be more clearly and forcefully articulated to the laity. Moderates and liberals stress the church's full array of economic and social teachings, suggesting that Obama was the more theologically-correct candidate of the two.

Other conservative Christians voted along more predictable lines. White evangelicals, for example, picked McCain 73 to 26 percent, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

So the question many Catholic bishops have is why, despite their intense pre-election effort to call attention to the Democrat's abortion rights views, did their flock favor Obama?

'DANGEROUS MOMENT'

In the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, a number of conservative bishops warned Catholics against voting for a pro-choice candidate. Among them was Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, who described Obama as the "most committed" abortion rights candidate since the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, the Associated Press reported.

The issue took center stage again last week when the nation's Catholic bishops met in Baltimore.

They re-examined how the church communicates its teachings and issued a statement congratulating Obama on his historic victory. But they also said his goal of national unity will be impossible if he pursues aggressive abortion rights policies.

"The danger the bishops see at this moment is that [Roe v. Wade] will be enshrined in bad legislation that is more radical than the 1973 Supreme Court decision itself," the statement said.

THE RELIGIOUS VOTE

There was an ethnic dimension to Obama's choice among Catholics. While white Catholics narrowly chose McCain over Obama, 52 to 47 percent, Hispanics, who are mostly Catholic, chose the Illinois senator 67 to 31 percent, the Pew forum reported.

Strident anti-immigrant rhetoric in the Republican party is likely responsible for sending most Hispanics into the Obama camp, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and expert on politics and religion at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

ECONOMY VS. THEOLOGY

The fact that most Catholics looked past the abortion issue to support Obama shouldn't come as a surprise, Reese said.

"Catholics, like everybody else, were very concerned about their jobs, their mortgages, their homes, their 401(k)s," he said.

But the fact that Catholics favored Republican President George W. Bush over Democrat John Kerry, a Catholic, in 2004 is evidence that Obama's showing among Catholics this year wasn't because of a values gap between the church's laity and leaders, Reese said. …