Roman Catholics - a sought-after swing vote in several
battleground states - are caught up in a charged debate over how to
apply the church's moral teaching to politics.
Like other Americans, Catholics rate the economy as the top issue
for this election. But the political debate has once again pushed
the contentious issue of abortion to the fore, potentially affecting
how some "undecideds" vote. It has also stirred concerns that
partisanship on the part of a few church leaders could damage the
role of faith in public life.
Four years ago, conservatives helped deliver the Catholic vote to
George Bush over fellow-Catholic John Kerry, insisting that an
antiabortion stance was a litmus test for the candidates.
Viewing that effort as divisive and narrow, other Catholics have
since worked to broaden the political agenda to more fully reflect
the church's social teaching and its emphasis on promoting the
common good. They've created new organizations, such as Catholics
United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, and reached
out to ordinary Catholics of every stripe, urging them to consider
candidates' positions on a wide range of societal issues.
"These new groups are moderate voices who are presenting the
whole array of Catholic social teaching, and they are having an
impact," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at Woodstock
Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington.
At the same time, the US bishops modified their election
guidelines for 2008, presenting a moral framework but emphasizing
individual responsibility for "prudent" decisionmaking. Calling
abortion "an intrinsic evil" that must be opposed, they nevertheless
left the door ajar to voting for a candidate who supports abortion
rights. In "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," the
bishops write: "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." (They also highlighted
fundamental concerns that include war and peace, poverty,
healthcare, a living wage, and environmental stewardship.)
Despite this opening, the endorsement of Barack Obama by
prominent Catholic Republican Douglas Kmiec, a constitutional law
expert at Pepperdine University, came as a great surprise to
Catholics. Professor Kmiec, a former legal adviser to Presidents
Reagan and George H.W. Bush, has written a controversial book - "Can
a Catholic Support Him?" - detailing his rationale for Senator Obama
based on the Catholic tradition.
While disagreeing with the Democrat's abortion-rights position,
he sees the candidate as sharing the broader worldview of Catholic
social teaching. Kmiec once worked on briefs seeking to overturn Roe
v. Wade, but he argues that the commitment to programs that reduce
abortions will be more effective than continuing to try to reverse
Roe. Even if a reversal were achievable, it would only throw the
decision back to the states and abortion would continue, he says.
"It's an argument that will make sense to Catholics who are
pragmatists," says Father Reese.Kmiec's comments immediately got him
into trouble. A local priest attacked him in a sermon and refused to
give him Communion. (Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los
Angeles, later called that action indefensible.) Church leaders
insist that efforts to overturn Roe continue as well as programs to
reduce abortions. …