Catholics in the Pews Vote Their Conscience

Emily Douglas

The Catholic hierarchy are opposing a pro-choice presidential candidate is nothing new -- but this year, Catholics are talking back.

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%. 

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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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