Catholics Vote Conscience Over Bishops’ Objections

Jon O’Brien

Despite the church hierarchy's claims that abortion needed to be the one issue that Catholics voted on, Catholics overwhelmingly disagreed with the idea that abortion should be the deciding factor this election.

As Americans participated in
the historic election of Barack Obama and Joseph Biden as the next president
and vice president of the United States, Catholic voters also made a
significant statement about their willingness to ignore their bishops
when considering how to cast their ballot. Once again, Catholic voters
showed that as goes the Catholic vote, so goes the election. According
to exit polls, Catholics voted 54 percent for President-Elect Barack
Obama and 45 percent for Senator John McCain. As the bishops meet this
week in Baltimore at their annual fall assembly, we hope they will spend
some time reflecting on the will of Catholic voters and where those
few bishops who huffed and puffed their way through the election and
pushed a hard-line approach went wrong.

As shown in our poll, "The Catholic
Voter in Summer 2008,"

Catholic voters, like all voters around the country, are most concerned
with the bread-and-butter issues that effect all Americans. Catholics
showed once again that the most important factors in their decision
about who should be the next president and the issues they want him
to focus on were improving the economy, affordable health care, ending
the war in Iraq and keeping the country safe from terrorism. Catholics
represented the largest swing in religious voters in this presidential
election, with seven percent more Catholics voting for the Democratic
candidate as compared to 2004. 

Catholics voted their conscience
over the objections of their bishops who issued statements and lobbied
against the candidacy of Barack Obama because of his prochoice stance.
This wasn’t always easy; on the eve of the election, Bishop Robert
Finn of Kansas City-St, Joseph, appearing on a radio show, said to Catholics
considering a vote for the Democratic candidate: "Give consideration
to your eternal salvation."  

While it was a small minority
of the bishops across the country, there were several who pushed the
message that the issue of abortion should trump all others for Catholic
voters on Election Day. A letter from Fort Worth Bishop Kevin Vann and
Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell called abortion "intrinsically evil"
and said that it is "morally impermissible" for Catholics to vote
for prochoice candidates over pro-life candidates. Bishop Arthur J.
Serratelli from Patterson, NJ criticized President-Elect Obama’s support
of the Freedom of Choice Act writing that, "We choose our leaders
who make our laws. Every vote counts. Today, either we choose to respect
and protect life, especially the life of the child in the womb of the
mother or we sanction the loss of our most basic freedoms. At this point,
we are still free to choose!"

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Many Catholics were rightly
turned off by this overt electioneering. In our poll of likely Catholic
voters, 70 percent said that the views of Catholic bishops are unimportant
to them in deciding for whom to vote and 73 percent said they believe
they are under no religious obligation to vote on issues the way the
bishops recommend. On Election Day, Catholic voters held firm to those
views and showed just how misguided those few bishops and conservative
Catholics are who claimed the issue of abortion must trump all others. 

Despite the hierarchy’s claims
that abortion needed to be the one issue that Catholics voted on, and
in direct contradiction to alarmist claims made by a few reporters and
headline writers, Catholics overwhelmingly disagreed with the idea that
abortion should be the deciding factor this election. Those bishops
who didn’t interfere in this election cycle are to be commended for
not going the old route of communion wars and threats of excommunications.
There is change in the air and more and more public officials recognize
that the views of the hierarchy do not reflect the views or votes of
their constituents.  

Those few bishops who sought
to make the election about abortion, and abortion alone, showed how
out of touch they are with most Catholics. We hope that, as the bishops
come together this week, they do not bend to those ultra-conservative
bishops but instead temper the dialogue, seeking to bring their flocks
with them and not push them away. The bishops should not spend this
week attempting to spin doctor their way out of a crushing defeat. Instead
they should focus on a pastoral approach to the common good that speaks
to the majority of Catholics who voted in favor of a president who shares
their values on sexual and reproductive health-as well as many other

As prochoice Catholics, we
celebrate the election of a prochoice president who has been a strong
supporter of abortion rights, comprehensive sexuality education and
access to reproductive health care. The next administration will have
to work hard to repair the damage done to reproductive right during
the last eight years: the Global Gag Rule, abstinence-only-until-marriage
programs, subordinating science to personal belief, and a pervasive
program against family-planning efforts. Undoubtedly, concerns about
America’s economic security and military engagements overseas will
garner a great deal of attention. However, we urge the next administration
and Congress to also work for advances in reproductive health care in
the US and abroad.

Catholic voters overwhelmingly
endorsed an agenda that includes access to family planning, comprehensive
age-appropriate sex education and caring adoption programs in order
to reduce the need for abortion. We will continue to stand with this
majority of Catholics worldwide who disagree with the dictates of the
Vatican on matters related to sexuality, contraception and parenthood.
We are excited about the prospect of working with the new administration
and Congress to effect change for the better on issues of sexual and
reproductive health and rights, both domestically and internationally. 

Read the Catholics for Choice statement on the bishops’ gathering in Baltimore here.

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