Thomas Reese, SJ, looks at Catholic voting patterns …

Catholics Go for Obama


Catholic voters ignored the
instructions of a group of vocal bishops and delivered 54% of their vote for
Barack Obama as president of the United
States. These bishops, led by Archbishops
Charles Chaput and Raymond Burke, argued that abortion was the most important
issue in the election and that no other issues outweighed it. As a result, they
argued, Catholics could not vote for a pro-choice candidate.


Although these bishops were a
minority of the
U.S. bishops,
they received much attention in the media because other bishops kept silent or
simply referred people to their 2007 document, Forming Consciences for Faithful
. The silence of the majority gave the impression that the vocal
bishops were speaking for all the bishops.


Some media outlets estimated the
number of vocal anti-Obama bishops at 50 or more. I do not trust these numbers.
Some of the bishops included in the tally only spoke out against Nancy Pelosi
when she gave an interpretation of Catholic teaching, with which they disagreed.
Others simply repeated what Faithful
said, that abortion “is not just one issue among many.” The
document also said, “As Catholics we are not single-issue


Most Catholics ignored the
bishops who told them not to vote for a pro-choice candidate. Hispanic
Catholics, who are touted as the future of the church in the
United States,
voted overwhelmingly for Obama and white Catholics split their vote between the
two candidates. The laity repudiated Archbishop Burke’s description of the
Democratic Party as the party of death. They clearly agree with what the bishops
said in Faithful Citizenship:
“Church’s leaders are to avoid endorsing or opposing candidates or telling
people how to vote.”


For Catholics, as for other
Americans, the economy became the dominant issue in the election. Few said that
abortion was the most important issue. In addition, the anti-immigrant rhetoric
from the Republican base chased Hispanics away from the Republican Party. Joe
Biden, an experienced Catholic senator with working-class roots, helped top of
the ticket with Catholics much more than did Sarah Palin, the ex-Catholic
evangelical governor of Alaska.


The abortion debate was
significantly altered during this election by the presence of prominent pro-life
Catholics, like Douglas Kmiec, supporting Obama. These lay persons countered the
claims of the vocal bishops by arguing that Democratic educational, social and
economic programs would do more to reduce the number of abortions than
Republican calls for legal restrictions. They did not say that abortion was
unimportant, rather they pointed out that attempts to criminalize abortion had
failed and had little chance of success in the future. These pragmatic
pro-lifers wanted results not rhetoric.


Also helpful was the willingness
of Obama to talk about abortion as a moral issue and about programs to reduce
the number of abortions. This allowed groups like Catholic Democrats
( to argue in support of Obama.


New to this election were
non-partisan groups, such as Catholics in
Alliance for the Common Good,
pushing the full agenda of Catholic social teaching. They were able to counter
groups that presented a narrower list of non-negotiables.


A closer look at the exit polls
should be as discouraging for left-wing Catholics as for right-wing Catholics.
Catholic voters did not embrace either the conservative non-negotiables or the
church’s preferential option for the poor. They were concerned about themselves
and their families.


Will the abortion debate rise up
again in four years at the next presidential election? A lot depends on
President Obama and the Democratic Congress. If they push through the Freedom of
Choice Act (FOCA), then they will have betrayed their pro-life Catholic
supporters. This will make it nearly impossible for these people to support them
again. On the other hand, if they make a priority the enactment of an abortion
reduction bill, then it will be more difficult for the bishops and the
Republicans to portray the Democrats as the pro-abortion party.

Bishops Plan
for Dealing with a Democratic


On November 10, less than a week
after the presidential election, the U.S. Catholic bishops will meet in
Baltimore to try to figure out what
they will do now that Catholic voters helped put Barack Obama into the White
House. Catholics gave Obama 54% of their vote, despite the instructions of some
very vocal bishops who said that Catholics could not vote for a pro-choice


Some bishops said that abortion
was the most important issue in the election and that no other issues outweighed
it. These bishops clearly signaled their preference for McCain, without
mentioning his name. A few bishops went farther and said that Catholics voting
for Obama would risk their immortal souls.


But voters in key states like
Pennsylvania, and
Virginia rejected the voting
instructions they received from Archbishop Charles Chaput of
Denver, Bishop Joseph Martino of
Scranton and the two
Virginia bishops. Did these
bishops sway any voters? Was there a backlash against the bishops? Or were they
simply ignored? Whatever the case, episcopal authority took a major hit during
the election.


Some media outlets claimed that
50 or more bishops signaled that abortion was the only issue worth considering
in the election. I do not trust these numbers. Most bishops were silent or
simply repeated what was in to their 2007 document, Forming Consciences for Faithful
. The document said that abortion “is not just one issue among
many,” but it also said, “As Catholics we are not single-issue voters.” This
nuance was lost on partisan campaigners.


This division between the vocal,
partisan bishops and the silent, nonpartisan bishops will be a major issue at
the Baltimore meeting. The silent
bishops are upset that the vocal bishops were perceived to be speaking for all
of the bishops, while the vocal bishops blame the silent ones for the Democratic
victory. This argument will take place behind closed doors lest the bishops
scandalize the faithful with their divisions. It is not likely that this
division, which has divided the bishops for years, will be resolved this week.


Some bishops will want to
denounce any liberal Catholic politician (Nancy Pelosi) or lay organization that
dared to usurp the bishops’ function as interpreters of church teaching. Funny
how conservative politicians and groups are never reproached for their
interpretations of what is negotiable or nonnegotiable in church teaching. But
most bishops feel that she was sufficiently rebuked and they should move one.


Some conservative Catholic
commentators and groups are even calling for a rejection of Faithful Citizenship, the document that
was approved by the bishops only a year ago by a vote of 221-4. But the bishops
recognize that rejecting a document that they overwhelmingly passed a year ago
would make them look foolish and confused. And most bishops like the statement,
which was vetted by numerous committees and discussions.


Meanwhile, the bishops will have
to decide whether they will engage with the Democratic Congress and president or
whether they will sit out the next four to eight years. History shows that the
church, including the
Vatican, is
pragmatic and realistic in dealing with governments. In the real world, they
know that you deal with the government that is, not with the government you


What will the bishops’ 2009
agenda be with the Democrats? Here are some items they will undoubtedly


Preferential Option for the Poor. The
bishops will want to make sure that the new administration’s programs take care
of not just the middle class but also the poor. Whether it is the stimulus
package, the energy plan, trade policy, the withdrawal from
Iraq or the
environment, the Catholic measure of legitimacy is how programs affect the least
among us, not just in the
U.S., but around
the world. The bishops are to the left of Democrats when it comes to programs to
help the poor.


Abortion Reduction Programs. While the
bishops will continue to support constitutional protection for the unborn, they
will also ask Obama to fulfill his promise to enact social and economic programs
that will reduce the number of abortions by empowering pregnant women to choose
life. This would include things like health care, daycare, job training,
adoption services, and financial assistance, all of which the bishops have
supported in the past. Passage of a significant abortion reduction bill would
make it more difficult for conservatives to label the Democrats as the party of
abortion. The bishops will not support birth control programs, but that will not
keep them from supporting other programs.


Limits on Third Trimester Abortions.
The bishops could also offer to sit down with the Democrats to see if they can
agree on language that will restrict third trimester abortions. Obama said he
supports such restrictions as long as there is a “health of the mother”
exemption. The debate will be over the legal language for the exemption. The
bishops will not accept language that is so sweeping that the restriction is


Conscience Clause. The bishops will
also communicate to Washington
their desire that Catholics and Catholic institutions, such as hospitals, not be
forced to do things they consider immoral. This so-called “conscience clause”
will require careful and open-minded dialogue and ultimately some compromises on
both sides.


Freedom of Choice Act. The bishops will
strongly oppose passage of the “Freedom of Choice Act,” which aims to restrict a
state’s ability to limit abortions. Passage of the FOCA will mean that the next
presidential election will be as divisive as this one and will force some of the
silent bishops to become vocal.


Foreign Policy. On most foreign policy
issues, the
Vatican and the
bishops will prefer Obama to Bush. The church will continue to speak out for
refugees, victims of war and the poor as well as for disarmament, reconciliation
and peace.


The bishops should neither become
partisan nor withdraw from the public square. They should be faithful to
Catholic social teaching as articulated in Faithful Citizenship while working for
results in the real world.


Thomas J. Reese, S.J.

Senior Fellow

Woodstock Theological

Georgetown University

Washington, DC 20057-1137
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