In the News 2008

Catholic voters urged to weigh abortion issue


In poll after poll, voters have consistently placed abortion far down on their list of priorities for choosing a president this fall, below issues such as the economy, the war in Iraq, terrorism, health care, energy and taxes.Still, recessionary worries notwithstanding, the nation’s Catholic bishops are encouraging their flocks to consider the abortion issue when they vote.

Last week, Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson put abortion front and center, denouncing Democratic nominee Barack Obama for saying last year that his first presidential act would be to sign the “Freedom of Choice Act.” That law would forbid interference with women’s access to abortion.

“If this politician fulfills his promise, not only will many of our freedoms as Americans be taken from us, but the innocent and vulnerable will spill their blood,” Serratelli wrote in his weekly column, published last Monday on the diocesan website. Serratelli’s column did not refer to Obama by name, only as the “present democratic candidate” and as a former Illinois legislator.

Religious leaders of all faiths walk a fine line in trying to persuade voters. Not only do they risk their organization’s tax-exempt status by endorsing a candidate, but their political views often highlight uncomfortable gaps between views on the altar and in the pews, gaps that polls show exist between Catholic leaders and many lay people over abortion rights.

Serratelli’s column highlights long-standing tensions between the Democratic Party’s support of abortion rights and Catholic teaching that life begins at conception. The issue garnered more attention in 2004, when about a dozen bishops said the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, a Catholic supporter of abortion rights, should not present himself for Communion.

This time around, the only Catholic on either major party ticket is Obama’s vice presidential pick, Joseph Biden, who also supports abortion rights.

After Serratelli detailed his fears about the Freedom of Choice Act — among them that parental notification laws could be barred and taxpayers forced to fund abortions — he wrote: “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!”

And although the abortion issue has not dominated the headlines, it has come up several other times during the campaign:

The bishop of Scranton, Pa., where Biden was raised, said that Catholic politicians such as Biden who support abortion rights should not present themselves for Communion. The bishop of Wilmington, Del., where Biden lives now, said Biden would not be invited to speak at Catholic schools even if his ticket wins. And two other prominent bishops criticized Biden for saying the question of when life begins is a “personal and private issue.”

U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), speaker of the House of Representatives and who is Catholic, contended that Catholic teaching on abortion had changed over the years. Prominent bishops released a statement saying she was wrong, and that the church has always condemned abortion.

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput contended that a group called Catholics for Obama used his own words in a misleading way. The group had quoted Chaput saying, “Catholics can vote for pro-choice candidates, if they vote for them despite — not because of — their pro-choice views.” Chaput complained the group omitted his next sentence saying those Catholics “also need a compelling proportionate reason to justify it.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops tries to help people decide how to vote through a document called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” It contains passages against abortion, euthanasia, torture, same-sex marriage, racism, unnecessary war, and the death penalty, and in favor of health care, helping the poor, environmentalism and fair compensation for workers.

In the text, bishops say they do not intend to tell Catholics for whom to vote, though opposition to abortion receives especially prominent mentions. It says the bishops are “focused more on moral principles than on the latest polls.”

“As Catholics,” another passage says, “we are led to raise questions for political life other than ‘Are you better off than you were two or four years ago?’ Our focus is not on party affiliation, ideology, economics, or even competence and capacity to perform duties, as important as such issues are. Rather, we focus on what protects or threatens human life and dignity.”

The bishops’ forays into public life, especially when they emphasize opposition to abortion, are controversial, even among Catholics.

“The bishops have a myopic view. They seem obsessed with the issue of abortion, and they’ve made this the single issue that they want to talk about,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, a group that supports abortion rights. “Catholics are much concerned with what other Americans are concerned about — the economy, resolving the war in Iraq, terrorism, health care, security, taxes, education.”

Conservative Catholics, however, wish more bishops would press the abortion issue. Even in 2004, only about a dozen of the 195 diocesan bishops in the United States said they would deny Communion to Kerry.

“It’s a moral obligation to be involved in the political process. We think the shepherd should lead and protect the flock, and defend the trademark of ‘Catholic’ from Catholic politicians who support abortion rights,” said Larry Cirignano of Bedminister, who runs a group called Faithful Catholic Citizens. “They (bishops) have the copyright. They ought to defend it.”

This article originally appeared in the 19 October 2008 edition of the Star-Ledger.

Catholics for Choice