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Will Catholics Move On or Will They Cave to Same-O, Same-O?

It might be wishful thinking to believe that the 67.5 million Catholics of this nation (about 24.5 percent of the population) will influence this year's presidential election in Barack Obama's favor.  After all, vice presidential hopeful Joe Biden is Catholic.  Obama supports universal health care, taxes on the rich, education and job training, helping the poor, ending the war in Iraq-issues all in line with the social justice tradition and teachings of the Church.

The reason this may not happen?  Sarah Palin, a former Catholic gone non-denom, and her running mate, John McCain, are both pro-life.

Much to my own horror, the Christian Science Monitor reported last month that Palin's large family, her cultural conservativism and her Down syndrome child that she chose not to abort clicked well among regular, church-going Catholics, especially women who were looking for someone who represented them. 

The question remains:  how will the white, non-regular church-going Catholics respond? 

David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., says in the Monitor story that this latter group is concerned about economic and national-security issues but that values issues (i.e., abortion) may be a greater factor in determining their choice for president.

Meanwhile, progressives like Chris Korzen of Catholics United ( and Alexia Kelley of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (, have been trying to focus Catholic values voters on broader social justice issues like excessive materialism, hyper-individualism, and the ugly disparity between the rich and poor. 

Ironically, both fundamentalist and evangelical Christians care about these same issues, too.  Such a large group citizens interested is changing our political, social and cultural scene could be an opportunity for uniting the country by addressing everyone's economic well-being, protecting everyone's basic freedoms, and working on our nation's moral and cultural fiber. 

So instead of concentrating on legalistic concerns (i.e., one's right to do or not to do something), attention could be directed to human dignity concerns like what to do with an enfeebled Grandma, a poor neighborhood, the war in Iraq.

Evidence that Obama has adopted the advice of progressive Catholics emerged in the final presidential debate on Wednesday when he said that:

[Abortion is] "always a tragic situation," [and we should] "try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred ... and providing options for adoption and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby. ... Nobody is pro-abortion. ... We should try to reduce these circumstances."

As the naïve Catholic that I am, I believed the progressives' line that the American Catholic tradition of justice and the common good could help resolve some important social issues that have nagged at this country for the past 30 years.

However, too many conservative, pro-life Catholics aren't taking the progressive bait.  They are actively promoting McCain over Obama on the basis of the abortion issue alone.  Then, what we get in our choice for president once again is the same, exhausting, one-issue fortress of grid-lock politics.

For example, the pro-life Catholic propaganda machine is hard at work trying to confuse their brethren, say Korzen and Kelley.  In 2004, the presumably nonpartisan group, Catholic Answers (, distributed the Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics to provide background on five key "nonnegotiable" issues:  abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, human cloning and stem cell research, which all happened to favor President Bush's platform-and the right wing conservative agenda.

The U.S. Catholic bishops denounced the Voter's Guide and issued Faithful Citizenship:  A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility (, which they routinely publish before presidential elections.  Faithful Citizenship is grounded in Catholic social teaching and lists 50 "moral priorities for public life" that provide Catholic voters with a "moral framework" for evaluating candidates WITHOUT telling them how to vote. 

Then there is Randall A. Terry, founder of pro-life group, Operation Rescue.  He attempts to refute the progressive Catholics through his website ( where he posts two key brochures.  In "Is It Immoral to Vote for Obama?" he says:

At the very least, Obama is an aggressive accomplice of child-killers.  He has declared his intention to keep childkilling (abortion) legal; to help child-killers murder the innocent with impunity.  He has pledged to sign the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) if elected, and to appoint judges to the Supreme Court that will uphold Roe vs. Wade.  Obama boasts a 100% proabortion voting record; he is in FAVOR of partial birth abortion, and he opposed a bill in Illinois that would require medical care for a late term baby that survives an abortion.

In "Faithful Catholic Citizenship," he claims that: 

This brochure is for Catholics who desire to vote in a manner that best reflects our Catholic Faith. The teaching of the Church herein quoted comes directly from our late Holy Father, John Paul II, as declared in Evangelium Vitae, (The Gospel of Life).

Terry has even found a bishop to support his position: the 85-year-old Rene Henry Gracida, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, who not only sanctions Terry's blather but encourages him to distribute his brochures "as widely as possible."

Frankly, it is discouraging to me as a white, church-going Catholic and a convert, to see political ideologues pushing this ONE issue as their basis for promoting candidates for elective office when there are so many other problems troubling our nation and our world. 

Nevertheless, no matter how Catholics vote, I think a sea change is taking place where our current and by-now obvious economic disaster will put concerns about abortion aside for quite some time. 

When you no longer have the cushy comfort of a middle class home under your feet or the security of sound stocks and savings or the prospect that your children and your grandchildren may not get the education they need or the air they must breathe, your thoughts concentrate on providing the basic necessities for your family.  Worrying about the unborn, as important it is, may soon prove to have been a luxury item of a past lifestyle in a once-great and wealthy nation. 

(BTW, according to Father Thomas Reese, a political scientist at Georgetown University, Barack Obama was educated by nuns in Indonesia and his community organizing in Chicago was funded by many Catholic groups.)

Olga Bonfiglio

Olga Bonfiglio

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of "Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq" (2005). She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is Contact her at

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