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The Catholic Vote


The Catholic Vote                          Gerry OShea

Speaking at an event co-sponsored by Boston College and St. Anselm College on September 15th, Cardinal Joseph Tobin from the Newark diocese declared that he had no moral problem with people voting for former vice-president Joe Biden in the November election, and he went on to say “I frankly have a more difficult time with the other option.”

The cardinal’s misgivings are due mainly to President Trump’s restoration of the death penalty in clear opposition to Catholic social teaching as well as his dismissal of Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ signature encyclical, on protecting the environment. Tobin also identifies with the pope’s statement of disgust at the maltreatment of immigrant children on the southern border with Mexico: “A person who thinks only about building walls and not bridges is not a Christian.”

However, a strong body of opinion among the church prelates disagrees with Tobin’s view and, focusing instead on the positions of the two political parties on the abortion issue, they favor the conservative approach of the president and the Republican party. These bishops applaud Mr. Trump’s selection of judges especially for seats on the Supreme Court. Their top priority is to get the 1973 Roe v Wade pronouncement of the court, which permits abortion, overturned.

This would return the decision on this important issue to each state legislature, some of whom would allow the procedure while others would make it a crime. A woman who decides to terminate her pregnancy in any of the states that would deem it illegal would have to travel to a place where it isn’t banned, provided, of course, she has the money to take care of all the expenses involved. Before the Roe decision, poor women resorting to back alley abortions was not uncommon.

 Keep in mind that close to 40% of American women decide to end at least one pregnancy in their lifetime, and about 70% of those availing of legal termination come from low-income families. Bemoaning their decision or sermonizing about it won’t help the woman confronting a really painful predicament.

The bishops make a strong case from a moral perspective against ending any pregnancy, and many people on both sides of the issue agree that society is dealing here with very serious matters.

Presumably, the goal of repealing Roe centers on reducing the number of abortions. Is there any evidence that this legalistic approach will achieve that goal? It will allow states to make it illegal in their jurisdiction, with punitive consequences for women who disobey such a new law.

There is another approach which some ethicists, including many Catholic theologians, propound. They do not see the solution in terms of any legislation or the decision of any court. Instead, they advocate for robust public policies supporting, for instance, better housing for the poor, generous childcare help for expectant and nursing mothers, laws that mandate paid leave from work for a few months after the baby arrives and expansion of programs that subsidize nutritious foods for the mother and baby. Following these liberal policy initiatives accords well with a century of Catholic social teaching and would provide a real choice for many women to continue their pregnancy.

Would Republicans, who always favor a niggardly response to funding  progressive programs, vote for such measures? Would they agree to raise taxes to pay for these services? Very unlikely! At present, they are preparing policies that cut the Food Stamp Program while hypocritically proclaiming their pro-life credentials.

The Catholic Church cannot be faulted for its commitment to worthwhile programs to help the poor. Nuns and priests and brothers lead a massive number of relief programs in every corner of the world and they should be acknowledged for this admirable charitable work.

The church in America has a major leakage problem. About 900,000 members depart each year to join other religions or to work out their relationship with the creator without any denominational loyalty.

 Just short of an astounding 13% of the American population identify as former Catholics. This massive shrinkage is especially worrying because most of those leaving belong to younger age groups. Over half of millennial babies born to Catholic families in the 1980’s and 1990’s have departed from their home religion.

The immigrant church, nearly all Hispanics now, comprising about one third of all parishioners, provide the only obvious avenue for growth. Most of the people in this group are devout and loyal to their faith, although a recent report predicted that in the next decade or so the membership in the various evangelical churches will surpass the Catholic numbers in the Latino community.

However, the Catholic count still remains over fifty million or about 23% of the total US population, and over 75% of them will show at the polls for the presidential election. Very important from an electoral standpoint is that the three vital swing states around the Great Lakes, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, have vibrant Catholic communities. The records show that the victor among Catholic voters nationwide, especially in these battleground states, has won the presidency in nine of the ten last presidential contests.

 Overall, Trump took the Catholic vote by a few points and he won the election.  The white voters’ preference for a man who dabbles regularly in racist and nativist tropes is worrying, and recent polls suggest that the president’s lead among these voters has diminished significantly.

Racism and all its negative entanglements are central concerns in the current elections. Pope Francis addressed the issue in terms of the pro-life agenda: “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”

A few months ago, President Trump had a virtual meeting with about 600 leaders of the church community, including a large number of bishops. Cardinal Dolan was the spokesman for the group and he highlighted his personal standing with Trump by joking that he talks more often to his friend in the White House than he does to his mother.

The main topic on the agenda centered on getting some emergency money to help out the church schools because of the extra challenges they face due to the corona virus. However, the president veered off this topic early in the meeting to claim Catholic support at the upcoming polls, stating that he did more for the Catholic Church than any president in history. He didn’t explain the logic supporting this  assertion, and none of his distinguished company saw fit to tell him that encouraging people to re-elect him falls well outside their ecclesial remit.

On Easter Sunday, in a highly symbolic act, Cardinal Dolan, aided by virtual technology, welcomed the president to his mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. It is hard to miss the irony of a leader openly hostile to immigrants being welcomed to a cathedral largely built by dollar donations from Irish women who originated in small farms in poor counties in Ireland like Kerry or Donegal or Mayo.

When John Kennedy was elected to the White House in 1960, more than 75% of Catholics voted for him. This was due in large part to a sense of a tribal group finally demanding their place in the sun, but it was also indicative of strong support from Catholic immigrant ethnic groups – Poles, Italians and Irish – who had benefited from and wanted to affirm the progressive New Deal policies of the Democratic Party.

Joe Biden identifies himself openly as an Irish Catholic influenced by the social justice papal encyclicals, which always highlight the priority that should be afforded in policy-making to the common good, especially the welfare of the poor, over the insatiable demands and vapid rationalizations of the wealthy who inevitably want more and always find dubious ways to justify their greed.

Mr. Trump has accused his opponent of “hating God.” Mr. Biden is a practicing Catholic who carries a rosary in his pocket in memory of his son Beau whose premature death broke his father’s heart. Biden’s record is certainly not perfect but he scores well on character issues against a philanderer who has been credibly accused of serious sexual assault by twenty-six women and whose daily untruths have been counted in the tens of thousands.

There is little doubt that both candidates will devote much of their remaining time and attention to the undecided voters – many of them Catholics - in the swing states because they know that the winner in even two of them, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, will almost certainly be installed as the country’s leader on January 20th next year.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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