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Why Clinton Got the Catholic Vote 

ve8QAd   |   January 01, 1997

Roman Catholics share essentially the same moral beliefs on life, marriage and family as do evangelical Christians. In this past election, evangelical Christians voted 60% for Dole, 35% for Clinton and 5% for Perot. Catholics voted 42% for Dole, 48% for Clinton and 9% for Perot. Why the striking difference?

Time was that ethnic Protestants, particularly in the South, shared with ethnic Catholics, particularly in the North, a common allegiance to the Democrat Party. That day is past, as the South is voting more conservative (and Republican), while Catholics in the North have demonstrated a different pattern. They did vote for Reagan and for Bush in ‘88. In ‘92 and ‘96, however, they voted for Mr. Clinton, the second time knowing of his veto of the partial birth abortion bill and in full knowledge of his multiple, pervasive moral problems. It would seem that his positions on abortion, homosexuality and other moral issues have clearly alienated evangelical voters, but also just as clearly did not seem to have influenced Catholic voters as much. Could it be that evangelical churches’ positions on these issues are stronger and more definitive? The answer to that, at least at leadership level, is “no”. They’re quite alike.

Let’s first look at Catholic leadership. No one on the planet has probably been more definitive in his pro-life preaching than Pope John Paul II. For him, this has been the defining moral issue of our time. He frequently quotes the Vatican II judgment, describing abortion as an “unspeakable crime”. What of the US Catholic bishops? A few years ago at their annual meeting, by unanimous vote, the US Catholic bishops condemned abortion unequivocally. They stated that it was the most important moral issue of our time. Reacting to the partial birth abortion ban veto, all of the US Cardinals stood on the steps of the US Capitol praying that the veto would be overridden. Each Cardinal in turn issued a very strong statement. Cardinal Bernard Law stated, “There is no doubt whatsoever that in the present climate all other issues must take second place to the overriding issue of the right-to-life. This is, in the words of the US bishops, `the fundamental human rights issue of our day.’”

The late “progressive” Cardinal Joseph Bernardin said, “There is no justification – medically, legally or morally – for allowing such an abhorrent procedure as partial birth abortion to be performed on any member of our human family. By your [Clinton’s] veto, however, I fear that you will send a very disturbing message to the people of this nation, one to which persons of good will must give serious consideration as they cast their ballots in November.” There were other similarly forceful statements from other Cardinals and bishops. Clearly, the leadership of the Catholic Church in Rome and in America has taken an exceedingly strong stand.

And top Evangelical leadership? This has been just as unequivocal. Think of James Dobson, Richard Land, Pat Robertson, and a host of others, reinforced by the unanimous support of Christian broadcasters. It would seem that Evangelicals largely followed these leaders and voted their convictions.

Why, then, have Catholic voters not followed their top leadership? Could it be that they rather see economic issues as governing? This would seem less than likely, as the economic situation of both Catholics and Evangelicals are not all that different. Let’s then go back to value judgments, for there is a clear difference in this area.

No, it’s not in the position of the top leadership of the churches. They are the same. But how these positions are preached to the faithful is another story entirely. Admitting that generalizations are clearly unfair to some, nevertheless let us say broadly that Evangelical pastors commonly preach forcefully about abortion, but Catholic pastors seldom do. Therein lies a clear difference. There is also another variance, or at least a serious consideration on the Catholic side, and this is in what we’ll call middle management.

First, the preaching. Those of us who lecture nationally, who constantly hear from pro-life people, all agree that it’s unusual to hear of a Catholic pastor preaching about the evil of abortion or, for that matter, of adultery, fornication, or homosexual acts. This de-emphasis and oftentimes actual watering-down of the teaching of personal morals, has unquestionably produced a great deal of confusion in prioritization of these issues among Catholics. The same is not true in fundamentalist and evangelical congregations.

I hasten to point out that this is not always true in Catholic churches. During the month prior to the election, in three different places, I was told by very pleased Catholic parishioners that their priest had “finally” devoted a sermon to the abortion issue, in each instance being charitable toward the woman but strongly condemning the action of abortion. In each of these cases, the individual told me (with great pleasure) of an absolutely unprecedented happening in these three congregations. When the sermon was finished, the congregation rose in a standing ovation – something that had never happened in those churches before. Clearly, those congregations were hungry for preaching on this issue and deeply appreciative when it finally happened.

In middle management, we include the Chancery offices of the Bishops, and the priests and staff at that level. Here the “seamless garment” has had a profound impact. The seamless garment, first put forth by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, pointed to the fact that socially conscious Catholics should be aware of, not one or two, but many of the different social ills that confront us in society today. These include capital punishment, homelessness, poverty, etc. Catholics are to take all of these issues into account when evaluating which candidates to support, which issues to work for, contribute to, etc.

For some time, controversy raged as to the prioritization of these issues. How much weight was to be given to any one of these problems? No one less than Cardinal Bernardin himself, the originator of the “garment”, on a number of occasions stated that, beyond question of a doubt, the central issue was abortion and human life. The Pope, in Detroit before leaving the United States several years ago, was quite clear in saying exactly the same thing. More recently, Cardinal Bernard Law, Chairman of the Bishops’ Pro Life Committee, as noted above, echoed the American bishops in stating that abortion was “the fundamental human rights issue of our time.”

So top leadership had spoken, but down the line the acceptance of the priority of abortion was quite mixed. And here we may face the central reason why Catholics have not given the same weight to the moral issue of abortion that Evangelicals have. Down the line there has been a clear disagreement on prioritization. This has been evident in the actions of many bishops, and overtly evident in the staffs of Chancery offices, those who actually run a Catholic diocese in its day-to-day operations. Sadly, this has been notably evident among some nuns in high places in Chancery offices whose feminist convictions have dominated on this subject. Undoubtedly this has also played a role, perhaps a major one, among parish priests. Those placing sharply different priorities on social issues are commonly referred to by frustrated pro-lifers as “peace and justice people”. Let me give some examples that have been repeated in varying forms across the United States.

A letter from a Chancery office instructed the churches of that diocese that they should not allow the distribution of right-to-life or Christian Coalition candidate voting records and positions on issues in the Catholic churches. These, according to many such instructions, were “too political”. This in spite of the fact that prototype newsletters have gone all the way to the Supreme Court and have been judged by it to be well within freedom of speech and to not in any way jeopardize the tax status of churches. Clearly, the reason for exclusion was not fear of tax repercussions, at least not among those well informed, but (pro-lifers generally assume) rather it was a value judgment against the messages regarding candidates’ abortion positions in such publications.

There was an insert in a Catholic Church bulletin, two weeks prior to the national election. The pages were divided into four quarters — the first discussed housing, human rights, immigration, the UN and international relations. On page two, euthanasia, families and children, food and agriculture, and health aids/substance abuse were discussed. Page three detailed refugees, East and Central Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America/Caribbean. Page four covered Africa, welfare reform and violence, leaving a quarter-page blank. This discussed fifteen social issues in all, but one was missing. You guessed it. Abortion was not even listed!

In some Peace and Justice publications, abortion was listed first, as subjects were alphabetical. In other publications it was not. In the above it was omitted. To cite another instance — one diocese suddenly, in October of ‘96, found it necessary to devote much time and effort to the issue of capital punishment. Why at this particular time? Was it to prioritize capital punishment and thereby to minimize abortion? The effort seemed transparent.

A voter guide from Washington’s US Catholic Conference was circulated “to untold numbers of Catholics….Here is what the guide printed as Clinton’s abortion position: ‘As Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton signed a bill barring third trimester abortions except for life or health. If Congress sends him a bill barring third trimester abortions with an appropriate exception for life or health, he would sign it.’ (emphasis added) As all eight Cardinals stated in a letter to Clinton earlier, ‘health means almost any reason at all and would have no effect at all.’” [Human Events, 11/15/96]. Why did the Central Bishops’ Office repeat the misleading statement that the Bishops had already criticized Clinton for?

Mr. John Carr, Sect. US Bishops Dept. of Social Development & World Peace, said that voting on a single issue was not the only legitimate option. First Things, Nov. ‘96, p. 87, commented, “What the Catholic Church, although apparently not Mr. Carr’s office, actually does is inform consciences with authoritative teaching that abortion is an unspeakable crime and that it is morally impermissible to support or vote for the specious `right’ to kill unborn children. It seems that Evangelium Vitae (the encyclical on Human Life) is not required reading in some bureaus of the Bishops Conference.”

The one thing all of these had in common was a leveling. These evaluations sent, to the Catholic in the pew, a definite message — that abortion is no more important than any of the other fifteen issues listed. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising, when a loyal Catholic evaluated presidential candidates, senators, etc., that abortion had no priority over the other social issues, and there was no compulsion to see abortion as a disqualifying issue at the ballot box.

Of course, there have always been, and this reaches to the highest level of leadership in any religious body, those who have been more loyal to a political party than to moral issues. Catholic clergy are probably no exception to this. But then we find this true also among Baptists, Presbyterians and others. Does loyalty to the Democrat Party, from which most Catholic priests and bishops spring, have that influence? Perhaps, but certainly no collective judgment can be made. This one is for each one’s conscience.

Should abortion be a single issue? No, the pro-life movement has never insisted upon that. Pro-life leadership has, however, seen it as a disqualifying issue. What would we think of a candidate who, on the stand, campaigned openly for legalization of child abuse, arguing that government shouldn’t interfere with families? Would we vote for that candidate? Obviously not. Why? Because the heinousness of that evil would be such that we would consider that candidate disqualified from holding public office because of his or her views on this subject. So it is that pro-lifers see the issue of abortion, and most emphatically partial birth infanticide. Just as obviously, however, many middle management Catholics do not see this as true. I would suggest that herein lies the crux of the difference between Evangelicals and Catholics in voting for pro-abortion as compared to pro-life candidates.

In the Catholic fold, the top leadership has been right on target, while middle management has been very divided. In the Catholic fold, many in the pews are hungry for definitive preaching on the sanctity of human life but seldom receive it. The result has been a watering down of a broad spectrum of traditional moral values and, with this, the acceptance of some candidates who have totally disqualified themselves from holding public office.

On the positive side, we see Father Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, who indefatigably is traveling the country speaking to clergy conferences on this issue. We also see a slow and steady replacement of liberal bishops by more orthodox ones since the advent of Pope John Paul II to the papacy. There are, of course, many priests who do realize the primacy of abortion, who do preach on it and on other moral issues. The problem is, they are a small minority. Certainly on the positive side, we see vast numbers of faithful Catholics who, in spite of the lack of nourishment on this from their clergy, still lead very moral lives and use their time and effort in their communities to try to do everything possible to stop the plague of abortion and of the other moral debaucheries so pervasive in our time. Is this author concerned about this situation? Yes. Frustrated? Yes. Hopeful? Yes.

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