Click here if you don’t see subscription options
James Martin, S.J.November 05, 2008

Here is some analysis sent to us by Thomas J. Reese, S.J., senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center and former editor-in-chief of America:

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 Citizenship. 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 Citizenship said, that abortion “is not just one issue among many.” The document also said, “As Catholics we are not single-issue voters.”

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 (catholicdemocrats.org) 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 either 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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
15 years ago
Reese: Catholics go for Obama So, if I did not vote for Obama I am not a Catholic? the title is very offending to me! St Ignatius in his Guidelines for thinking with the Church [Spiritual Exercises] said: [353] When legitimate authority speaks within the Church, we should listen with receptive ears and be more prompt to respond favorably than to criticize in a condemnatory way. Is Ignatius' teaching also irrelevant for Jesuit father Reese?
15 years ago
Thank you for this fine analysis and conclusion. Also, thank you to Anne B. and her reply to Bilbo who has good points too. From what I understand of FOCA it would clearly be a slap in the face to Catholic institutions and individuals; in the name of freedom of choice it would force compliance against one's coinscience for health care workers and deny any parental rights in regards to children.
15 years ago
This is a very perceptive post. The real key to reducing or eliminating abortions is to reduce or eliminate the perceived "need" for them. This means providing relevant sex education at the appropriate ages, providing compassionate and non-judgmental assistance for those with unwanted pregnancies, and the championing of adoption as a realistic alternative. Loudly demonstrating against abortion and waving photographs of aborted fetuses is not the right approach. Education of the young and caring, compassionate assistance for those in need is.
15 years ago
Bilbo, you make salient points about caring for women and their unbron children, but in doing so you are painting a caricature of the prolife movement. The rank and file of this movement do provide care for women in need, do champion adoption, and offer compassion and nonjudgement. But they face many hurdles, including those initiated by prochoice politicians. When I lived in New York, there was an aggressive campaign by then atty-general Eliot Spitzer to shut down crisis pregnancy centers. As an ally of Planned Parenthood, NARAL, etc, he had no qualms about using his office to shut do wn a vital part of prolife ministry. By the way, demonstrations by prolifers are more often silent and prayerful than you imagine. And such demonstrations follow in the proud tradition of other movements, including the civil rights movement.

The latest from america

In 2012, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared that 'Just Love,' by Margaret Farley, R.S.M., could not be used in Catholic classrooms. It was a different era in the church.
James T. KeaneNovember 28, 2023
Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Pope Francis embrace after visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 26, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
The Second Vatican Council helped establish a bond of friendship between Catholics and Jews. What is the state of that unity after the Oct. 7 terrorist massacre?
David MeyerNovember 28, 2023
On the advice of his doctors, Pope Francis has “with great regret” canceled his visit to Dubai for the COP28 conference on climate change, the Vatican announced on Tuesday evening, Nov. 28.
Gerard O’ConnellNovember 28, 2023
Pope Francis has decided to punish one of his highest-ranking critics, Cardinal Raymond Burke, by revoking his right to a subsidized Vatican apartment and salary.