CAMPAIGN 2004: Iraq and the Catholic Voter

WASHINGTON — When it comes to choosing who should be the next American president, the war in Iraq is one of the most divisive issues for faithful Catholics.

Although polls give President George Bush a significant edge among Catholics who attend Mass regularly, many of them are concerned about the president's decision to invade Iraq.

Both major parties have developed strategies to woo the nation's 64 million Catholics. In late June, the GOP held a four-day “Catholic Outreach Tour” to connect with voters in key states with large Catholic populations. In April, Sen. John Kerry, the presumed Democratic nominee, named a religious out-reach coordinator to his campaign.

In this, the second in a series of articles on lay Catholics' concerns leading up to November's election, the Register asked Catholic voters how the war in Iraq will affect their vote for president.

Deacon Mike Solomon, 66, a Catholic pilgrimage operator and fundraiser from Tampa, Fla., said despite Bush's pro-life stand on issues including abortion and stem-cell research, he's concerned that the United States is going in the wrong direction.

“The war in Iraq was a mistake and unnecessary,” he said.

“If George Bush would have the courage to stand before the American people and say, ‘I didn't intentionally mislead the nation. I relied on the information that was given to me. We made a mistake. I wish we hadn't done it,' maybe that would destroy him, but on the other hand, I think that's what everybody's thinking.”

Tracy Hutchinson, a Massachusetts hospice worker, says an apology isn't enough.

“It's gone so far where ‘I'm sorry' doesn't mean anything,” she said. “Osama bin Laden is still walking around. Iraq was not the country that attacked us. We were lied to about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — and now innocent women and children are being killed every day.”

Father Stephen Torraco, a theology professor at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., says there are always unintended consequences of war.

“There are evils that result from war, even if you are legitimately defending yourself or others,” said Father Torraco, a Boston native and priest of the Diocese of Abaetetuba, Brazil.

“Innocent people are being killed. That there are terrorist groups beheading people, murdering people is intrinsically evil. That there are terrorists doing that in Iraq right now is one of the unintended consequences of the United States' and coalition's invasion of Iraq.

“The question then becomes, does the evil consequence outweigh the good consequence? In other words, does the invasion of Iraq, which accomplished the downfall of the tyranny, outweigh the evils being perpetrated at the present time?” said Father Torraco, who last year wrote A Brief Catechism for Catholic Voters.

American bishops also offer voters guidance in their 2003 document “Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility.”

The document “summarizes Catholic teaching on public life and on key moral issues.” The bishops have issued similar documents prior to each presidential election since 1976.

“Our nation has been wounded,” the bishops wrote, “but Sept. 11 and what followed have taught us that no amount of military strength, economic power or technological advances can truly guarantee security, prosperity or progress.”

While the bishops recognize the importance of defending America's interests, they say the country must hold fast to its moral principles, including “more concerted efforts to ensure the promotion of religious liberty and other human rights.”

Freedom Important

Catholic voters such as Mike O'Dea, 60, executive director of the Christus Medicus Foundation in Southfield, Mich., say the war has led to greater liberty for Iraqis.

“When you're up against a regime and a people that want to destroy freedom, we have no choice but to take a military stand in that case,” he said.

O'Dea, an ardent Bush supporter who served three years in Vietnam, says he hasn't met a single veteran who would vote for Kerry.

“They cannot believe that Americans would even consider electing a man like Senator Kerry, who did what he did in portraying our country during the war in Vietnam,” O'Dea said, referring to Kerry's anti-war activities following his service there.

He said, “The lies that were told back home and the heroes that weren't given any credit for that war [in Vietnam] is what's starting to happen now in Iraq.”

But Hutchinson, the hospice worker, argues that the U.S. Patriot Act and the war on terror have changed America for the worse.

“Since 9/11, people get their dander up very easily if you are against President Bush,” she explained. “In that way, America has changed. That has kind of bothered me. I think right now in history, this is a new time for us, and some of our rights have been stripped away.”

O'Dea disagrees. “Do we go to war over that to protect freedom throughout the world? I think that's the issue to Catholic voters,” he said. “The United States is the only country in the world with the capability to protect not only ourselves, but freedom throughout the world. We have a responsibility. “

Gary Musso, 62, a retired human-resources professional from Clovis, Calif., who served the Air Force as a civilian, is torn on the Iraq issue.

“I don't know what to think about that,” he said. “It's so gray. There's no black and white anymore. But terrorism is a huge issue. It's something that's very scary. Anything we can do to deter is worth it.

Since Sept. 11, he said, “We haven't had another incident. That speaks well of people who are protecting our country. They're doing a darn good job.”

Patrick Novecosky writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.