Meet the Catholic Voter

WASHINGTON — With a little more than four months before the nation goes to the polls, a national survey shows Catholic voters about evenly split between President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

In this, the first in a series of articles on lay Catholics’ concerns leading up to November's election, the Register asked experts what we know and don't know about Catholic voters.

(We also asked a few voters. See “Talking to Catholic Voters,” page 7.)

Time magazine conducted the survey in early June showing Kerry favored by 46% of Catholic voters while 43% say they favor Bush.

But religious practice makes a difference, the poll shows. Bush holds a 23-point lead among Catholics who consider themselves “very religious” while Kerry leads by 46 percentage points among Catholic voters who say they are “not very religious.”

This year's presidential race is turning out to be one of the most religiously-tinged races in recent memory, with an incumbent who has fought to have more government contracts awarded to faith-based organizations and a Catholic challenger whose support for abortion has raised the question for priests and bishops of whether to deny him Communion.

Catholics of all stripes are grappling with issues ranging from abortion and stem-cell research to immigration and the economy. Many are weighing the issues, then trying to discern which candidate could best lead the country for the next four years.

What's Important?

Crisis magazine publisher Deal Hudson said life issues have to be the No. 1 priority for Catholic voters.

“There's nothing more fundamental in morality or in government than protecting the common good,” said Hudson, who has served as a Bush adviser since the president's first presidential campaign. “You can't even begin to protect the common good unless you protect the lives of citizens, and if you don't protect the lives of citizens, you're not doing what government is supposed to do.”

But Bart Stupak, a pro-life Democratic Congressman from Michigan, doesn't see a contradiction in supporting Kerry.

“I would like to think that Catholics look at the totality of the person and not just one issue,” he said in an interview June 17. “Catholics are concerned about social economic justice issues just as much as right-to-life issues. Why can't we pass an extension of the unemployment benefits when we can give away billions of dollars in tax breaks? People are hurting out there.”

‘Not a Narrow Cause’

American bishops 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.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a copy of the document to the committees drafting election-year platforms for both major parties.

The 21-page document calls on American Catholics to “participate now and in the future in the debates and choices over the values, vision and leaders that will guide our nation.”

American bishops have issued similar documents prior to each presidential election since 1976.

The apologetics group Catholic Answers also is trying to help voters with its “Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics,” which lists five “nonnegotiable issues”: abortion, fetal stem-cell research, euthanasia, homosexual “marriage” and human cloning.

“These five issues are called nonnegotiable because they concern actions that are always morally wrong and must never be promoted by the law,” the booklet says. “It is a serious sin to endorse or promote any of these actions, and no candidate who really wants to advance the common good will support any of the five nonnegotiables.”

“Faithful Citizenship” discusses these and other issues bishops would like to see taken up in the presiden-tial campaigns.

“As bishops, we do not wish to instruct persons on how they should vote by endorsing or opposing candidates,” it says. “We hope that voters will examine the position of candidates on a full range of issues as well as on their personal integrity, philosophy and performance.”

The bishops describe “a consistent ethic of life” as the “moral framework” from which Catholic voters should deal with all issues in the political arena. It quotes extensively from the “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” issued last year by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“For Catholics, the defense of human life and dignity is not a narrow cause but a way of life and a framework for action,” the document says. “As Catholics, we need to share our values, raise our voices and use our votes to shape a society that protects human life, promotes family life, pursues social justice and practices solidarity. These efforts can strengthen our nation and renew our Church.”

Despite strongly worded documents such as “Faithful Citizenship” and “Voters Guide,” many Catholics support Kerry, who is staunchly pro-abortion.

His “voting record is abysmal from a Catholic point of view, even from the broadest social point of view,” Hudson said. The reason Catholics such as Kerry downplay social issues “is because they don't accept the Church's point of view on abortion,” Hudson said. “It's that simple.”

Stupak holds out hope that the Democratic Party will move toward more of a pro-life position.

“The life issue in the Democratic Party represented the underdog, the little person, and we've got to get back to that as a party,” he said. “Some of us right-to-lifers have already met with [Democratic National Convention chairman Terry McAuliffe] and said we want this back in the platform.”

But Hudson said Crisis magazine includes life issues in “a package of issues about what we call social renewal, which is about the addressing of moral breakdown in society.”

“These issues are all so interconnected,” he said. “That's why President Bush was so successful in 2000. He was able to show the connection of life issues to other issues like family and marriage.”

Patrick Novecosky writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.