Exit polls show that 54 percent of Catholics who voted in the presidential election voted for Barack Obama, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. I was among that group. Before and after the election there were commentaries in both the secular and religious press about the voting obligations of Catholics related to pro-life issues. These ranged in tone from the abstract and scholarly to the vitriolic and judgmental. The central question raised by some clergy and Bishops was whether Catholics had an obligation to refrain from voting for candidates who had publicly announced a pro-choice position. There have been instances of Catholics who supported Obama being denied communion or told to confess this “sin” in confession.
Many characterizations of Catholics who voted for Obama described them as confused, mislead or misguided with narrow interests or partisan preferences. Before the election Bishops had disseminated “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which is a document that includes guidelines for responsible and ethical voting. After the election it was claimed that some Catholics intentionally misinterpreted the document in order to rationalize their voting decisions. Other critics claimed Catholics were duped by a Democratic propaganda machine. Although Bishops who spoke out during the campaign refrained from mentioning a presidential preference by name, it was clear they meant a vote for pro-choice Obama was endorsing an intrinsic evil.
With the new year ahead, change is likely to be on our minds. Some of us think about changes promised by newly elected officials. Some of us ponder how to change ourselves for the better through resolutions. The civic-minded among us are likely to contemplate how to change Columbia and Boone County for the better.
This is an invitation to share your thoughts in the coming weeks with other readers.
Tell us: What kind of change do you want to see in 2009?
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The overwhelming number of Catholics who voted for Obama consider themselves to be pro-life. They believe life begins at the point of conception and that efforts must be made to reduce the number of abortions. However, they also believe that arguing with pro-choice advocates about when life begins or the morality of abortion is a pointless exercise and a waste of time. The convictions on both sides of this issue are unshakeable and arguing about it only leads to rancorous public debate and the politics of destruction. Pro-life advocates deem abortion to be an intrinsic evil while pro-choice advocates do not even consider that morality should enter into the debate. The only point at which there seems to be some common ground is the belief that abortions should and can be reduced. This is an area in which neither side has to abandon fundamental beliefs while supporting policies and practices that can bring about a reduction.
Voting guidelines by the Bishops stipulate that Catholics cannot, in good conscience, support a pro-choice candidate if one were doing so solely to endorse that position. However, if the candidate espoused an array of proportionate positions consistent with the culture of life, the common good and the social justice teachings of the Church it would be permissible. The catechism of the Catholic Church describes conscience as a person’s most secret core and sanctuary. It is formed by reason while seeking the will of God when making decisions. Persons often face decisions full of uncertainty, but they must act with a reasoned analysis of the situation within what they believe to be the will of God. Catholics who voted for Obama believed it was the will of God to reduce the number of abortions and that under his presidency social and economic conditions would be created to help bring this about. This is one of the main reasons why 54 percent of Catholics voted for him. They believe that in the long run he will establish initiatives that support women who find themselves in precarious social and economic conditions. Removal of those conditions would encourage women to carry a child to full term and give birth.
Another key to understanding the Catholic vote is to examine Catholic principles about social justice and its array of social teachings. In the modern era these began with a papal encyclical in 1891 and continue to the present time. Most of the policy positions of Obama are consistent with these teachings. Most Catholics who voted for him spent many hours in prayerful reflection aware of the responsibility to develop a well formed conscience and remain true to the teachings of the Church. They informed themselves about the issues and, using prudence, reason and common sense, voted their conscience. In the end they found proportionate reasons to support his candidacy. Can the Catholic hierarchy truly look into souls and find this sinful? There is anecdotal evidence to believe that some priests and Bishops also voted for him.
Finally, this is not the main reason, but the credibility and authority of Catholic Bishops has come into question. Many Catholics remain troubled and confused because of the manner in which Bishops dealt with the clerical sex abuse scandal. Covering up for abusive priests was a transgression that led Catholics to doubt the moral leadership of some Bishops.
Roland Meinert is a retired academic, cradle Catholic and member of St. Thomas More Parish and Newman Center in Columbia.