From leading the defense of religious freedom to his closing benedictions at the Republican and Democratic national conventions Aug. 30 and Sept. 6, respectively, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan has ventured into highly charged political settings of late.
During a visit to Rochester Sept. 16, he acknowledged that the Catholic priorities he voiced to convention participants — on such issues as religious freedom, abortion and immigration rights — "might make them bristle."
"I usually think we’re doing our job when both sides get mad at us. … We’re equal-opportunity targets," Cardinal Dolan joked during a press conference prior to a Sept. 16 Mass of Celebration for Bishop Emeritus Matthew H. Clark at Sacred Heart Cathedral.
Are other Catholics as willing as Cardinal Dolan — the Archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — to bring their faith into the political arena? They’ll have an opportunity to do just that on Election Day, Nov. 6, noted Jann Armantrout, diocesan life-issues coordinator.
"I don’t think we are in a position to tell anyone who to vote for," Armantrout said. "I think, however, that if people acquaint themselves well with the church’s teaching and tradition on all of the issues, and they prayerfully consider the candidates, they will be able to make an informed and good choice."
Faithfully weighing issues
How Catholics vote could well determine who occupies the White House come January. Catholics make up more than 25 percent of the electorate, and in the past four decades nearly every presidential-election winner has claimed the Catholic vote. Yet arriving at a solid choice is no simple task, since Catholic teaching covers numerous priorities that may or may not align with the positions of Democratic President Barack Obama or his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
"Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," a voter guide issued by the USCCB (see story on page A12) lists abortion, euthanasia, human cloning and destructive research on human embryos as "intrinsically evil" actions. Emphasizing that abortion tops the priority list because it involves the greatest number of lives lost, Armantrout said that a candidate who doesn’t respect human life from conception until natural death may be prone to manipulating other issues as well.
"It’s a real contradiction to call yourself Catholic and be pro-choice. The choice that you’re advocating is that it’s OK to kill an unborn human being and be Catholic, and those two are incompatible," remarked Peter Smith, 26, a parishioner of Our Lady of Victory in Rochester. Smith attended a "Theology on Tap" young-adult discussion session, "A Catholic in the Voting Booth: Mixing Religion and Politics," Aug. 22 at Johnny’s Irish Pub in Rochester.
Even so, Catholics as a group don’t necessarily vote against pro-choice candidates. Despite his pro-choice stance, Obama won 54 percent of the Catholic vote in 2008 compared to John McCain’s 45 percent — about equal to Obama’s 53-46 overall margin of victory — according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
On the other hand, Obama may have lost significant Catholic voter support in 2012, due to the recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that nearly all employers must offer health-care plans that include sterilization and contraceptives, some of which could cause abortions. Decrying the mandate as an assault on religious freedom, Cardinal Dolan and the rest of the nation’s bishops have vigorously opposed the Obama administration’s decision. Additionally, Obama earlier this year became the first sitting president to voice support for same-sex marriage, which the Catholic Church also opposes.
Romney’s camp — though decidedly more pro-life, pro-religious freedom and anti-gay marriage — also faces significant challenges related to Catholic teaching. For instance, protecting the poor is a key priority noted in "Faithful Citizenship," and many U.S. bishops have protested the federal budget being proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate. Their concern that Republicans’ plan to cut government services would cripple the poor is shared by the "Nuns on the Bus" campaign — an ongoing protest of Ryan’s budget by a coalition of women religious nationwide.
Other actions Catholic voters should staunchly oppose, according to "Faithful Citizenship," are racism and other unjust discrimination, capital punishment, unjust war, torture, war crimes, failure to respond to the hungry and those who lack health care, and an unjust immigration policy. The bishops’ document characterizes these concerns as "serious threats to human life and dignity."
Adding all the priorities together, Catholic voters may well feel conflicted over who — if anyone — deserves their votes.
"I think no one candidate can really follow all of these rules," said Rachelle Zambito, 39, a parishioner of Rochester’s Blessed Sacrament Parish, who like Smith attended the Theology on Tap session.
Cardinal Dolan acknowledged this dilemma, saying during the Sept. 16 press conference, "We want to respect them, but there’s never one politician who fulfills all our hopes and dreams."
Armantrout lamented that neither Democratic nor Republican presidents have been very successful in achieving Catholic Church ideals, citing the existence of legalized abortion for nearly 40 years as evidence that even candidates who say they’re pro-life haven’t put their words into action.
"Abortion on demand remains the law of the land, and I think that says something," she remarked, adding that ever-increasing levels of poverty, along with erosion of the traditional family structure, make it hard to put one’s faith in either party.
"Both sides lose here, and both sides continue to lose," she said.
Education is elementary
Armantrout acknowledged that many Catholics, although acquainted with vital political topics, "only imperfectly follow the church’s teachings" due to their self-interests, disagreement with some church principles or lack of education on church teachings. She expressed hope that during a campaign in which the church has figured frequently — thanks to the struggle over the HHS mandate, Cardinal Dolan’s dual convention appearances and two Catholics (Ryan and Joseph Biden) vying for the vice presidency — people will weigh more deeply what it means to be a Catholic voter.
Such reflection would be necessary in any year since, as Cardinal Dolan noted, the church refrains from making political endorsements and he has followed suit.
"You try your best to stick to principles, you never get into your parties or candidates. Even though many times you’re tempted to, you have to bite your tongue," Cardinal Dolan said in reference to his role.
In addition to reading "Faithful Citizenship," Zambito suggested that Catholics educate themselves in ways that apply to all voters: looking at issues from both candidates’ points of view; studying multiple sources for politicians’ agendas rather than contenting themselves with what she termed "media sound-bites"; and not overlooking the importance of local political races "especially during a presidential election, when there’s so much focus on the presidential candidates."
Whether such research and reflection leads a voter to favor a Democrat or Republican is incidental, Armantrout stated: "The fact that a candidate doesn’t stack up well against the framework of our teaching doesn’t make one a partisan. It makes one an informed Catholic."
Armantrout further pointed out that Catholic voters are no more bound to favor Catholic politicians than they are to vote along party lines.
"I don’t think any of us are called to do that," she said. "Because someone identifies themselves as Catholic does not mean they are representing Catholic social or moral teaching — and that’s real important. When it comes to leadership on issues the church says are fundamental, we don’t necessarily see that."
Smith concluded that the only way Catholic citizens can achieve desired leadership and policies is to work toward them all year long, every year — not just during presidential elections.
"As Catholics we’re not just called to be countercultural, we’re called to renew the culture. If we start to renew the culture, we’re going to make it so the politicians will have to appeal to this new culture. If we vote that our principles are non-negotiables, then this will create change," Smith said, warning that otherwise "we’re going to see political parties that don’t reflect our values at all. Our politicians are only as good as our society is."