WASHINGTON From pulpits across the country today, Catholic bishops and priests will make a final attempt to advise parishioners before they cast their ballots Tuesday. Their message includes a warning sometimes made implicitly and sometimes spelled out: Key parts of the Democratic Party’s platform are incompatible with Catholic values.
One bishop is warning that Americans who vote for the wrong candidates risk eternal damnation.
Others, such as Little Rock’s Bishop Anthony Taylor, don’t mention any candidates or political parties by name. But during an Oct. 28 homily, the bishop listed the top five issues Catholics should consider when voting, in order of importance: the right to life; religious liberty; immigration; marriage and family; and economic justice.
In describing the first issue, the right to life, Taylor reminded his congregation that the future of legal abortion may depend on the presidential election.
“Remember also that many on the Supreme Court are elderly and the next president may have a big role in deciding who will sit on the court,” he said.
Taylor did not respond to an interview request.
American Catholics, who number about 66.3 million, have historically leaned Democratic. But leading up to the election, bishops have highlighted policies of President Barack Obama’s administration to suggest that Catholics who vote for Democrats risk straying from the church’s embrace.
The Democrats’ longstanding support for abortion rights tops the list. The Democratic Party’s recent embrace of gay marriage is another sticking point. The bishops have also denounced regulations, favored by Democratic leaders, that require most employers offering health-care plans to pick up the tab for their employees’ birth control. The Catholic Church opposes artificial contraception and has portrayed the requirement as an attack on religious liberty. The bishops aren’t aligned with the Republicans on all issues. Many church officials prefer the Democratic Party’s immigration stance and support Democratic Party planks on poverty and “social justice.”
But much of the bishops’ sharpest criticism this year is directed at Democratic politicians and their supporters.
In a Sept. 23 letter, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., criticized the Democratic Party platform because it supports gay marriage and legal abortion.
“You need to pray very carefully about your vote because a vote for a candidate who promotes actions or behaviors that are intrinsically evil and gravely sinful makes you morally complicit and places the eternal salvation of your soul in jeopardy,” he wrote.
And on Thursday, the bishops of Pennsylvania issued a joint statement warning that Catholics’ religious liberty was under attack because of recent government policies.
“If we believe that a particular issue is gravely evil or that it will result in serious damage to society, then we have a duty, both as Catholics and as Americans, to hold political candidates accountable,” they wrote in a statement that did not mention either party by name.
Some Catholic lay groups said members of the church should follow their own consciences rather than instructions from a bishop.
“In a presidential election as close as this one, the bishops have raised the volume, but few Catholics are listening to them,” said Sara Hutchinson, domestic program director for Catholics for Choice, a Washington group that supports keeping abortion legal.
As leaders, bishops had a duty to inform parishioners about church doctrine, but Hutchinson said it was wrong to take politics to the pulpit, which she called “sacred space.”
“That’s a space where most people go for reflection,” she said. “To bring politics into that space seems inappropriate.”
Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, a United States Conference of Bishops document updated in 2011, calls on Catholics to focus their attention on opposing unjust wars, terror and violence as well as abortion and “other threats to the lives and dignity of others who are vulnerable,” sick or unwanted. It urged Catholics to fight for the traditional Western definition of marriage: a union between one man and one woman. Catholics also were encouraged to support compassionate economic policies and immigration laws.
“The Church through its institutions must be free to carry out its mission and contribute to the common good without being pressured to sacrifice fundamental teachings and moral principles,” the document says.
“It does not offer a voters guide, scorecard of issues, or direction on how to vote. It applies Catholic moral principles to a range of important issues and warns against misguided appeals to ‘conscience’ to ignore fundamental moral claims, to reduce Catholic moral concerns to one or two matters, or to justify choices simply to advance partisan, ideological or personal interests,” the document says.
Catholic bishops’ focus on certain issues, particularly abortion, “belittles the intelligence” of church members, according to Chris Pumpelly, a spokesman for Catholics United, a liberal Catholic advocacy group.
“We don’t want our church to inherit the legacy of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, telling people how to vote,” he said. Falwell, a televangelist who died in 2007, and Robertson, a Virginia Beach, Va., religious broadcaster, were synonymous with Christian Right politics and Republican Party piety in the 1980s and 1990s.
Members of Catholic groups that criticize the bishops’ messages “are not really Catholic in the normal sense,” said Patrick Fagan, director of the conservative Marriage and Religion Research Institute, which is based in Washington, D.C.
“I bet most of them don’t go to church,” he said. “They don’t confess their sins.”
Historically, Catholics tended to vote for Democrats.
Exit polling in 2008 showed that 54 percent of Catholics who voted cast their ballots for Obama and 45 percent voted for U.S. Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee.
But there was a substantial “pew gap.”
Catholics who attend Mass weekly favored McCain, 50 percent to 49 percent, but Catholics who attend Mass infrequently sided with Obama, 58 percent to 40 percent.
The historic identification with Democrats, said Fagan, was because of a “tribal affiliation” between the party and Irish- and Italian-American Catholics. In recent decades, the Democrats’ edge has been reduced. The bishops’ messages are an attempt to accelerate that change, Fagan said, and focus Catholics on abortion and marriage when they vote.
“You have an attack on life. You have an attack on marriage. You have an attack on religion,” Fagan said. “The bishops would be remiss if they weren’t speaking out clearly against that.”
The issues may change, but Catholic Church leaders have always taken a political stand, said politics professor Vincent Munoz of Notre Dame University, mentioning in particular Theodore Hesburgh’s activism with civil-rights leader Martin Luther King in the 1960s.
Hesburgh served as Notre Dame’s president for 35 years.
Munoz predicted that sermonizing on politics won’t stop anytime soon.
“Catholicism, along with every religion, has concern for the common good,” he said. “One of the ways we reach the common good is through political action.”
He continued: “On all these cultural and sexual issues, the Democratic Party has moved to the left. The church is standing still.”