Thursday, June 3, 2004

Catholics try to reconcile faith and political choices



By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo]
Rosemary Bosco, a Catholic shown in her church, St. Mary's in Hyde Park, was 11 when John F. Kennedy was running for president. She says she can't imagine her children or grandchildren telling her to vote Catholic just because a candidate is Catholic.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/MICHAEL E. KEATING
Rosemary Bosco was 11 years old when the nuns at her school told her to go home and tell her parents to vote for Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy for president. Her father was incredulous.

Today, 44 years later, the Hyde Park teacher's aide can't imagine her children or grandchildren telling her to vote for a candidate just because he's Catholic. She's voting for George W. Bush - a Republican and a Methodist - over the Catholic Democrat, another Massachusetts senator, John F. Kerry.

"I think Kerry and Bush are probably good people deep down, but I think Kerry is pushing the Catholicism a little too much. I try to make a good decision and say a prayer over it."

Bosco says she's uncomfortable with the idea of bishops refusing to give Communion to politicians who don't follow church teaching on abortion or gay marriage - or, for that matter, capital punishment or the "just war" doctrine. "At this point, with all of the scandal in our church? Let he who is without sin (throw the first stone)," she said.

The 2004 presidential election has led Bosco and a generation of Catholics to grapple - each in their own way - with how to keep their faith when they enter the voting booth. In e-mails and interviews, more than three dozen Catholic voters spoke to the Enquirer about the candidates, the role of religion in voting and the current controversy over Kerry's standing in the church.

Not surprisingly, the issue of abortion came up in almost every interview.

"Murder is murder," Mary Ann Bowling of Mount Airy said. Even the most liberal Catholics didn't defend legalized abortion but said it shouldn't be the only issue they base their vote on. "Just because it is legal does not make it right," TeresaMaria Davis of Anderson Township said.

Kerry's position on abortion - he said he will nominate only abortion-rights judges to the Supreme Court - caused the archbishop of St. Louis to publicly state that Kerry could not take Communion in his diocese.

President Bush's religion, too, has become an issue. Bush has pushed faith-based charities and invokes "the Almighty" in his public speeches. In a closely watched meeting, he will travel to the Vatican Friday for his second meeting with Pope John Paul II.

So in a tight race - and in a battleground state where both campaigns are looking to win every last voter - could Roman Catholics make up a large enough voting bloc to sway the election? Yes and no, pollsters and political scientists say.

Registered Catholics make up 19 percent of Ohio's population, concentrated mostly in the urban areas of Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo and Youngstown. In Hamilton County, 26 percent of the population is registered in a Catholic parish, according to a report submitted to the Vatican last month.

Once a reliable Democratic voting bloc, the "Catholic vote" quickly dissipated after 1960. Political scientists cite two reasons:

• Catholics began to shed their immigrant, blue-collar roots and became upwardly mobile. Unlike African-Americans and Jews, who remain solidly Democratic, Catholics didn't face as many barriers to assimilation in society.

• The issues have changed since a Catholic last headed a major-party presidential ticket. "Part of what split up the Catholic vote in the 1970s and 1980s were abortion and gay rights. In the New Deal era, no one talked about those issues," said John Green, a University of Akron professor specializing in Ohio politics and religion in politics.

Today, Catholics look pretty much like any other voter.

"They're a bunch of people in the middle that are the quintessential, middle-of-the-road swing voter we all talk about," Green said.

As the sexual abuse scandal and other societal forces pull on the church, its members hold increasingly diverse viewpoints on social issues. Pollsters have found a growing gap between those who attend Mass regularly and the less committed "cultural Catholics." Other than party affiliation, the best predictor of voting behavior among Catholics (and, indeed, all Christians) is church attendance.

Even among devout Catholics, there's great ambivalence about the excommunication of abortion-rights politicians.

Barbara O'Brien Vieth of West Chester admits to being a single-issue voter. "I vote for the candidate that is pro-life. That supersedes anything else. Plain and simple."

But she's uneasy with bishops using abortion as a litmus test for sacramental worthiness "as too judgmental."

Others, though, see no room for dissent on an issue so central to the faith. If the church can deny the Eucharist to Protestants over theological issues, they argue, isn't the value of human life just as important?

"How can you separate your faith from who you are? My faith is an intrinsic part of me and to try and separate my faith from my daily life would make a sham of it. This is where I have a problem with so called 'pro-choice' Catholics. You are either Catholic or you aren't," Stan Barczak of Richwood, Ky. said. "To me, John Kerry is Catholic in name only."

Laurie Balbach-Taylor owns a Catholic bookstore in Milford and is publisher of a book, Christ in the Voting Booth. She said politicians who vote for abortion are excommunicating themselves.

"In fact, I wonder why those politicians want to continue calling themselves Catholic when they do not accept the church's teachings. It is the ultimate in hypocrisy."

Many local Catholics refer to the doctrine of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, the former Cincinnati archbishop who espoused "a consistent ethic of life."

"To me, the church stands for much more than an anti-abortion position," said Paul Hendrick of Clifton, a retired English teacher at St. Xavier High School.

"If the church hierarchy is to begin judging politicians and voters on their political beliefs, then they should be looking also at this terrible war in Iraq and its civilian casualties, at capital punishment, at our treatment of the poor and the powerless in American society."

E-mail gkorte@enquirer.com




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