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Social Schism

Social justice vs. religious freedom: Catholic organizations woo a divided voting bloc

By Andy Brownfield · October 17th, 2012 · News
news1_nunsonthebus_jf6Photo Credit: Jesse Fox

Were it not for the giant touring bus emblazoned with the words, “Nuns on the Bus,” it would be hard to assume that the collection of about 10 white-haired women were members of Catholic religious orders.

Eschewing the black-and-white habit, the nuns on Oct. 15 stopped by pizza shop Venice on Vine in Over-the-Rhine to wrap up their 1,000-mile tour around Ohio. 

During the six-day bus tour, the nuns visited 12 cities and encouraged Ohioans to vote using what they call Biblical principles, including social justice and service to the poor.

The nuns say on their website that the budget proposed by GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan fails “a basic moral test” because it makes deep cuts to social safety net programs that provide services to many of the nation’s poor.

“We stand for a Gospel message that Jesus wants and that all religious want — marginalized voices included in the debate,” Sister Mary Wendeln said during the Oct. 15 event.

Though the nuns say their trip was not a partisan one, they advocate for many of President Barack Obama’s positions, including the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare.”

Sister Monica McGloin, a prominent figure on the tour, is the co-chair of Catholics for Obama. She told CityBeat that the bus tour was not affiliated with Catholics for Obama.

The Catholic voting demographic tends to be a bellwether in presidential elections. 

In 2008, Obama won 54 percent of the national Catholic vote to Republican John McCain’s 45 percent. That flips the 2004 results, in which former President George Bush won 52 percent of Catholic support, compared with John Kerry’s 47 percent (despite Kerry himself being a Catholic).

The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey estimates 57.2 million Catholics live in the U.S., and the most recent POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll finds Romney is leading Obama among them, 47-45.

The Catholic Association is trying to widen that lead for Romney.

“What we’ve seen with our supporters and folks we’ve been talking to is religious freedom is an important issue this year, and I think that’s helped Mitt Romney because he’s been such a stalwart supporter of religious freedom while Barack Obama has been essentially bullying Catholics,” says Ashton McGuire, a senior fellow with The Catholic Association.

McGuire is referring to the mandate under the Affordable Care Act that employers cover birth control — including so-called “abortion pills” — and sterilization procedures.

Catholic and other religious groups say that violates their conscience.

The Obama administration had tried to come up with a “compromise” by requiring insurers and not the religious organizations themselves to cover the controversial items. As of the mandate’s effective date of Aug. 1, 2012, many religious organizations are still required to provide for the cost of those services, though some have been granted a one-year waiver.

The Catholic Association has created a scorecard, ranking each candidate on where they stand on various aspects of religious freedom. The scorecard favors Romney and will be distributed at different rallies and events throughout the country, McGuire said.

The Catholic Association also has a field coordinator in Ohio.

“Ohio is especially significant because I believe 26 percent of voters identify as Catholic, so we do have a field coordinator there — she’s working with folks on the ground to reach out to the catholic vote,” McGuire says.

Catholicism in its nearly 2,000-year history has opened itself up to a variety of interpretations, allowing for groups of people professing the same faith to hold sharply divided views.

During one of the Nuns on the Bus’ stops in Marietta, Ohio, a local Tea Party group picketed outside of the event. Protesters carried signs reading, “Bums on the Bus,” “Yes to Romney-Ryan. No to Fake Nuns” and “You Are Not Catholic.”

Sister McGloin had this to say in response:

“We are 100 percent pro-life. … And that pro-life for us means that we do concern ourselves with living wage, just wage, access to healthcare, education, food, housing, care for our seniors, Medicare and other kinds of healthcare programs that are supportive.”

John Sniegocki is an associate professor of theology at Xavier University. He specializes in Catholic social teaching. He says the political divide among Catholics isn’t anything new.

“I think it has been exacerbated in recent years, and I think in part it’s because of the increased nature of partisanship in politics,” Sniegocki says.

He says a lot of the reason behind Catholics disagreeing politically has to do somewhat with an emphasis on different issues, but also with different doctrinal interpretations. 

One of the key issues of debate among Catholics has been whether a Catholic can vote for a candidate who doesn’t support the criminalization of abortion.

Prior to his becoming pope, Benedict XVI had written that it was OK for Catholics to vote for a candidate who didn’t oppose abortion or euthanasia, as long as that wasn’t the sole reason for the vote.

“When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons,” he wrote.

He said the church’s statements on abortion and same-sex marriage get a lot of attention, but Benedict has issued encyclicals criticizing capitalism and advocating for the state’s role in the redistribution of wealth, as well as strong positions on ecology and the danger of global warming.

“There’s a phrase in Catholic studies that ‘Catholic social teaching is the best-kept secret,’ ” Sniegocki says.

“If you look at the papal social teaching there are still some really radical things being said there.”  ©



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