A great, quadrennial subject that political reporters like to chew over is the question, does a distinctly “Catholic vote” still exist in the United States? That’s to say, given that Catholics represent the single-largest religious group in the nation–about 24 percent of the population–can either party sway them as a voting bloc, or near-bloc?

Let’s put aside that question for a moment, while the God-o-Meter recognizes a debate going on in the pages of the venerable and influential magazine Commonweal, which describes itself as a journal of Catholic opinion and nicely eschews ideological labels by declaring whether it appears liberal or conservative depends on who’s writing and what the question at hand is. In its current issue, Gerald J. Beyer, an assistant professor of theology, writes that “many people mistakenly assume that a Catholic must vote Republican,” and that Catholics can, in fact, vote for Obama. While he recognizes that the Democratic Party (or at least many of its politicians) favor abortion rights, which the Catholic church absolutely opposes, he also discusses the implications of the American bishops’ recent statement on “faithful citizenship,” a document whose nuanced arguments far exceed the ability of any headline or sound-bite to capture.

Beyer notes that no single candidate “perfectly mirrors” Catholic moral and social teachings on a wide range of vital issues, including abortion, stem-cell research, war, poverty, racism, etc. But he does find a lot to be impressed about regarding Obama, a good part of it derived from the Illinois Senator’s international vision:

Obama ranks among the few politicians who embrace Pope Paul VI’s 1967 dictum, “development is the new name for peace.” More recently, one finds resonances between Obama’s understanding of U.S. global leadership and responsibilities and that of Pope Benedict XVI. In the pope’s address to the United Nations, he argued that the best way to eliminate inequality among nations and to increase global security is to promote human rights.

To be clear, this is by no means Commonweal’s only piece on the election–far from it. Indeed, the article is a lengthy reply to an earlier one written by David R. Carlin, a former Democratic majority leader of Rhode Island’s Senate. Carlin had explained why he was supporting McCain: foremost, their shared opposition to abortion, followed by a belief that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was justified and that McCain embodies “tough-minded patriotism.”

Now back to that question about a “Catholic vote.” Eighty percent of American Catholics voted for John F. Kennedy in 1960, supporting one of their own at a time when Democrats were particularly closely associated with urban, ethnic groups who included Catholics that traced their ancestries to Europe. But the picture since then has changed radically, such that by 2006, Sojourners magazine labelled Catholics “the ultimate swing voters” — 40 percent Democrats, 40 percent Republicans, the rest up for grabs. And, the magazine added, in every election since 1972, the candidate who won the largest share of voting Catholics also won the presidency. (The sole exception was in the year 2000, when a majority of Catholics voted for Al Gore, who did, let’s remember, win the popular vote.)







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