Catholic Vote in 2012: Why Either Political Party Could Win It

The Catholic vote is up for grabs—and more complex than ever.

David Bundy / AP Photo

Candidates seeking to woo Catholic voters in 2012 will be dealing with political dynamics far more complicated than any since 1980. Since the Reagan years, when it became clear Catholic voters were up for grabs, both Democrats and Republicans have developed somewhat predictable ways of courting them. Democrats pretend settled issues like abortion and marriage are matters of private conscience, while Republicans have asserted themselves as the pro-life party.

Battles over abortion, and now marriage, will continue to be the baseline of any appeal to the religiously active Catholic voter. But this year, candidates will discover Catholics are viscerally troubled by three additional issues—religious liberty, budget cuts, and immigration reform. Any successful political outreach to Catholics must be prepared to address these issues and understand the reasons they have recently gained such prominence, particularly among mass-attending Catholics.

The most troublesome of these issues for Democrats is the increased volume of Catholic complaints over religious liberty. That the bishops formed a new ad-hoc committee of the USCCB to address religious liberty matters such as conscience protections for health-care professionals should send a clear message to the president who seeks a second term. The recent complaint by former speaker Pelosi that the bishops have become "lobbyists" testifies to the fear on the political left that President Obama will decide not to force Catholic health-care institutions, and their Catholic doctors, nurses, and pharmacists, to perform abortions and prescribe contraception, including the abortifacient "morning-after pill" RU-486.

The health-care bill, as it turns out, is only the tip of the iceberg in this administration’s attack on religious liberty. Demands are increasing among all federal grant makers, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, that grant recipients agree to include abortion and contraception services. When the highly reputable Catholic Relief Services lost its multi-million-dollar grant from HHS to fight sex-trafficking, it sent ripples of fear and trembling among Catholics directly involved in social services, a group highly disposed to support another Obama administration. In kowtowing to pressure from abortion activists, the Democrats have created a significant problem for themselves in 2012.

The “Catholic Left” will do their best to turn attention away from religious liberty to the effort of the GOP to cut the federal budget. “Hurting the poor” has already become the left’s message to Catholic voters for the 2012 election. Groups like Catholics United and Catholic Democrats are already bashing Catholics in the GOP who would cut the budget at the expense of "helping the poor." Republicans should heed the power of this appeal to Catholics who have long espoused the maintenance of a "safety net" for those most in need of help for the basic necessities of life.

However, groups on the “Catholic Left” were shocked when the new president of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, sent a public letter to Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), a Catholic and chairman of the Budget Committee, commending Ryan's effort to lower the nation's deficit as respectful of Catholic social teaching. Leading Catholic Obama supporters were aghast as Archbishop Dolan, in their eyes, started to assume the mantle of his predecessor, John Cardinal O'Connor. Catholics in the GOP should learn a lesson from the Dolan-Ryan exchange and start making arguments, grounded in Catholic social teaching, that reframe the question of budget cuts within the larger issue of an economy being slowly strangled by the weight of national debt. More unemployment and more poverty are the result.

In his communication with Archbishop Dolan, Congressman Ryan put the House-passed budget in the context of the world’s economy, underscoring the consequences of ignoring the economic downturn and the growing deficit. The nations of Europe, Ryan explained, by ignoring the problem too long, were forced to make “drastic cuts in benefits to the retired, the sick, the poor, and millions of public employees. Unsurprisingly, this austerity has generated widespread protests, riots, and violence. The social concerns of the Church cannot be addressed under these conditions.”

Congressman Ryan went on to warn that the “U.S. has been traveling on a similar path for years,” and that if our nation continues to ignore the need for fiscal responsibility “the weakest will be hit three times over: by rising costs, by drastic cuts to programs they rely on, and by the collapse of individual support for charities that help the hungry, the homeless, the sick, refugees, and others in need.”

Immigration reform, the third issue, represents the biggest challenge to both parties in successfully attracting Catholic support. The bishops themselves have made it clear that they consider immigration to be a top priority in the 2012 election. Democrats will have to explain why they were unable to pass the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) when they controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House, a piece of legislation fully and vigorously supported by the USCCB.

Republicans, who for the most part oppose the DREAM Act, are in a more difficult situation—they have no coherent message to Catholic voters about their plan for immigration reform. Indeed, Republicans in general are perceived as hostile to any plan that would involve providing undocumented immigrants legal status, either as seasonal workers or citizens. When presidential candidates Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House speaker Newt Gingrich spoke of compassion and concern for families when immigration reform was a topic in the presidential debates, they were immediately called to task by conservative activists and talk-radio hosts. What went unnoticed was the fact that both candidates were expressing sympathy with the kind of approach advocated by the Catholic bishops, a message that has been repeatedly sent down the chain of command through chanceries into parishes.

That message, however, has received a mixed reaction. The bishops themselves have been perplexed by the hostile reception they have received when addressing conservative Catholics, including business leaders, on immigration. In our opinion, the bishops have not recognized the flaw in their argument. The bishops’ rationale pits the right of any person seeking the necessary goods of life to seek them, if need be, across national borders against the right of a nation to protect its borders. This standoff divides Catholics between those who care more about the rights of the immigrants and those who care about border security. Even from the bishops’ perspective, there is no way to adjudicate which side is more prudentially correct than the other.

Democrats can profit from the status quo—as long as Republicans are perceived as anti-immigrant no news is good news for the Democrats with the growing Hispanic-Latino vote in the U.S. As with the budget cut debate, it’s up to Catholic candidates in the GOP to recast the immigration debate in a way that breaks the present deadlock of immigrant rights versus border security. Just as an argument can be made on Catholic grounds for greater fiscal responsibility, Republicans, like Perry and Gingrich, can find resources in Catholic social teaching to bolster their approach to immigration. The principles of Catholic social teaching may help to overcome the policy deadlock to create sensible immigration reform with bi-partisan support.

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The fundamental principle of both political philosophy and Catholic social teaching is the common good—all political reasoning, all public policy should be based upon serving this end. It does not serve the common good, it can be argued, if the focus on laws having been broken by undocumented immigrants obscures the reality of 11,000,000 persons presently living in our country, who represent the basic human desire to seek a better life and happiness, the kind of aspiration that was enshrined in our founding "Charters of Freedom" documents. The same aspiration that brought the original colonists to the land we now know as America.

Laws, no doubt, have been broken, but the common good is better served by an enforcement of punishment that does not uproot families, eliminate jobs, destroy small businesses, threaten the agricultural and building industry, and fundamentally change the image of the United States in the eyes of the world.

What’s needed is a humane program of documentation, involving both legal work visas and a path to full citizenship, for those undocumented who presently reside in our nation. New entries to the system would not be given precedence over those who have already begun the citizenship application. Anyone with a criminal record, however, should be subject to deportation. Any program must be accompanied by genuine border security to reduce the risk that this gigantic effort is not repeated again in 10 or even 20 years.

Such a program will not be a pure "amnesty," although it will undoubtedly be accused of that. The requirements for receiving a visa would demand less than those required to seek full citizenship. But, once those criteria are established every undocumented adult who seeks full citizenship will be required to give 100 hours of community service in what could be called the “Future of the Americas Program”—which will offer assistance to those individuals and families who are in the process of obtaining visas or becoming citizens. We think this is a better alternative than requiring the payment of a fine or the onerous requirement of returning to the country of origin before being allowed to return to the United States. The administrative apparatus for this program should recognize the Catholic principle of subsidiarity and be made as local as possible.

It's an opportunity for Republicans to dissociate themselves from the rancor of previous debates on immigration in 2005 and the contentious budget battles on Capitol Hill. What may well tip the balance of the Catholic vote in 2012 is how we realistically address caring for the poor in a fiscally responsible manner and a compassionate immigration policy that recognizes our heritage as a country and the contributions made by those born elsewhere. At the same time, it would be an important lesson for the GOP to learn—that Catholic social teaching contains draughts of political wisdom from which they should partake more often.