Tough Times for the Catholic Right

11/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Chris Korzen Co-founder and Executive Director, Catholics United

Right wing Catholic groups celebrated earlier this month when Scranton bishop Joseph Martino ordered his priests to read a letter at Mass tacitly proclaiming that it was immoral for Catholics to vote for Obama. Things have been going south for them ever since.

These organizations - groups like Bill Donohue's Catholic League, Deal Hudson's, Fidelis, and Catholic Answers - had hoped this year for a reprise of 2004, when independent Catholic voters propelled Bush to victory in Ohio. Once again, they dumped millions into advertising and media campaigns in an attempt to convince Catholics that abortion is the overriding issue at the ballot box.

But this time around, the faithful aren't buying it. According to the polls, Catholics have consistently named the economy as the number one concern affecting their votes this year. As E.J. Dionne wrote in his Washington Post column yesterday, "Catholics, who are quintessential swing voters and gave narrow but crucial support to President Bush in 2004, are drifting toward Barack Obama. And this time, some church leaders are suggesting that single-issue voting is by no means a Catholic commandment." Indeed, this week both Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Gambino Zavala and Memphis Bishop J. Terry Steib cautioned against approaches to Catholic voting that overlook key social justice concerns.

Like so many things, saying that a candidate's position on abortion makes him or her unfit for the Catholic vote works better in theory than practice. The Catholic right's message loses its effectiveness when voters realize it uses the same logic that impelled Catholic voters to re-elect Bush in 2004 - whose presidency turned out to be a disaster for Catholic values and the nation as a whole. Republican apologists like Deal Hudson conveniently avoid this recent history. But as Melinda Henneberger points out on, Catholic voters in Pennsylvania remember all-too-well the past eight years.

A subtle but key shift in the Democrats' abortion messaging has played a key role in changing the Catholic political landscape. While continuing to affirm its traditional pro-choice legal stance, under Obama's leadership the party has embraced abortion reduction measures that provide health care, child care, education, and other essential supports for vulnerable pregnant women. Despite criticism from the right, it's a message that resonates remarkably well with the swing electorate - Catholic or otherwise. Obama's independent voter dials hit the roof when he answered the abortion question in the third debate; McCain's flatlined.

The Catholic right is also flummoxed by a resurgence of Catholic organizing around social justice issues like war, health care, and the economy. Groups such as Pax Christi USA, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, and Catholics United have a long way to go before they match the money, members, and infrastructure of the right's machine. Nonetheless, they have managed to keep up with their competition this year, reaching millions of Catholics through TV and radio ads, direct mail pieces, phone banks, and local press coverage. "Progressive Catholics have finally gotten their act together," Brian St. Paul, editor of Crisis Magazine and told Religion News Service's Daniel Burke this month. "They are more organized and effective. Certainly they are a force."

In an outrageous display of just how desperate the right has become, Catholic League president William Donohue seized this week on "shocking" revelations that Catholics in Alliance had received grant money from George Soros' Open Society Institute. Right wing media organizations like InsideCatholic, Catholic News Agency, and fell over themselves to report on this "evidence" that the group promotes a left-wing anti-Catholic agenda, only to find, embarrassingly, that OSI supports an agenda often very much in line with Catholic teaching, and has funded programs of Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, and many dioceses of the Catholic Church. It was not one of the right's finer moments.

The Catholic right isn't on the ropes quite yet. On Sunday, the Washington Post reported on the movement's redoubled efforts to sway Pennsylvania Catholic voters over the abortion issue, and it will be back to make a splash in the 2010 and 2012 elections - especially if the economy turns around. Regardless of who wins on November 4th, however, it's likely the Catholic right won't be able to claim victory - a remarkable turn of events from four years ago.