Experts Say The Catholic Vote Is a Matter of Conscience, Not Conformity


Published: October 16, 2008

In recent years, the “Catholic vote” has become associated with the Republican party because of its stance on the issue of abortion.

However, according to administrators and faculty at Fordham, neither one of the two prevailing political parties fully embodies the complete spectrum of Catholic values, so Catholics must utilize an informed conscience when deciding whom to vote for.

Rev. Robert R. Grimes, S.J., dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC), said that when he was growing up, Catholics were strongly associated with the Democratic Party. Yet in the past 40 years, Grimes said that this association has diminished. “With Catholics, there used to be a sense that you had to stick together because everyone was out to get you.” But he said this feeling started to dissipate after the first Catholic president was elected.

Grimes also stated that when Ronald Reagan ran for president many Catholics were disenchanted with the country due to the Vietnam War, Nixon’s resignation and the hostage crisis in the Middle East. They saw in the Republican candidate the possibility for change, and many who traditionally voted Democratic instead voted for Reagan. Grimes also cited the lack of homogeneity of Catholics today, both ethnically and economically, as a factor for the fragmentation of the “block” that they once comprised.

Despite affiliations with one party or another, Grimes stated that “there has never been a candidate who fulfills every aspect of the Catholic social teaching.”

Christine Hinze, professor of theology at Fordham, stated that even focusing in on one issue creates conflict. She gave the example of the Catholic belief in the sanctity of life, which is often referred to in support for the anti-abortion stance commonly associated with the Republican Party. But as Hinze points out, Republicans generally support the death penalty, which defies this belief. Considering the plethora of issues that face voters today, including genocide, the war on terror, same-sex marriages and euthanasia, Hinze says that there is no one party that definitively embodies the totality of Catholic teachings.

Despite this, Vincent DeCola, S.J., a campus minister at FCLC, stated that “in recent years, it has become a commonly held view that Catholic ideals are best represented by the Republican Party,” due to conservatives’ traditional stance on abortion. DeCola said that this generalization is based on the belief that overturning Roe v. Wade is the most important moral issue in our society and that a Republican president would appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn the ruling.

“It is a mistake to let such a narrow view keep Catholics from considering what Democratic candidates can accomplish in support of a Catholic common good,” he said.

Referencing issues varying from the war in Iraq to the death penalty, DeCola said, “Because of the views and efforts of most Democrats to address all these issues, I find they are more authentically and completely the pro-life party.”

Grimes pointed out that there are many levels of Catholic teaching that need to be considered. Historically, the Church has held a firm stance on the issue of abortion; rhetoric on the death penalty is not as clear.

Peter Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, said that as a Catholic, he has made both “practical, prudential judgments about the candidates’ records and their personalities,” as well as “moral judgments about what counts and how much it counts,” when deciding whom to vote for. He continued, “An Obama presidency will be much more apt to make [decisions] in favor of the poor and those with modest incomes rather than the rich wheeler-dealers, in favor of negotiated compromises rather than military confrontation, in favor of consultation and international institutions rather than unilateralism [and] in favor of safeguarding civil liberties.”

Considering the current economic state of the country, James Fisher, co-director of the Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham, suggested that Catholics may shift their focus in this election. “The Church has always been a critic of free market capitalism and unfettered greed,” he stated. At this point in time, Fisher speculated that Catholics may be more concerned with the economy’s effect on their daily lives than on overturning Roe v. Wade. If such a mindset revives a focus on the Church’s teachings on the communal dimension of the economy, Fisher said, “That would not necessarily point towards [electing] a Republican.”

Considering the complexities of each party’s stance on Catholic values, Aristotle Papanikolaou, associate professor of theology and co-founding director of the Orthodox Christian studies program at Fordham, said, “As they vote, [Catholics] should at the same time engage in prophetic criticism of the party they are voting for,” meaning that Catholics should examine the aspects of their preferred party that do not uphold Catholic values.

As a non-Catholic, Papanikolaou expressed criticism of any authority of the Catholic church that “does something like refusing communion [to one of its members] because [that person] shows support for one [political] party’s candidate,” because this suggests that there is an implicit Catholic identity with one party. He called incidents like this a “betrayal of the spirit of Catholicism” and said that such actions send the wrong message to the Catholic community.

Considering the fact that neither party completely represents Catholic values, one may assume that the best way to handle the situation is to not vote at all. But according to Grimes, “opting out of voting is not an option.” He stated that there is a notion of social responsibility in Catholic teaching and that in a democracy this notion manifests itself in a citizen’s responsibility to vote.

Taking this into account, Grimes said that Catholics need to base their decision on an informed conscience—not on fleeting feelings about issues. He stated that it is a problem that emotions have come into discourse on social issues and said that these have often “taken the place of thinking on both sides.”

Hinze also emphasized the concept of a well-formed conscience. She said that no issue can be discounted, and no issue can take precedence over all others.

“You can’t use the abortion issue to say that you don’t care about the other issues,” she said. “You have to look at the choices as a constellation of values and acts that are most likely to advance your personal beliefs.”

Steinfels addressed the issue of Obama’s pro-choice stance, a position that many feel conflicts with Catholic teaching. “I find it regrettable that Obama appears as one-sidedly pro-choice as he does,” Steinfels stated, adding that he hoped that there is “something real, not just political packaging, in [Obama’s] talk of reducing [the need to] resort to abortion by economic support and other measures.”

But Steinfels said that he sees little prospect of changing the public’s or the Supreme Court’s position on abortion, “no matter who becomes president.”

“Can the relatively limited impact Obama’s election could have on the admittedly grave question of abortion be outweighed by the massive impact his election could have on many other morally vital matters?” Steinfels asked. “Nothing about a well-formed Catholic conscience should keep a person from saying ‘yes.’”