Here is some analysis sent to us by Thomas J. Reese, S.J., senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center and former editor-in-chief of America:
Catholic voters ignored the instructions of a group of vocal bishops and delivered 54% of their vote for Barack Obama as president of the United States. These bishops, led by Archbishops Charles Chaput and Raymond Burke, argued that abortion was the most important issue in the election and that no other issues outweighed it. As a result, they argued, Catholics could not vote for a pro-choice candidate.
Although these bishops were a minority of the U.S. bishops, they received much attention in the media because other bishops kept silent or simply referred people to their 2007 document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. The silence of the majority gave the impression that the vocal bishops were speaking for all the bishops.
Some media outlets estimated the number of vocal anti-Obama bishops at 50 or more. I do not trust these numbers. Some of the bishops included in the tally only spoke out against Nancy Pelosi when she gave an interpretation of Catholic teaching, with which they disagreed. Others simply repeated what Faithful Citizenship said, that abortion “is not just one issue among many.” The document also said, “As Catholics we are not single-issue voters.”
Most Catholics ignored the bishops who told them not to vote for a pro-choice candidate. Hispanic Catholics, who are touted as the future of the church in the United States, voted overwhelmingly for Obama and white Catholics split their vote between the two candidates. The laity repudiated Archbishop Burke’s description of the Democratic Party as the party of death. They clearly agree with what the bishops said in Faithful Citizenship: “Church’s leaders are to avoid endorsing or opposing candidates or telling people how to vote.”
For Catholics, as for other Americans, the economy became the dominant issue in the election. Few said that abortion was the most important issue. In addition, the anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Republican base chased Hispanics away from the Republican Party. Joe Biden, an experienced Catholic senator with working-class roots, helped top of the ticket with Catholics much more than did Sarah Palin, the ex-Catholic evangelical governor of Alaska.
The abortion debate was significantly altered during this election by the presence of prominent pro-life Catholics, like Douglas Kmiec, supporting Obama. These lay persons countered the claims of the vocal bishops by arguing that Democratic educational, social and economic programs would do more to reduce the number of abortions than Republican calls for legal restrictions. They did not say that abortion was unimportant, rather they pointed out that attempts to criminalize abortion had failed and had little chance of success in the future. These pragmatic pro-lifers wanted results not rhetoric.
Also helpful was the willingness of Obama to talk about abortion as a moral issue and about programs to reduce the number of abortions. This allowed groups like Catholic Democrats (catholicdemocrats.org) to argue in support of Obama.
New to this election were non-partisan groups, such as Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, pushing the full agenda of Catholic social teaching. They were able to counter groups that presented a narrower list of non-negotiables.
A closer look at the exit polls should be as discouraging for either left-wing Catholics as for right-wing Catholics. Catholic voters did not embrace either the conservative non-negotiables or the church’s preferential option for the poor. They were concerned about themselves and their families.
Will the abortion debate rise up again in four years at the next presidential election? A lot depends on President Obama and the Democratic Congress. If they push through the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), then they will have betrayed their pro-life Catholic supporters. This will make it nearly impossible for these people to support them again. On the other hand, if they make a priority the enactment of an abortion reduction bill, then it will be more difficult for the bishops and the Republicans to portray the Democrats as the pro-abortion party.