Decision day arrived after nearly two years of intense debate over everything from the fate of the polar bears to the future of Iraq. Catholics had a commanding influence on yesterday's election at every level, with their concentration in the swing states and their unusually high identification as independent voters. And they voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama, 54% to 45% nationally. Even weekly church-going Catholics were cleanly split between the two candidates.
One big story in this election was the unprecedented debate that took place within our Church. Catholic lay groups emerged after the last election in response to a perception that the most vociferous Catholics were in the pocket of the Republicans, and had essentially endorsed their wars, their budget deficits, their authorship of a soaring new economic inequality, their inattention to crushing world poverty and stagnating family incomes at home, and their head-in-the-sand attitude about science and the impending threats of global warming. The extreme language about abortion in 2004, comparing John Kerry unfavorably to George Bush, led to wildly unrealistic expectations--43% of respondents in a CBS News/NY Times poll in 2004 predicted that most abortions would be illegal by the time Bush left office this year.
Many more bishops this year were alarmed by the alternative Democratic narrative that emerged. Whether it was the fact that lay people were tired of being told to ignore everything but abortion, or whether the language had grown so hateful that they decided to tune it out, Catholics this year followed the lead of the most courageous bishops and the new lay groups to a new set of conclusions. They hearkened to the old anthem of a "consistent ethic of life" articulated so beautifully by Chicago's beloved Cardinal Archbishop Joseph Bernardin in the '80s and '90s--and to the newest disciple of that idea, a rising political star who made his name serving the poor during that time in that same great city as a community organizer.
These new lay groups, like Catholics in Alliance, Catholics United, and the Catholic Democrats, offered Catholics a new, more reasoned voice amidst all the shouting. We argued that there was no need to choose between whether abortion was a more important issue than all the rest; all the life issues are important. There is no need to say that abortion is so foundational that it must be solved first, before other issues can be addressed; the data shows that solving the other issues has a direct beneficial effect on decreasing abortion. Above all, there is no need to hate one another because of the abortion issue; the fact is that there is dramatic common ground for making progress without acrimony.
Senator Barack Obama recognized this new approach, made real in bills co-authored by many Democrats in Congress the last four years that were comprehensive approaches to abortion reduction--and almost universally disdained by the so-called 'champions of life' in the Republican Party. President Bush vetoed the first of these measures in October 2007, claiming the Health and Human Services Department appropriation in which it was contained was "fiscally irresponsible." Abortion apparently is important enough to use as a club to cartoonishly attack the morality of one's political opponent, but not important enough to spend money to solve.
Supported by Catholic intellectuals from across the political spectrum--like Doug Kmiec, Nick Cafardi, and Thomas Groome--Senator Obama articulated a new vision for solving the abortion problem. Impose reasonable legal restrictions on late-term abortions, "partial birth or otherwise," he said, but focus primarily on constructive measures that decrease abortions and solve many of our other social problems in the process: provide health care for all children, decrease the prohibitive costs of adoption, cut the scandalous high rates of HIV transmission to black women, and work to bring more single fathers back into the lives of their children, to name a few. For the first time, Catholics began to question the conservative logic that "you may go to hell" if you didn't vote Republican.
Now the die has been cast. Across the U.S., Catholics have voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama's new solutions to old problems. They defied the few pundits who said that white Catholics wouldn't vote for a black man. Mostly they voted for reconciliation, and against the politics of blame and the discredited school of thought that seeks to stigmatize one's opponents as unworthy of dialogue. In the end, creativity and common ground won this election for Barack Obama, and the Catholic drive for "peace at all levels of our lives" will be better fulfilled as a result.