Seeking the Vote

Oct. 7-14, 2004
Seeking the Vote
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Tom Roberts, Editor of the National Catholic Reporter, Visits Syracuse University

The classroom setting at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications served well the intimate discussion that took place Sept. 27 when Tom Roberts, editor of the independently newsweekly, National Catholic Reporter (NCR), spoke about Catholics and the upcoming presidential election. Robert’s talk was sponsored by the school’s Religion and Society program and was facilitated by Gustav Niebuhr, associate professor of Religion and the Media and director of the program. The format was conversational and students were able to ask questions at the end of the discussion.

Roberts spoke a little bit about the history of Catholic voters who in the past were inclined to vote for Democrats. He said the dynamics have “changed drastically” with this election. Roberts said that his guess would be that Catholic voters would echo voters overall. “Catholics vote pretty much the way the rest of society votes,” Roberts said. “Catholic votes, by best guess, are not going to make a whole lot of difference overall, unless in the swing states.” One quarter of the American population is Roman Catholic, Roberts said. Niebuhr said that Roman Catholics in the U.S. are often affluent and highly educated which makes them a natural subject of interest for political parties. “The Democrats have done almost nothing; the Republicans have been very, very aggressive in reaching out, pointing out a Catholic and saying he’s a ‘bad’ Catholic is a strange dynamic. This year you have a Catholic who is not quite Catholic enough and you have a United Methodist president who has a made a number of trips to the Vatican. …It’s a strange year,” Roberts said.

Roberts went on to say that the Catholic population is split and interestingly, so are the U.S. bishops. He said 13 bishops had written or made a statement urging some type of action for those candidates and some voters who are not anti-abortion; that, he said, leaves about 300 bishops not in that camp. At the June bishops’ meeting, Roberts said, the bishops overwhelmingly agreed to leave such action up to individual bishops. “While it may be unsettling to find this division, now we get debate out into the open; that’s not a bad thing,” Roberts said. Niebuhr asked Roberts if the issue of withholding the Eucharist because of pro-choice politics is a U.S. issue and not an issue for the rest of the world’s Catholics. The Vatican correspondent for NCR, John Allen, reported some months ago, Roberts said, at the end of the Year of Jubilee, in Jan. 2001, Pope John Paul II distributed Communion to the mayor of Rome who was pro-choice, and that the pope had also given Communion to Tony Blair who is not only pro-choice, but also an Anglican. “This is a generous gesture and an ecumenical gesture,” Roberts said, then added, “Wonder if the pope could get kicked out of some dioceses in the U.S.?” Roberts said he asked the pope’s biographer, George Weigel, why the issue held such power in the U.S. Part of the reason, Weigel replied, is that the Democratic party has made pro-choice almost “an article of faith for the party” and that the abortion issue is a legal one in the U.S. On the matter of the Vatican and President George Bush, Roberts said that the Vatican hadn’t liked former President Bill Clinton for a lot of reasons, but that the Vatican had roundly condemned the Iraq war and that the Vatican is critical of the U.S. apparent disengagement of the rest of the world. The European sensibilities about politics are different from those of the U.S. In the Italian view, laws are more the ideal and it is more difficult to apply morality to an arena where compromise is a way of life. “Politicians live differently than theologians,” Roberts said.

Despite all the money spent on fighting the pro-choice position, the anti-abortion cause is still lacking support, Roberts noted. “No one wants to be the president that reverses Roe v. Wade,” Roberts said. The U.S. bishops have suggested, Roberts said, that Catholics need to look at the broader picture and how to bring the Catholic teaching on abortion and other issues into the forefront. At the end of the presentation, students asked Roberts questions about same-sex marriage and whether or not pastors in Catholic churches preach politics from the pulpit. Roberts said Catholics have a duty and obligation to talk about issues of justice. “I think the problem comes up when you bring up individual names,” Roberts said. “Is the church community going to owe to one particular party or candidate?”

Roberts was asked if he thought the Republicans were courting the Catholic vote on the issue of abortion and that John Kerry is a “bad” Catholic. “Yes. I do think that they’re trying to court the Catholic vote but I’m not so sure about their ideology and religion. George Bush might be against abortion but I’m not sure George Bush can reverse where we are.” Roberts explained that journalists can “grab onto” the issue of abortion, a clear issue, while other Catholic social teachings are more complicated. “The bishops have spent years writing documents on nuclear weapons and consistent statements on economic justice, a powerful number of documents that are difficult to translate into six paragraphs,” Roberts said.

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