Northeastern Pennsylvania is the most Catholic part of the United States. According to local experts, 80 percent of the population in the area around Scranton and Wilkes Barre identifies itself as Catholic. The region voted 63%-37% for Barack Obama and the Democrats on Nov. 4.
That is noteworthy because the Bishop of Scranton on Oct. 5 had used the strongest possible language to warn all Catholics against voting for any politicians who support the right to abortions, clearly referring to the Democratic Party platform. The Scranton situation has parallels in many other dioceses where a bishop published condemnation of votes for pro-choice Democrats before the election, but the people went the other way.
Certainly, the bishops meeting in Washington the week after the election are asking themselves the meaning of this disconnection.
According to some of the anti-abortion faithful this year, a vote for Barack Obama was equivalent to abandoning the Catholic faith. However, most people and most bishops did not consider voting for Obama to amount to renunciation of the faith. In fact, the ordinary Magisterium of the U.S. Catholic Bishops protects personal choice as stated in the pastoral letter, Faithful Citizenship. This document certainly played a role in the disconnection between the outspoken anti-choice message of individual bishops and the decisions of Catholic America in favor of Obama.
Catholic bishops have not only the right but also the responsibility to speak out on public issues. Abortion is morally wrong for every Catholic without exception. If there is some Catholic out there who doesn’t understand this, the bishops’ statements can leave no doubt. What is not clear, however, is the link between opposing abortion as a moral evil and a vote in any U.S. election.
No elected politician can vote to outlaw all abortions because the U.S. Constitution overrides legislation. As illustrated by Republican presidents going back to Ronald Reagan, saying you are pro-life will not end all abortions. But providing a better social and economic climate reduces the rate of abortions, as happened under the administration of pro-choice Democrat Bill Clinton. Despite a pro-life Republican president over the past eight years, the Guttmacher Institute reports that the rate of abortion among low-income women is increasing. Based on those facts, many Catholics such as Prof. Douglas Kmiec suggested that the pro-life vote should go to Obama and the Democrats.
As Kmiec argued, it hasn’t worked to vote Republican over the past 30 years in the hope for a Supreme Court that would vote to reverse Roe v. Wade. What’s more, Kmiec argued, reversal of that Supreme Court decision would not end abortions. It would only return the issue to legislation in each state. Without Roe v. Wade’s regulations, some states could vote in abortion-on-demand, making the situation even worse than it is now.
In my opinion, the way to end abortion is the same way that slavery was ended: by constitutional amendment. But Article V affords no role to the executive branch in proposing such a constitutional amendment. Ultimately, any amendment requires ratification by three-fourths of the states. In sum, it is not a federal government power, but one exercised locally after a long public process.
So why does the Bishop of Scranton or any other bishop focus on a presidential election when instructing the faithful about the need to work against abortion? I don’t know. What seems clear to me, however, is that this strategy is deeply flawed and that most of the Catholic faithful in America have moved beyond the abortion issue in deciding their voting priorities every four years.
If you want abortion ended in this country, as I do, then it is time to wise up. Continuing to practice the same failed policy and expecting a different result is folly. Catholic America does not want bishops telling them they have to vote for Republicans on the single issue of abortion. Behind closed doors, I am sure that is what some bishops are telling other bishops and I expect to see all of them order a reexamination of the Pro-Life Movement.