Winning the hearts and minds of Catholics in a church divided

There's a fierce battle going on for 'the Catholic vote,' with abortion as a key issue in winning this crucial swing vote. But let's not confuse this political shorthand for Catholic voters themselves.

(RNS) — There’s a fierce battle going on in this fall’s presidential electoral campaign for “the Catholic vote,” seen as key to the northeast swing states and the northern tier of the Midwest.

But let’s not confuse this political shorthand for Catholic voters themselves.

In most Americans’ minds, the defining Catholic issue is abortion, even if they are divided by it. The Pew Research Center reports that 56% of Catholics say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, even as official church teachings describe abortion as an intrinsically evil act.

But Catholics, like the rest of Americans, think more subtly about abortion than they are given credit for. One recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute demonstrates how the “pro-choice,” “pro-life” binary doesn’t capture Americans’ true views on abortion, showing that 7 in 10 Americans say the term “pro-choice” describes them somewhat or very well, while nearly two-thirds also say the same about the term “pro-life.” This overlapping identity is present in nearly every demographic group.

So if you find yourself identifying with both “sides,” you’re in good company. Even in our reddest states, a 2019 study reports, fewer than a quarter of residents support a total abortion ban.

Catholics, who are charged with using both faith and reason in discerning the mandates of their faith and conscience, are looking for a fuller meaning of “pro-life.” They are asking not, “Which candidate will make us more polarized on life issues,” but, “Which presidential candidate’s policies are more likely to lead to fewer abortions in the next four years?”

The U.S. abortion rate reached a historic low in 2017. This trend is unlikely to continue in a second Trump term, since the decline is attributable to the Obama administration’s support for expanding contraceptive coverage and healthcare access through the Affordable Care Act. At that time, the economy was strong, and working women did not face the threats they now encounter because of the coronavirus pandemic.

American workers now face devastating unemployment numbers, and many are losing health insurance, housing and food security as a result. The National Women’s Law Center estimates women have accounted for 56% of total job losses since the start of the pandemic, in large part because women are overrepresented in the jobs hit hardest, such as retail, restaurant and education, and in part-time, low-wage and tip-dependent jobs. These realities do not give pregnant women much hope for a future in which they can reasonably parent children.

If we are really pro-life, we want pregnant women to feel the confidence to give their babies life. We want our country to be a place where families thrive and where all children have access to high-quality education and where women have access to prenatal and postnatal health care. We want them to have options, including adoption, affordable child care and paid family leave. These social programs require further investment now, but Republican policies will inevitably disappoint them.

Most Catholics, like most Americans, don’t want the abortion question resolved by simply overturning Roe v. Wade, leaving a patchwork of 50 statewide approaches. Where states implement restrictive abortion laws, there will be traumatic consequences for women who need medical care after pregnancy loss due to miscarriage. Grieving women deserve compassionate care, not the fear of being investigated by law enforcement.

The candidates in this election should take it to heart when the U.S. Bishops tell us, “Catholics are not single-issue voters.” Certainly abortion weighs on the heart of many Catholic voters, but our prudence suggests that being truly pro-life means looking at policies that will do the most to make abundant life possible. 

(Emily Reimer-Barry is an associate professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)