By Brian Fraga - OSV Newsweekly, 4/29/2012
The 2012 campaign season is coming into sharper focus now that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is all but assured the Republican presidential nomination.
The Romney campaign is already targeting President Barack Obama, challenging the Democratic president in recent days for his handling of the economy, foreign policy and gun control.
Those are some issues that Catholic voters will be considering this November. Others include religious freedom, immigration, the role of government, the defense of marriage, and abortion, stem cell research and war.
Following is an overview, with commentary on what role they may play.
Brian Fraga writes from Texas.
Life and morality
“Life issues in general and abortion in particular will always be an issue for Catholics and the sanctity of life is a core pillar of Catholic social thought,” said Vincent P. Munoz, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame.
Romney’s campaign website has a “values” section that declares the Republican nominee to be pro-life and hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade. The site says Romney would preserve traditional marriage, defend the Defense of Marriage Act and champion a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman.
Romney also said he supports ethical stem cell research that does not clone or destroy embryos.
The Obama campaign website makes no direct mention of those issues, though the president has previously stated his support of legalized abortion.
An “equal rights” section on Obama’s website touts the president’s decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act and his administration’s advocacy for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community. Obama has said he opposes same-sex marriage, while adding the caveat that his position on the issue is “evolving.”
Meanwhile, war, especially that of a pre-emptive nature, is also a life issue worth considering, said Michael Peppard, an assistant professor of theology at Fordham University, who noted that Romney has said he would support a pre-emptive war with Iran for its nuclear ambitions. Obama has been more circumspect.
James Keating, a theology professor at Providence College, said he does not believe life issues will be front and center, predicting instead greater influence by competing political ideologies.
Catholic Advocate’s Deal Hudson said the life issues “are in play,” and believes they will gain renewed attention.
Another issue that Catholics tend to view through a political lens is immigration.
The bishops have often called for comprehensive reform that would include pathways to citizenship for undocumented migrants. Many conservative Catholics have called that amnesty, and say it would undermine national security and the rule of law.
Obama promises to seek broad immigration reform if reelected and recently called Romney’s stance on immigration “troublesome.” Romney said the immigration system is “broken,” and during the primaries, he voiced support for Arizona’s tough state law that allows authorities to check the immigration status of suspected undocumented people, and to pursue deportation.
The issue concerns Latino Catholics, which comprise the closest resemblance to a voting bloc in the country, said Fordham’s Peppard, adding they often view immigration in light of family values and tend to be socially conservative, which would seem to dovetail with Republican positions, though the candidates’ rhetoric could alienate them.
Pope Benedict XVI has called protecting the environment a concern for Catholics. He has spoken against environmental degradation, earning the nickname of the “green pope.” The pope has said the Church’s position in favor of environmental protection and sustainability are rooted in its fundamental concerns for the poor and the dignity of life.
“The pope is no tree-hugger. But his concern for the environment as a foundational life issue, especially for the poor, has been made evident in his writings and speeches,” Peppard said.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is doing its best to secure religious liberty as an election-year issue.
On April 12, the bishops’ conference’s Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty released a statement that calls for “all the energies the Catholic community can muster” in defending “our first freedom.”
The bishops are proposing a special “fortnight for freedom,” a 14-day period of prayer, study, catechesis and public action that would run from June 21 — the vigil of the Feasts of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More — to Independence Day on July 4 (see News Analysis, Pages 6-7).
Religious liberty has become a prominent Catholic issue since the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandated this year that all employer-provided health insurance plans cover, without deductibles or co-pays, all government-approved forms of birth control, including abortifacients and sterilization.
The Obama administration says it is protecting religious freedom by shielding religiously-affiliated employers from having to directly pay for contraception — billing insurers instead — a claim the bishops say is misleading and ignores other recent government intrusions into religious freedom.
Romney has spoken out against the HHS mandate, though he has not been as vocal on the broader issue of religious liberty.
“As long as the bishops stay focused on the issue, and they seem to be energized and fully committee to it, religious liberty will be an issue in the upcoming election,” said Munoz, the Notre Dame political science professor.
“How large of an issue religious liberty will be will depend on part on whether the Obama administration retains its hard-line position of forcing Catholic institution to provide services they find morally objectionable,” Munoz told Our Sunday Visitor.
Deal Hudson, chairman of Catholic Advocate, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that seeks to engage faithful Catholics in the political process, said the introduction of religious liberty as a political issue will make this election season much more complex and interesting than previous cycles.
Jobs, economy and government
The recession has hit Catholics as hard as anyone else, so jobs and the economy, as well as the connected issue of government’s role, will be on the front burner.
Romney recently assailed Obama for launching an “assault” on Americans’ economic freedom through higher taxes, regulations and costly government programs. Romney promises a fairer and flatter tax system, increased domestic energy production and fewer business regulations.
Obama counters that Romney’s plan is a rehash of policies responsible for wrecking the nation’s economy, and argues his administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, known as the stimulus, saved the economy, helped restore 4.1 million private sector jobs and has the economy poised for continued gains.
“Unfortunately, many Catholics tend to use the lens of American political parties rather than the lens of our religious tradition,” said Charles Camosy, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University.
One example is in the debate over U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s federal budget plan that would combine deep spending cuts in safety-net programs with sharp drops in tax rates while also overhauling Medicare. Ryan, a Catholic, argues his plan respects the social justice principle of subsidiarity, while progressive Catholics say his plan would hurt the poor.
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