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Catholic Conundrum: What's an Anti-Abortion, Pro-Immigrant Voter to Do?

Kyle T. Webster

Edilia Gonzales attends Mass every Sunday.

She gives communion to fellow Catholics, sick and elderly, who are unable to leave their homes. She believes that life is sacred, including the life of a child still developing in the womb. And she believes that undocumented immigrants who've made their way to the United States should be treated humanely and with dignity.

The 72-year-old was raised by devout parents who opened up their family's home for church services nearly six decades ago, before the modest Santa Teresita Catholic Church was built in El Mirage, a small community in the West Valley.

Gonzales knows that Bishop Thomas Olmsted, the head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, tells Catholics to take their faith into the proverbial voting booth, and that abortion under any circumstances is "intrinsically evil."

Does that mean, then, that a Catholic vote for pro-choice President Barack Obama is a sin?

It's troubling, she says, particularly this year, as the immigration debate competes with abortion for the spotlight.

Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, has an unfriendly record on illegal immigration. He calls Arizona's harsh anti-immigrant law (Senate Bill 1070) a "model for the nation," and he decisively says that if he were elected to office he would veto the DREAM Act, a measure that would allow certain young people brought into the United States as children to earn their American citizenship.

Gonzales has seen many young undocumented children in her community — friends and neighbors — go to school, graduate, get jobs, and start families of their own.

"They've been here all their lives," she tells New Times. "They don't know Mexico. But the church says I shouldn't vote for Obama because he's for abortion. Who am I going to vote for? Romney? He wants to get rid of all the Mexicans."


More than 68 million Americans — including about 950,000 in the Phoenix area — share Gonzales' Catholic faith.

Religion and politics are always a difficult mix, but this year, the dichotomy is punctuated by a presidential race in which God has taken center stage.

Mitt Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church). Romney, whose family has deep roots in eastern Arizona, rose to the rank of bishop but stepped away from his religious duties when he entered politics. Yet, he says, he remains committed to the tenets of his church.

The Massachusetts governor's running mate, Paul Ryan, a devout Catholic, has close ties to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the nation's highest-ranking Catholic.

Obama is Christian, and Vice President Joseph Biden also is Catholic but, unlike Ryan, believes in a woman's right to make her own reproductive decisions and same-sex couples' right to marry.

Biden, by his own church's standards, is a sinner.

The 2012 Republican Party platform mentions "God" a dozen times, compared to only twice in 2008. The Democrats, who omitted the reference from the original version of their platform, scrambled during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte to get the word back in.

It was a big deal, with Republicans pouncing on Democrats for the omission and Obama reportedly personally intervening to reinsert the phrase "God-given" in the guiding document. The incident illustrates just how prominent a role religion is playing this political season.

Debates, campaign speeches, and pundit chatter are dominated by social issues steeped in religion — abortion, gay rights, and gender equality. Illegal immigration, the fate of Medicare, and programs for the vulnerable, such as food stamps and Medicaid, also are emotionally charged topics that could tip the balance in a tight presidential campaign.

At the same time, Catholics, Mormons, and other religious Americans are feeling the pressure from church leaders who are urging them to vote with a mind fixed on traditional church teachings.

All this fervor over religion likely will push more voters of faith to the polls, just as Obama energized African-Americans and other minority voters in 2008.

Conservative religious voters are going to make a difference in the presidential election — not only in Arizona, but in battleground states across the country where Romney and Obama are in statistical ties.

In Nevada, the state's sizable Mormon population could give Romney a boost. In Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Obama's share of the Catholic vote will be pivotal. (For more on Mormons' political involvement, see "The Mormon Dilemma" on this page.)

Of course, the faithful aren't monolithic and do not vote by religious affiliation alone. Important overlapping factors include an individuals' ethnicity and the depth of their reverential convictions — that is, how closely they listen to their religious leaders.

Sixty-two percent of Latinos in America are Catholic.

"Obama may not win Arizona, even with huge turnout among Latinos," Josh Ulibarri, a pollster with Washington-based Lake Research Partners, tells New Times. "The key for Latinos in Arizona are all the down-ballot races. Do those Latinos turn out and vote for [Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Richard] Carmona? Do those Latinos turn out and vote for the Democrat in the state races?"

 

Those voters might turn red Arizona violet and could also help in the state's Ninth Congressional District, where former state senator Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, faces Republican Vernon Parker, a former Paradise Valley town council member, on November 6.

Like Edilia Gonzales, religious-minded Americans also have to reconcile conflicting stances on political views within the church itself.

For example, both Mormon and Catholic doctrines preach anti-abortion and traditional family values that align with the Republican way. At the same time, church leaders also publicly adopted a Democrat-esque, humane approach to immigration enforcement, inccluding a path to citizenship.

"It is very confusing," Ulibarri says. "I grew up Catholic in Utah. And today's Catholic Church is not, in many ways, the same Catholic Church I grew up in. Before, it was about helping the poor, helping the aging, helping the 'least among us.' Now, the conversation among Catholics is just about abortions, just about contraception."

The conversation also is about immigration and church officials' views that politicians should adopt a more tolerant view of the presence of immigrants.

The softer stance stems from a growing number of undocumented immigrants converting to Mormonism — an estimated 70 percent of Latino Mormons are undocumented. In the Catholic Church, where membership is steadily declining, immigrants are offsetting those losses.

A 2012 poll by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization, revealed that 69 percent of foreign-born Latinos identify themselves as Catholic. To maintain membership, religious leaders must tread lightly near these issues.

But not on abortion. Or gay marriage.


Pope Benedict XVI, the world leader of the Roman Catholic Church, left little room for doubt about Jesus Christ's expectations of his followers earlier this summer as he delivered a sermon in Castel Gandolfo, a small town 15 miles southeast of Rome.

In the August 26 address, Benedict compared disobedient and unbelieving Catholics to Judas. Remaining in the church while not fully believing its teachings is a betrayal, a falsehood.

The Christian Post reported on August 29 that Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro, the Human Life International Rome Director, confirmed that the pope's comments are very much related to the Catholic Church's formal teachings in support of traditional marriage and anti-abortion views.

Bob Grossfeld, a Phoenix-based Democratic political consultant, says that it would be a fantasy for any religious leader to believe they could influence their members to walk in lockstep with the church.

"It depends on the individual as much on the church leader," Grossfeld tells New Times. "There are Catholics who try to live close to the ecumenical teachings of the Vatican, and then there are those who take the rules and pronouncements as suggestions — and [there's] a wide range in between."

Still, the Catholic Church continues to sway parishioners to vote against abortion and same-sex marriage — and anyone who supports either.

Robert DeFrancesco, a spokesman for the Catholic diocese in Phoenix, tells New Times that though the church "does not endorse political candidates or engage in partisan politics . . . [it] has a long tradition of teaching on the sanctity of life, marriage and family, religious liberty, immigration, and many other important issues."

Indeed, the church has a rich history of political involvement, as do many of its members — including Biden, Arizona Congressman Ed Pastor, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The church's political involvement has prompted questions — and complaints with the IRS — over whether it should lose its nonprofit tax status.

On September 7, Americans United for Separation of Church and State asked the IRS to investigate a New York City church that endorsed Mitt Romney in its September 2 bulletin.

The nonpartisan educational organization, dedicated to maintaining a separation between church and state, also filed an IRS complaint in April against a Catholic bishop in Chicago who compared Obama to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

An IRS-developed tax guide for churches acknowledges that "churches and religious organizations take positions on public policy issues, including issues that divide candidates in an election for public office."

It cautions them, however, from getting involved to the point where, even though they are not "expressly" telling an audience to vote for specific candidate, they deliver "any message favoring or opposing a candidate."

The bottom line is that the IRS rarely takes action against churches, and churches persist in shaping the collective conscience.

In 2008, Olmsted, head of the Catholic diocese in Phoenix, told local Catholics to support a state constitutional amendment that would protect the institution.

Olmsted reminded Catholics in a YouTube video that church doctrines should guide them "at home, at work, at school, and even at the voting booth" and that some teachings "are non-negotiable, ones in which Catholics can not legitimately disagree."

 

Marriage, as defined by various religious institutions (a union between one man and one woman), is one of those teachings.

"We Catholics have an obligation to exercise our faith in all we do," he said into the camera, his voice deliberate and convincing, much like a politician in a campaign ad. "I urge you to vote yes for marriage. Yes on Prop 102. God bless you."

Olmsted emphasizes that abortions are just as unholy as daring to defile the sanctity of marriage.

"It should be emphasized . . . other issues, such as abortion or euthanasia, are always wrong and do not allow for the correct use of prudential judgment to justify them. It would never be proper for Catholics to be on the opposite side of these issues," he writes in Catholic in the Public Square, a 45-page guide for parishioners.

And he also writes that politicians are "cooperating in a grave sin" if they are "actively supporting and furthering the culture of death . . . [voting to] allow for abortions and even promote abortions."

The unwavering views — and political pressure — may explain why a Catholic such as GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan drafted a law that allowed for abortions only in cases of "forcible rape." He co-wrote the bill with Todd Akin, the Republican congressman from Missouri who earlier this summer infamously suggested a woman's body can keep her from getting pregnant during a "legitimate rape."

Such a blending of religion, social issues, and politics culminating in laws that reflect and preserve church doctrine — from any church — is what gave the nation pause in 1960, when Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, won the presidency. Questions arose about whether he would simply do the pope's bidding as president.

"I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me," Kennedy reassured a group of ministers while stumping in Texas.

When Pope Paul VI established the Phoenix diocese in 1969 (geographically, the diocese includes Maricopa, Mohave, Yavapai, and Coconino counties, and the Gila River Indian Reservation in Pinal County), membership numbered about 180,000 Catholics.

Today, about 25 percent of Arizona residents, about 950,000, call themselves Catholic. And the diocese has no problem throwing its weight around.

Olmsted wrote a letter in January to Phoenix-area Catholics blasting portions of "Obamacare," the Affordable Care Act requiring all employers' insurance policies to cover contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs.

Priests read the letter at Catholic masses across the Valley.

Olmsted urged Catholics to learn more about the "severe assault on religious liberty" and to support legislation that would reverse the mandate.

The church also easily navigated the Arizona Legislature, where Representative Debbie Lesko, a Republican, sponsored a measure that essentially protected churches and religiously affiliated employers from having to include birth control and related services in their insurance plans.

And yet, members are not always in lockstep with the church.

Despite the bishops' consternation over birth control mandates, 82 percent of Catholics believe that birth control is morally acceptable, compared to 90 percent of non-Catholics, according to a Gallup poll conducted in May.

Linell E. Cady, director of Arizona State University's Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, says, "Many Catholics are deeply distressed about bishops calling for religious liberty on this issue. As polls show, Catholics use contraception. And they themselves are puzzled over the hierarchy using religious liberty to take away their [personal] religious liberty."


Mitt Romney already may have sealed the Mormon vote in Arizona — which is about 14 percent of the state's electorate — but that easily could be offset here by the massive grass-roots push by community activists like Promise Arizona in Action, Team Awesome, labor unions, and the Democratic Party to register thousands of new Latino voters. The idea is that those voters would favor Obama.

The wild card: Many are Catholic. And that's nothing to sneeze at.

According to the May Gallup poll, Catholics make up nearly one out of every four voters across the United States. As a voting bloc, Catholics also have carried both Republican and Democratic presidents into the White House, including Democrat Jimmy Carter, Republican Ronald Reagan, Republican George H.W. Bush, and Democrat Bill Clinton.

Catholic News Service reported in the 2008 Obama-McCain race that although church members as a whole voted for Obama, McCain received a higher percentage of the Catholic vote in states where bishops instructed members to "vote only for candidates of the party that supports overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion virtually on demand."

 

But the truth this year is that the whole thing could backfire on the Catholic Church.

The notion of religious leaders stepping that far into an individual's politics is offensive to Cecilia Moreno, a 62-year-old retired teacher who lives in West Phoenix.

"You have to be able to separate church and state, which is what our country is based on," she says. "We should be able to go to church, worship because we believe in God, and then go out and vote for whomever we want to."

She says that abortion and same-sex marriage are issues that should remain with the church, not permeate the laws of the state.

But Robert DeFrancesco, a spokesman for the Phoenix Catholic diocese, says that the church is "obligated" to help shape the moral character of society and help Catholics form their consciences.

"Am I torn? Yes," Moreno says, adding that she felt like she had no choice but to step away from her strict Catholic upbringing to express her political independence.

"If you believe what they tell you, then you can't be a Democrat. But I can't be a Republican, either, because a Republican is not going to help those in need," she says.

These days, it's usually only funerals that bring her to Mass.

"When I'm there, I feel good at first because it's familiar. It's how I was raised," she says.

The feeling doesn't last.

She participates in Mass — but doesn't receive communion because, her politics, according to the church, make her a sinner. And until she "repents," she isn't suppose to partake in that Catholic ritual.

"That makes me feel empty. I don't get a whole feeling of being holy there anymore. I participate, I still remember all the parts of the mass, and I do everything except receive communion because I'm with sin," she says, adding with a nervous chuckle: "I'm probably going to go to Hell."


When Edilia Gonzales sits down to fill out her ballot, the decision — whatever it is — will weigh heavily on her conscience.

"I don't know if I'm going to vote for Obama or if I'm going to vote for Romney," she confesses. "I'm against abortion, yes. But if Romney wants to take all these kids and send them back to Mexico, I don't think I can vote for him."

She says that Obama has done good things for the country, bringing the nation's military men and women home from war. But, she adds, that some of her Medicare co-pays are higher, and she isn't sure if that has to do with Obama's healthcare plan.

"I was born a Catholic, and I'll probably die a Catholic," she says. "It's hard, though, because I know that one day, I'm going to be judged, too, by God."

It's an almost impossible choice.

"When I stand before God, is he going to say, go to the other side because I voted for a president who is for abortion?" she wonders, but reminds herself that God is merciful. Still, the question mark is unmistakable in her tone.

"I don't think he's going to damn me."


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