Catholics in the United States share a common faith, but seemingly little else as their worldviews often reflect secular political ideologies, experts said Tuesday during a virtual panel on moral and political choices for Catholics in the 2020 election.
“Basically, Catholics in the United States are split like Solomon’s baby right down the middle between the two parties,” said Emma Green, a staff writer for The Atlantic who suggested that those political differences help make Catholics “the ultimate swing constituency” in presidential election years.
“In three-quarters of the presidential elections over the last 50 years, Catholics have sided with the winner,” Green said during the virtual panel hosted by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.
Green, who also highlighted the political differences between white Catholics and Latino Catholics, provided a journalist’s analysis of Catholic voter trends, while other panelists offered their thoughts on the 2020 presidential election and how their religious convictions are informing their decisions on whether to vote for President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joseph Biden.
The resulting dialogue where John Carr, a former staffer with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Karina De Avila, a young immigrant rights advocate in Illinois, could respectfully outline their reasons for supporting Biden while Mary FioRito, the Cardinal Francis George Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, was able to explain her decision to vote for Trump, stood in sharp contrast to the acrimonious environment, often fostered by social media, of today’s political debates, in and outside the Church.
“We think nobody should be written out of our Catholic family for how they form and follow their conscience, for how they cast their ballot,” said Kim Daniels, the associate director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.
Daniels, who moderated the panel, said that in a closely-divided Catholic community, “we believe that it’s better to engage than to demonize.”
That principle undergirded the hour-long discussion in which Carr, who is also the founding director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, said he is voting for Biden because he believes the Democratic nominee can unite the country.
“I’m voting for him despite his position on abortion,” said Carr, who conceded that Biden has given into his party’s noncompromising embrace of legal abortion and its call to abolish the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal money from being used to pay for abortions.
Despite Biden, who is Catholic, promising to “codify” Roe v. Wade if elected, Carr said the former vice president would still make a better president than Trump, whom Carr said has fanned the flames of racism, demonized immigrants and sought to divide people.
“If Biden wins, we have to make clear that it’s not a mandate for abandoning the Hyde Amendment or undermining Catholic ministries that serve the poor,” Carr said.
Avila, a founding member of the Latinx Catholic Leadership Coalition who also serves as vice president for the Young Democrats of Will County, Illinois, spoke about the fear and uncertainty that Latino communities have been living under because of Trump’s harsh rhetoric that she and others said demonize immigrants and embolden nativist elements.
“I want my country back, for me, for my daughters, for young people coming right after me, and for the next generation of immigrants and refugees,” said Avila, who also faulted the Trump Administration for restoring the federal death penalty and for moves that she said would take away healthcare and weaken the social safety net for vulnerable communities.
“Biden is not perfect,” Avila said, “Yet the decision is clear for me. Biden is the best choice that Catholics and the American people have in 2020.”
Catholics like FioRito, an attorney who served as director of pro-life activities for the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and was the first female vice-chancellor for the Archdiocese of Chicago, have serious concerns about what a Biden Administration would mean for the unborn.
“This (would be) an administration that is not neutral on abortion,” said FioRito, who added that the Democratic Party’s lack of tolerance for pro-lifers in its ranks is “the kind of extremism that pushed a lifelong Democrat like me into voting for President Trump.”
FioRito, whose father was a Democratic precinct captain in Chicago, said Trump in 2016 tapped into a blue collar part of the electorate that felt marginalized and didn’t want the government over-involved in their lives. Regarding the concerns stated over Trump’s character, FioRito said voters don’t elect a pastor.
“We don’t look to the president for moral guidance. We look to the Holy Father,” she said.
In her own reporting, Green said she has noticed a common fear among progressive and conservative voters, Catholics included, that if the other side wins in November, their views will no longer be tolerated and will be pushed out of the public square.
“Having our identity so thoroughly rooted in partisan camps is an active barrier to having a good life, to building a strong local community, to finding a sense of safe community,” Green said.
In a time when hostility, name-calling, partisan point-scoring and personal challenges to other people’s faith and motives are common, Daniels emphasized the importance of engagement and bringing people together across ideological lines.
Said Daniels, “Authentic dialogue reflects the ability to respect the other’s point of view and to admit it may include legitimate differences and concerns.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.