Can Obama Use Iraq to Win the Catholic Vote?

Deal W. Hudson
April 8, 2008

► This column was updated with Maryknoll’s response at 4:45pm, April 9, 2008. Their letter follows the original piece.

An editorial in the Jesuit’s America magazine recently predicted that Sen. Barack Obama will profit by the upcoming visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States. The moment the Holy Father denounces the war in Iraq, it will provide a “big opening for Sen. Obama,” according to Michael Sean Winters.

Winters argues that Obama can “invoke the foresight of John Paul II, a man still revered among American Catholics,” while contrasting himself to Sen. Hillary Clinton, President Bush, and, most importantly, Sen. John McCain.

Winters is undoubtedly right. The question is whether Catholic voters can be persuaded to overlook his extreme stances on the life issues, all of which are opposed to Catholic teaching, in order to register their protest against an unpopular war and those who supported it – namely, John McCain.

Winters may not be right, however, when he predicts that “Pope Benedict will put the Iraq War and the thinking that got us into that war, back at the center of political discussion.” Such an eventuality, according to Winters’s thinking, will advance Obama’s cause among Catholic voters.

The trouble with his argument is simple: What Winters knows, Benedict XVI also knows. The Holy Father is well aware of the political divide between Democrats and Republicans on the life and family issues. It’s no accident that just ten days before his arrival in the United States, Benedict spoke out on the “grave sins” of abortion, euthanasia, divorce, and “the culture of death.”

This should be a reminder to Catholic Obama supporters that this pope embraces the same priorities of his predecessor, John Paul II. To those who are hopeful that Benedict will scold President Bush about the Iraq War, these remarks reveal what’s on the Holy Father’s mind as he prepares to visit this country. It is highly doubtful that Benedict will frame his criticism of the Iraq war in a way that could be construed to eclipse his regard for President Bush or Senator McCain.

Benedict will undoubtedly congratulate President Bush and all pro-life leaders on their efforts to curb and eliminate abortion, and he will very likely draw attention to the growing threat of euthanasia and those who are being deprived of a natural death.

This pope understands our culture wars. Benedict, after all, is the man who, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, prepared the 2002 “Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life,” which helped to solidify Catholic opposition to the candidacy of Sen. John Kerry. The Doctrinal Note became the primary Vatican document cited to remind Catholic voters that not all political issues are equal in Church teaching.

Any Catholic voter who took to heart the following words from that document would have hesitated before voting for the Catholic candidate for president, Senator Kerry:

[I]t must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.

There is no doubt that Benedict will repeat this message to American Catholics, thus setting the stage for the 2008 electoral struggle between Senator Obama and Senator McCain. Once again, the Democratic Party will pit its pro-abortion candidate against the Republican’s pro-lifer. The biggest difference in 2008 is the instability among Catholic voters created by the Iraq War.

Some Catholic organizations are putting the war front and center in their efforts to influence political debate. Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good is one of several Catholic organizations – including NETWORKPax Christi USA, and the Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns – asking Catholics to sign a pledge “to Vote out the War.” Catholics United has collected 20,000 signatures on a petition calling for “an immediate and responsible end to the Iraq War.” More importantly, the U.S. Catholic bishops have called several times for a withdrawal of American military forces from Iraq.

In his America editorial, Winters does not mention that the U.S. bishops could actually present a much greater difficulty for Senator McCain than the Holy Father. Whereas Benedict will speak carefully to preserve the distinction between prudential and non-prudential matters, other religious leaders will not. Just as a number of bishops led the drumbeat of denying communion to Senator Kerry in 2004, there may be an attempt to start a similar ball rolling with regard to Senator McCain for his outspoken support for the war.

It will be up to Senator McCain to explain his support for the war in terms familiar to Catholics, the principles of just war theory. His explanation cannot be limited to supporting U.S. troops, as important as that is. Senator McCain must convince Catholic voters that the threat from Iraq justified the invasion, that other means of dealing with the threat had been ineffective, and why he believes Iraq will be better off when we leave than it was before we arrived.

That’s no small order.

Of course, Senator Obama will have his explaining to do, as well. He will need to explain not only his opposition but also his inconsistent statements about the war. His comment to the Chicago Tribune during the 2004 convention cannot be good news to Catholics who see him as the pristine anti-war candidate: “There’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage.”

Though some defended Senator Obama by saying this remark was taken out of the context, there are other, more important questions that have been raised about Obama’s position on the Iraq War that will come out in the campaign.

Winters is right that Senator Obama will have the advantage over Senator McCain on the Iraq War issue. But the 2008 election will be not be reduced to this. Benedict will choose his words carefully. He does not want his statements being used to ignore the very issues that should be given top priority by Catholics when making political judgments.

Deal W. Hudson is the director of InsideCatholic.com and the author of Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States (Simon and Schuster, March 2008).

Maryknoll responds:

Along with Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, Maryknoll warmly invites Mr. Deal Hudson to attend the Convention for the Common Good in Philadelphia, July 11-13, and join hundreds of Catholics as we discuss pressing moral and political issues facing our nation.

Maryknoll missioners are engaged in the 2008 election process, but we do not promote any political party, candidate or interest group, despite what Mr. Hudson seems to believe; see “Catholics Organize to Elect Barack Obama,” 4/4/2008, and “Will Senator Obama Use Iraq to Win the Catholic Vote?,” 4/9/2008.

Rather, Maryknoll missioners encourage voters to examine their consciences, as the U.S. bishops have recommended in their excellent November 2007 statement, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” Maryknoll missioners believe that their experiences and stories, told out of faithful reflection on scriptures and Catholic social tradition, can add useful information as voters study their consciences.

Maryknoll seeks to help U.S. voters understand what it means to love our neighbors in a shrinking world. As daily witnesses to how U.S. policy and economic decisions impact people who lack basic necessities, endure the scourge of racism, live with gender-based discrimination or feel the impact of climate change, Maryknoll missioners ask that U.S. voters keep these neighbors, and their stories, in mind as they scrutinize candidates’ policy proposals and go to the polls.

Sincerely,

Marie Dennis, Director, Maryknoll Global Concerns office

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