When John F. Kennedy, a Catholic senator from Massachusetts, ran for president in 1960 abortion was not a major issue. He won 78% of the Catholic vote, which helped him defeat Richard Nixon and become the first Catholic president of the United States. In 2002, John F. Kerry, another Catholic senator from Massachusetts with the initials JFK, ran for president when abortion had become a major issue, in fact, the decisive issue for many Catholics. Bishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis publicly announced that Kerry could not receive communion in his diocese. A strong “Catholics against Kerry” movement developed in Ohio, which became the key battleground state. The Kerry campaign found it hard to find parishes in northwest Ohio where the candidate was welcome to attend Sunday Mass and receive communion. John F. Kerry lost 52% of the Catholic vote, lost Ohio by a narrow margin, and lost the presidency to George W. Bush.
In 2020, when Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic, sought the White House, abortion was once again a major issue. Some bishops made public statements declaring that Catholics could not vote for candidates who support abortion, the preeminent moral evil of our time, an implicit but clear signal to Catholics not to vote for Biden. Nevertheless, he did win almost half of the Catholic vote and became the second Catholic president in U. S. history.
The June 24, 2022 Supreme Court Dobbs decision, overturning Roe, has transferred the focus of abortion politics to the state level. It is complicated, but some commentators argue that the Dobbs decision played a role in the 2022 midterm elections, limiting Democratic losses in the House and enabling them to retain the Senate. We do know that five statewide ballot measures favoring abortion rights won, including the red states Kentucky and Montana. On the other hand, some governors who favor restricting abortion won easily, for example Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas.
Since Dobbs, states have so far tended to adopt extreme public policies. California, for example, has passed laws making abortion medications readily available to students at state universities and helping to pay for pregnant women traveling to the state to obtain an abortion. At the other extreme, Alabama has a near total ban on abortion as do 11 other states with the common exemption of preserving the life of the mother. So far, the hope that Dobbs would prompt reasoned debate and workable compromises in individual states has not materialized, in large part because of the polarized partisan politics that dominate the discussion of abortion.
In this polarized situation, Catholic Social Teaching calls us to do whatever we can to find just policies that serve the common good. For example, we could have a long delayed, often feared conversation with a friend or relative on abortion: concentrating on state policies and not the morality of abortion; seeking to understand and not persuade; bracketing the labels pro-life and pro-choice; and searching for common ground. We could also pay more attention to candidates for state offices, considering their character, competence and policy positions, including their willingness to seek common ground on abortion. As Christians, we can all pray that God guides and blesses our various efforts to find just, workable solutions to our seemingly intractable impasse on abortion policy.
How can I help to promote just and effective state abortion policies?
Next in this on-going discussion of Catholic Social Teaching, we will do a series on climate change.
About the Author
Fr. James J. Bacik has served as a priest of the Diocese of Toledo since his ordination in 1962. He is a widely regarded theologian, writer, lecturer and pastor who served as campus minister and adjunct professor of humanities at the University of Toledo for more than 30 years. Fr. Bacik is an AUSCP member. Visit his website at frjimbacik.org.