WASHINGTON - With Election Day less than a month away, the usual flurry of comments about the church's involvement in politics has threatened to turn into a blizzard.
As bishops reminded their people of the importance of voting and outlined their views on key issues to be considered, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican said there was "no voice in either party for the Catholic point of view."
But at a conference on the Catholic vote in Washington, a panel of media commentators said the Republican Party's difficulties in winning over Catholic voters had more to do with style than with substance.
In the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., Bishop James T. McHugh's directives forbidding any appearances at Catholic parishes by public officials or candidates who support keeping abortion legal let to the cancellation of 19 candidate forums in the diocese. Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George, in a column for the Catholic New World, his archdiocesan newspaper, said abortion "is a defining issue" morally and politically.
"Many people wish the issue would disappear as a subject of public discussion," he wrote. "It can't disappear for believing Catholics and many others because it is a matter of life and death., a defining issue not only personally but socially. Poverty can be addressed incrementally, but the death of a child is quite final."
In the same column, the cardinal also called for the abolition of capital punishment, saying, "we cannot be absolutely certain that an innocent man or woman will not be executed."
He said that in the current presidential campaigns the candidates have done little so far to address significant foreign policy questions and a number of other issues of interest to "those of us trying to make political judgments in the light of the Catholic faith."
Issues of concern to those in the armed forces also need to be addressed, Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of the Archdiocese for the U.S. Military Services said in a letter for Respect Life Sunday, Oct. 1.
Those concerns are not linked to any particular political party, he said, but play a part in voting decisions for a variety of offices.
People in military service "have every right to be concerned, for example, that adequate care be given those who have served in uniform and are now in need of medical treatment," he wrote. "Those now on active duty should receive adequate compensation so that their families will be fed, sheltered and educated at standards corresponding to the valuable contributions our military renders our nation."
Those who serve in the military also should examine candidates' foreign policy views, he suggested. "The world's most powerful nation must be all the more sensitive to a just, balanced and reasonable employment of our military power, while encouraging other countries to engage in regional peacekeeping operations."
But what stands out as "the pre-eminent issue," Archbishop O'Brien said, is "the sacred dignity of human life and the right to life itself."
A similar message was being stressed in a new television advertising campaign by Priests for Life aimed at lawmakers, candidates and voters during the 2000 election season.
"While many important issues are being discussed during this election season, none is more important than the protection of innocent human life," said Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life. "This ad campaign will make clear that defending the right to life is the most important obligation of every lawmaker, candidate and voter."
In an interview with Vatican Radio, Raymond Flynn, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, warned that U.S. Catholics may realize after the election that they have become "second-class citizens" as far as political influence is concerned.
"I think a week after the election Catholics are going to wake up and say: We have lost our political strength. This is no longer 1960, when Catholics finally made it with John Kennedy, this is 2000, when Catholics took a major step back in political influence in the United States."
Flynn, a onetime Democratic mayor of Boston who now heads the nonpartisan Catholic Alliance, said. he believed both major political parties in the United dates had become more elitist and less responsive to the church's traditional pro-life, pro-poor agenda.
Speakers at a Sept. 29 conference in Washington on the Catholic vote said Catholics will decide the 2000 election because they make up a plurality of voters in key "swing states" including Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Bill McGurn of the Wall Street Journal said a lot of Catholic voters "don't know where they are" politically these days.
"It's not true that they have abandoned the Democratic Party," he said. "The Democratic Party has abandoned them."
But McGurn said GOP leaders are "not natural with the issue" of appealing to Catholics, which "leads to all sorts of disconcerting things."
"They have the substance, but they spend a lot of time looking uncomfortable" with things Catholic, he said.
"Many of them, when pictured with a priest, look terrified that they're going to drop holy water on them or something."
McGurn and Paul A. Gigot, commentators for The Wall Street Journal, were responding to a talk by Kate O'Beirne, Washington editor of National Review magazine, on "The Catholic Vote After Bob Jones."
O'Beirne gave the second of two talks during an afternoon conference Sent. 29 on "How Catholics Will Decide the Election." The conference was organized by Crisis magazine, whose editor, Deal Hudson, is a key Catholic adviser to the campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential candidate.
Speaking about Bush's February visit to Bob Jones University, a Protestant school in South Carolina whose current and former presidents have called Catholicism a cult and satanic, O'Beirne said she did not believe the visit got Bush "into trouble with Catholics."
"Most Catholics I know were more alarmed to learn that George Bush doesn't drink," she said with a laugh. "No one believed he was anti-Catholic."
More troublesome for Republicans was the flap when the House's GOP leadership initially turned down a Catholic priest for the post of House chaplain, O'Beirne said.
"People found it credible that Republicans would discriminate against a Catholic priest," she said, despite the fact that Catholics are now "the single largest denomination among Republicans in the House."
Many aspects of Bush's message should be "very appealing to Catholics," O'Beirne said, citing his pledge to "leave no one behind," his "unambiguously prolife" message and his commitment to the Catholic principle of subsidiarity; which holds that higher or larger social structure should not do what can be done effectively at a lower level.
She said Bush had "a real missed opportunity" when he failed to name a Catholic running mate.
"The Democrats went a long way toward welcoming Catholics home with the selection of (Sen.) Joe Lieberman, and the Republicans missed an opportunity to do the same by not choosing a Catholic vice-presidential candidate," O'Beirne said.
The Wall Street Journal's Gigot agreed with O'Beirne's assessment of Lieberman's appeal, noting that the Connecticut senator has "a favorable rating among Catholics of 3 to 1."
The deciding factor in the Nov. 7 election will be what happens to Vice President A1 Gore, the Democratic candidate, when "the 75 mph head wind of economic prosperity hits the 75 mph tail wind of scandals" surrounding the Clinton administration, Gigot said.
Gigot's colleague, McGurn, said part of the frustration in reaching Catholic voters comes from the fact that no one U.S. Catholic leader speaks for or represent the Catholic electorate.
"It's not like, 'If we just explain everything to Cardinal so and so, we'll get all the votes,"' he said. "There are barriers that are going to take more time."