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Catholic leaders react to Obama victory, offer advice
John Allen, Fr. Frank Pavone and George Weigel (L to R)
John Allen, Fr. Frank Pavone and George Weigel (L to R)

.- Prominent Catholics’ reactions to the election of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as president have been cautionary, advising increased catechesis and cultural engagement while for Catholics warning that Obama’s use of the presidency to advance abortion rights must be opposed.

Austin Ruse, President of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, told CNA Catholics should support Obama where they can and oppose him “with all of our being” on issues like abortion. He also emphasized a focus on catechesis.

“If Catholics were really acting on a proper understanding of their faith, Barack Obama would never have been elected,” he claimed.

Voicing his suspicion that regular Mass-goers favored McCain but “generic Catholics” favored Obama, Ruse said he thought the organized Catholic effort in the McCain campaign was “very weak.”

“It never really got off the ground and was hamstrung by bad planning and bad execution. I was fairly close to it and I know it was sadly gummed up with personal agendas that had little to do with electing John McCain and mostly with protecting turf. The Catholic outreach for the McCain campaign was extremely unedifying.”

However, Ruse said, the bishops were “stars.”

“We have never seen anything like it. More than 100 came out publically against the Culture of Death. I suspect that many of them will be hassled by the IRS. I hope they remain strong. I suspect they will and that they will be even stronger as the months progress.”

Ruse cautioned that Obama and his allies will be “the most pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage of any administration in history. The Church will be in semi-permanent opposition to the adminstration on these most important public policy issues in the church. I expect that the bishops will be very active as will faithful Catholic laity,” he told CNA, saying the Church will have to fight more vigorously for “life and family.”

Father Frank Pavone, President of Priests for Life, said Catholics should focus on challenging Obama “every day of his Presidency to stop the ongoing killing of children in America, and to work for ‘change’ in the Democratic Party so that it no longer is a herald of death for the unborn.”

Father Pavone noted that Catholics always play a “key role” in deciding who will be president and said bishops have made “many excellent statements” on the primacy of the right to life as an election issue. He claimed that the bishops’ teaching in “Forming Consciences For Faithful Citizenship” was “abused and distorted both within and outside the Church,” calling for those distortions to be corrected by the same mechanisms that created the document.

He added that the Catholic Church’s effort to register voters could have been “much stronger,” urging that registration drives for the 2010 election cycle begin now.

Turning his attention to voter education material, Father Pavone criticized many dioceses’ policies against allowing material from “outside groups.”

“It fosters a view of the Church which is bureaucratic and institutional rather than one of the Spirit-filled Body of Christ with many different parts, gifts, and ministries all encouraging one another,” he told CNA.

“I find it particularly unhelpful to be referred to as an ‘outside group’ and to have our vigorous efforts to educate our fellow Catholics in the teachings of the bishops be greeted with ‘we can only use our own materials,’ as if the teaching ministry of priests or the unity of the Church gets shut down at election time.”

When CNA asked about the role of the Church in the public square under an Obama administration, Father Pavone replied:

“The Church will face increasing pressure to not interfere with the positions of public officials on issues like abortion and marriage; yet the actions of a pro-abortion administration and a pro-abortion Vice-president will necessarily prompt a response from the Church. In other words, we have to be ready to fight.”

Vatican journalist John L. Allen Jr. told CNA that the Catholic Church “isn’t a political party, and its primary concerns aren’t about policy or legislation.”

The Church’s focus should be “where it’s always been – spiritual life, the sacraments, fostering a relationship with God through Christ.”

“That said, the Church is obviously interested in public affairs from the perspective of justice, and as it does with every government, it will want to try to work with the Obama administration to promote human dignity. In practice, that will mean continuing to make moral arguments on behalf of unborn life, while also pursuing natural areas of agreement with the new administration such as immigration reform, economic justice, peace, and environmental protection.”

Allen suggested the Church and the Obama White House could work together to promote development in Africa, saying 2009 is shaping up to be a “Year of Africa” for global Catholicism. Pope Benedict XVI plans to visit Cameroon and Angola in March and the Synod for Africa will be held in October.

Citing exit polls, Allen said Obama captured a majority of overall Catholics while narrowly losing among white Catholics. Noting that many of those white Catholics were “undoubtedly” motivated by life issues such as abortion, he said that if Obama truly wishes to be a unifier, “he needs to reach out and find common ground on the life issues, especially abortion.”

In Allen’s view, most of the bishops adhered to the position of their “Faithful Citizenship” document, with only a “small minority” making statements with “a clear partisan edge.”

“I think it would be a mistake to treat the result as a ‘defeat’ for the bishops; for the vast majority of bishops who taught that making specific political choices is the task of a well-formed laity, the election of Obama (or McCain, had it turned out that way) could not be a victory or a defeat.”

He explained that the Church now faces the challenge of establishing a relationship with the Obama administration that isn’t “exclusively one of chronic opposition.” Allen suggested the bishops study the work of Vatican diplomacy, which has “centuries of experience” in dealing with regimes that are “in one way or another are hostile to some aspect of Church teaching.”

Allen stated that the prospects for an outright reversal of Roe v. Wade are “extremely limited” under an Obama administration.

“Perhaps the challenge is therefore to shift gears a bit, investing greater resources in winning the argument for life at the cultural level. In other words, perhaps we should rely less on the coercive power of the state, and more on the disposition of the human heart to respond to the truth,” Allen wrote.

George Weigel, political commentator and biographer of Pope John Paul II, said serious Catholics should focus on trying to protect pro-life legal gains over the past thirty years from “President Obama and a radically pro-abortion Congress led by a self-described ‘ardent Catholic’.”

Weigel reiterated the necessity of defeating the federal Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which would eliminate abortion restrictions and could remove protections for pro-life conscientious objection.

The Catholic vote also needed to be studied, he told CNA:

“It will be interesting to see how the ‘Catholic vote’ finally broke, but it will be essential to pick that vote apart and look at how regular-Mass-going Catholics voted as distinguished from occasional church-goers and other ‘tribal’ Catholics.”

Weigel argued that the bishops can “no longer ignore” the question of the reception of Holy Communion by national leaders “who persistently and willfully advance the culture of death.”

He added that if Congress repeals the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited federal funding for abortions, bishops and theologians will have to consider the ethical consequences.

“The Washington State euthanasia victory was a large blow to the cause of the Culture of Life, and we clearly need to revisit the question of how we argue that issue,” he closed.


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