Bishops note Obama’s historic win but worry about his abortion policy

WASHINGTON – Several U.S. bishops have noted the historic nature of President-elect Barack Obama’s election as the first African-American to win the White House, with one describing it as “a moving and significant moment” and another expressing hope it will usher in “a new era of racial harmony.”

However, the bishops also expressed caution, warning that the new president could further divide the country if he supports legislation that would change regulations on abortion.

In statements and in columns published in their diocesan newspapers in late November, a number of prelates echoed the postelection statement released Nov. 12 by the body of Catholic bishops during their annual fall meeting.

In that statement, the bishops emphasized their concern about the possible passage of the Freedom of Choice Act during the Obama administration, calling the legislation “an evil law that would further divide our country” and adding that the church “should be intent on opposing evil.”

In their individual statements the bishops reiterated concern about this measure. Versions of the Freedom of Choice Act have been introduced in Congress since the early 1990s. The latest version, introduced in April 2007, would establish federal protection of abortion as a “fundamental right” throughout the nine months of pregnancy, regardless of existing state laws to restrict it. In a January 2008 statement, Obama said he would support this legislation.

Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien called Obama’s support of the Freedom of Choice Act a “particular concern to Catholics and others seeking to promote a culture of life.” In a Nov. 11 column in The Catholic Review, he also said it was critically important for people to voice their “grave concerns” to elected officials regarding this “uncompromising legislation.”

Bishop Paul S. Coakley of Salina, Kan., said he hopes the president-elect “will recognize that this bad legislation would immediately alienate tens of millions of Americans who are passionately committed to the protection of human life from conception to its natural end.”

“Signing any such law would undermine (Obama’s) pledge and ability to unite our divided nation,” he added in a statement published in the Nov. 21 issue of Salina’s diocesan paper, The Register.

Similarly, Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans Nov. 15 criticized Obama’s promise to sign the Freedom of Choice Act. The archbishop said the legislation threatens the dignity of “our unborn brothers and sisters.”

He also said he hopes the president-elect would “see the wisdom of uniting our nation in support of life at all stages and to include the unborn among those this country respects and protects.”

At least two bishops also reflected on how Catholics voted in the presidential election. Bishop Samuel J. Aquila of Fargo, N.D., noted that during the election campaign he was “surprised and saddened at how little some Catholics know and accept the teaching of the church on the matter of abortion.”

He said he received messages from Catholics complaining that he hadn’t “spoken forcefully enough” in opposition to a candidate’s abortion stance, while others described themselves as “Catholic and pro-choice,” which the bishop described as “impossible.”

In his column for the November issue of Fargo’s diocesan paper, New Earth, Bishop Aquila also said there had been a “misunderstanding among some Catholics that abortion is just one issue among many issues.”

He said Catholics should be concerned about the economy, immigration, the war in Iraq and health care, but noted that “the right to life, from the moment of conception until natural death, is the first among all rights.”

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., took issue with what has been described as the “Catholic vote,” noting the different voting patterns among Catholics who are regular churchgoers and the entire Catholic population. He said 58 percent of Catholics overall voted for Obama while 49 percent of weekly churchgoers did.

In a column in the Nov. 22 issue of The Tablet, Brooklyn’s diocesan newspaper, he stressed that although bishops and priests can help form consciences, they do not endorse candidates or “tell people for whom to vote, although we can indicate the moral issues and the candidates’ stands.”

In reflecting on the historic nature of the ‘08 election, many of the bishops said they hoped the nation’s first African-American president might begin to heal the country’s racial divides.

Bishop DiMarzio said the election could be a sign that we are “overcoming the evil of racism and Bishop W. Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Del., said in a Nov. 13 statement he hoped Obama’s presidency would “help initiate an ever-deepening process of racial reconciliation in our country, the history of which has been scarred by slavery, segregation and racism.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.