Catholics Shouldn’t Only Care About Abortion While Voting, Texas Bishop Says

Abortion shouldn’t be the only issue that Roman Catholics care about when they decide how to cast their votes in the 2020 elections, a Texas bishop has said.

El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz lamented the fact that some Christians are “single-issue” voters when it comes to abortion ― while ignoring issues such as racism, workers’ rights, climate change, and restoring protections for asylum seekers.

Prioritizing abortion over other moral issues has “harmed the credibility of the commitment of Christians to the common good and compromised the integrity of our Gospel witness,” Seitz wrote in a reflection published Wednesday by the Jesuit magazine America. 

“Our concern and advocacy for life must embrace all of the marginalized and excluded, or it will ring hollow,” the bishop wrote.

El Paso's Roman Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz escorts Celsia Palma, 9, of Honduras, and her family across a point of entry on th

El Paso’s Roman Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz escorts Celsia Palma, 9, of Honduras, and her family across a point of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border so the family could be processed into the U.S. on June 27, 2019, in Juarez, Mexico.

Many Catholics feel “politically homeless” during election season, the bishop said. He said he believes it’s possible for faithful members of the church to arrive at different conclusions about whom to vote for after weighing the issues facing the nation.

While President Donald Trump has supported the anti-abortion movement and taken steps to protect religious liberties, he has ultimately “tainted the pro-life cause with the individualism and cult of wealth, greed and celebrity that very quickly erode solidarity and cheapen life,” Seitz said. The Trump administration has encouraged nativism and undermined religious liberty with policies like his travel bans that targeted Muslims, the bishop said. 

Seitz decried the Democratic Party’s position on abortion and religious liberty issues important to the church. But he commended its presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, for the respect the Catholic politician has shown to Pope Francis, his historic selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate, and his “working-class ethos.”

“As a bishop on the border, I am also encouraged by the Biden campaign’s promises to address climate change, create a path to citizenship for the undocumented, restore protections for asylum seekers and never repeat the criminal practice of separating families at the border,” Seitz wrote.

Addressing racism also appears to be a top priority for the bishop. As the leader of Catholics in El Paso, a primarily Latino diocese located on the U.S.-Mexico border, Seitz said he’s seen firsthand the ways racism harms people. He pointed to a shooting in an El Paso Walmart, which reportedly targeted Mexicans and left 22 people dead. After the death of George Floyd this spring, Seitz became the first Catholic bishop to take a knee in support of Black lives.  

Catholics need to recognize that abortion’s status as a wedge issue is actually the result of a “misbegotten” alliance between political and religious leaders on the right, the bishop said.

“For far too long, in pursuit of ‘single-issue’ strategies to end abortion, many Christians have scandalously turned a blind eye to real breakdowns in solidarity and dehumanizing policies, including crackdowns on worker rights and voting rights, the slashing of social support for the poor and sick, racism and the exploitation of immigrants and the environment,” he wrote. 

Bishop Mark Seitz participates in a Mass attended by hundreds at the U.S.-Mexico border, held in memory of migrants killed by

Bishop Mark Seitz participates in a Mass attended by hundreds at the U.S.-Mexico border, held in memory of migrants killed by crossing the Rio Bravo in their attempt to reach the United States, on Nov. 4, 2017.

Abortion wasn’t always treated as a litmus test for faithful voting. Evangelical Protestants were largely ambivalent on abortion before the 1970s, seeing it as a Catholic issue. But during the 1972 presidential election, Richard Nixon made abortion a key part of his campaign, seeking to draw Catholics away from the Democratic Party. In the ensuing decades, abortion politics helped cement relationships between conservative Catholics and evangelicals, forming a strong coalition on the religious right. 

In a 2019 voting guide, U.S. bishops called abortion a “preeminent” issue for Catholic voters to consider. At the same time, studies show that American Catholics are divided on the issue. About 56% of Catholics say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a 2019 survey from the Pew Research Center. 

The church’s strong anti-abortion stance has compelled some clergy to condemn Catholic politicians who have come to different conclusions on the issue. In 2019, a South Carolina priest banned Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, a Catholic, from receiving communion because of the former vice president’s support for abortion rights. An Illinois bishop decreed last year that Catholic lawmakers who supported a state abortion rights legislation would be banned from communion.

Yet Seitz isn’t completely alone in his insistence that other issues should be given equal importance in the voting booth. Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, criticized Trump as “anti-life” earlier this year for the president’s approach to health care, immigration and the pandemic. Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, has said that he would personally have difficulty voting for Trump.

All three of these bishops were appointed to their current positions by Pope Francis. 

Seitz pointed to how Pope Francis has challenged Catholics to treat their concern for the lives of the poor, sick, and marginalized as “equally sacred” as the “unborn.” 

Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a scholar of Catholic ecclesiology and sexuality at Manhattan College, told HuffPost bishops’ approach to this subject often depends on what they count as “life” issues ― some bishops think being “pro-life” only means the criminalization of abortion, while for others, the issues are more wide-ranging.

For Catholic women, abortion does not seem to be a priority when deciding how to cast their ballots, Imperatori-Lee said.

“Even the most anti-abortion Catholics are realizing that overturning Roe and the disappearance of abortion are two different goals,” Imperatori-Lee said. “Democratic administrations with robust social safety net provisions lead to fewer abortions. The legal questions are far from most people’s concerns.”

Instead, she said many Catholic women seem to be worried about the economy and the pandemic, particularly its effect on working mothers who are teaching their children from home.

“I think that the day-to-day unsustainability of life in this crisis, along with the real questions of police reform and accountability for non-white Catholics, of family separation and refusal of entry to refugees are the moral issues that Catholic women are thinking about between now and Nov. 3,” she said.

Given the challenges facing the country today, America needs leaders “with character and experience” who can bring people together, Seitz wrote in his essay.

Ultimately, the bishop said, “God will judge us by the authenticity of our commitment to continuing to stand with all those forced to the margins of our society, even after Election Day.”

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