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Among Catholics, Political Rifts Over Abortion Have Grown

The jockeying by the candidates and the conflict among Catholics this year stand in stark contrast to 2004, when a handful of bishops threatened to deny Holy Communion to Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, and encountered little organized opposition from other Catholics.

This time, high-profile antiabortion Catholic scholars have come out in favor of Obama, and a number of progressive Catholic organizations have sprung up, contending that Catholic teachings do not forbid voting for a pro-choice politician. Catholics United, a nonpartisan group promoting the message of social justice, and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which calls for a "consistent ethic of life" on such issues as poverty and capital punishment, argue that economic policies may be the most effective way to combat abortion by providing social services, such as affordable health care, for pregnant women.

Douglas W. Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University who served in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, is one of the antiabortion scholars who has endorsed Obama. In his recent book, "Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Questions About Barack Obama," he contends that overturning Roe v. Wade would not end abortion, and that the bigger priority should be addressing "the economic and cultural and social circumstances that force women to believe that they must make a choice against life."

Another scholar, Nicholas Cafardi, former dean of the Duquesne University School of Law and a Catholic canon lawyer, announced his support for Obama despite his belief that abortion is "an unspeakable evil."

Cafardi subsequently stepped down from the board of Franciscan University after the university issued a statement distancing itself from his endorsement of Obama. InsideCatholic.com, a Web site directed by a former adviser to George W. Bush, Deal W. Hudson, posted a parody of Cafardi's article under a photo of a Klansman and titled it, "I'm Catholic, Staunchly Anti-Racist, and Support David Duke."

Hudson wrote a comment below the article saying that the implied question of the article is that if "support of a racist is shocking so why isn't it shocking for a pro-lifer to support Obama."

In Pennsylvania, Pat Stanton, whose father founded Pro-Life Union of Southeastern Pennsylvania, has been handing out brochures outside of churches that read "Catholics have a moral obligation to withhold their vote from Barack Obama," and he organized the phone drive Burke worked on to pressure Catholic voters to "do the right thing."

"It's people who are wishy-washy about their faith that would vote for Obama," he said. "How can you be a Catholic and vote for Obama? You can't honestly do it. I don't buy it for a second."

But the debate continues. At a "Theology on Tap" discussion in a pub in Philadelphia's Manayunk neighborhood recently, several dozen young Catholics turned out to hear Jerry Beyer, an assistant professor of theology at St. Joseph's University try to explain how a Catholic could hew closely to the teachings of the church and still fairly conclude that there are other issues as important as protecting human life.

"Reasonable people can disagree about how best to implement the values and principles of the Catholic tradition in concrete circumstances. If you disagree on this level, it doesn't make you a bad Catholic," Beyer said, using a document issued by the U.S. Catholic Bishops on political participation to explain that Catholics have a responsibility to "form their own conscience properly" and choose the best candidate.

He is backing Obama, and so is a 36-year-old mother of three who sat at a table near the bar, but she is not advertising her support for the Democratic nominee.

"We are being told explicitly don't publish things about Obama on Facebook because it could cost us a job," she said, asking later that her name be withheld because her husband is an untenured faculty member at a Catholic university, and she worried he could be fired. "It really is charged. You just have to sit there and just ride through the times. It's a shame, because our church has historically been united, and now it's not."

Burke said she hopes the rifts will heal when the election is over. She understands how young Catholics could favor Obama in a historic election and wonders aloud if she would feel differently were she younger.

"Oh, there's a lot of division, but God is with us," she said. "He's going to protect the church for all time. We're all sinners."

Then she called another member of Church of the Immaculate Conception, and left her final message of the night.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.


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