There's that FOCA question again

20080416 d 0434 1 515hOver at Time, reporter Jeff Israely has a piece up that asks a logical question -- from the point of view of activists on left and right who are paying attention to (a) the pre- and post-election strategy wars inside the pro-life movement and (b) loud cries of distress from traditionalist religious leaders about President-elect Barack Obama's vow to push for the Freedom of Choice Act. That question is: "Will the Pope and Obama Clash Over Abortion?"

At some point pretty soon, Obama is going to head to Europe and that kind of thing usually includes a photo op at the Vatican. Obama is, of course, going to want the backing of Benedict XVI on a wide variety of issues where they share common values, from Iraq to global warming, from health-care reform to immigration.

But, but ...

The Pope's top aides may have already informed Benedict about a campaign promise Obama made on July 17, 2007, to Planned Parenthood, stating that his first act as President would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which would undo legislation that put restrictions on access to abortions. Some Catholics have warned that such a decree, which would essentially codify Roe v. Wade into federal law, could force doctors in Catholic hospitals to perform abortions against their conscience. "There's more fear here than wrath," a senior Vatican official told TIME with regard to the Catholic hierarchy's attitude toward Obama. However, if Obama signs the Freedom of Choice Act in his first months in office, "it would be the equivalent of a war," says the same official. "It would be like saying, 'We've heard the Catholic Church and we have no interest in their concerns.' " U.S. Catholic bishops at a meeting in Baltimore last week vowed to take on Obama for his support of abortion rights; they are also skeptical about his assurances to try to reduce the number of abortions while supporting the right to choose.

Then Time goes ahead and uses one of the most used and, thus, most abused stats in the wake of the election.

As E.J. Dionne, Jr., and many others have said, it is now meaningless to talk about "the Catholic vote" or to say that X or Y number of Catholics -- as a mass of voters. At the very least, you can divide the vote up in terms of ethnic groups.

Still, the story notes:

Nevertheless, 54% of U.S. Catholic voters supported Obama, who is Protestant. That may give him the cover to move ahead with his pledges. An added twist to the Obama Administration will be its pro-choice Catholic Vice President, Joe Biden. Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, Pa., hometown of Biden, told his fellow bishops last week, "I cannot have a Vice President-elect coming to Scranton to say he's learned his values there when those values are utterly against the teachings of the Catholic Church." Another pro-choice Catholic, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, may be on the short list for the position of Secretary of Health and Human Services. Though there are plenty of pro-choice Catholic politicians in Western Europe, this issue tends to get played out more openly in the U.S., both because of the country's superpower status and its vocal traditionalist wing of the church.

For journalists, that last sentence is the key. The Vatican will care about how Obama's policies will affect Catholics who are pro-Vatican and Catholic institutions that are pro-Vatican.

As I keep mentioning, in addition to ethnicity, you can divide the Catholic voters up on issues of faith and practice -- looking for the "pew gap" phenomenon that divides the vaguely "spiritual" voters from the doctrinally driven people who camp in the pews. Here's the typology as I wrote it out the other day:

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. GOP has no chance.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter -- check out that classic Atlantic Monthly tribes of American religion piece -- depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* The "sweats the details" Roman Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but it is a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

To be blunt, the Vatican is going to be most concerned about how Obama's policies affect the Catholic people and institutions -- think hospitals and colleges, for starters -- that are still practicing the Catholic faith, as defined by Rome, as opposed to those who are not practicing that faith, as defined by Rome. Does that make sense?

So, will Benedict XVI choose to speak with candor to Obama? As a pro-life Democrat, I think that it will be interesting for reporters to pay attention to the flip side of that question. In other words: Does Obama truly, in light of the other issues where he could use the support of the pope and traditional Catholics, want to pick that fight?

Photo: White House web site

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