The last time a Catholic bishop from Pennsylvania took an ax to some promising piece of vice presidential timber, it was a Democrat who got felled. That was in 1984, when the late Cardinal John O'Connor--then recently promoted to New York's archdiocese from Scranton, Pennsylvania--attacked Geraldine Ferraro at a pro-life convention for "distorting" the church's position on abortion. Noted pro-choice Catholics like Mario Cuomo and Ted Kennedy jumped into the brawl, joined by assorted bishops and other prelates of the church. And Walter Mondale, who had expected his Catholic, Italian-American running mate to bring in crucial northeastern and midwestern ethnic votes, instead found himself defending his respect for religion.
Sixteen years later, it's George W. Bush, still stung by charges of anti-Catholicism after his speech at Bob Jones University last winter, who's on the defensive--and Tom Ridge, the popular pro-choice Catholic governor of Pennsylvania, who's in trouble. In a move widely thought to be aimed at Ridge, who currently tops most lists of likely GOP vice presidential nominees, Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, recently reaffirmed a ban on pro-choice Catholics appearing at church-related events. Conservative Catholics have declared Ridge--and any other pro-choice Catholic--unacceptable as a veep choice. And pro-life activists are all but howling for Ridge's head. "Ridge has a terrible record on right-to-life issues," warns Colleen Parro, executive director of the National Coalition for Life. "Many of us would be unable to support the ticket."
That's not all. In the past two years, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued some of its strongest statements yet concerning Catholics and politics. One, "Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium," called on Catholic politicians "to be leaders in the renewal of American respect for the sanctity of life." Another, "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics," outlined the clergy's responsibility to "explain, persuade, correct, and admonish those in leadership positions who contradict the Gospel of life through their actions and policies"--all strong words for the church, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization that cannot legally intervene in electoral politics without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status.
Of course, the Catholic Church exerting pressure on politics is not new. What's new is that it is now Republican politicians who are feeling the pressure to alter their views on abortion. That's because Catholics, once a pillar of the New Deal coalition (only 15 percent of Catholics identified themselves as Republican in 1968), have long since gone from being a solid Democratic constituency to one that is more or less split between the parties. Clinton took 55 percent of the Catholic vote in 1996 and 47 percent (a plurality) in the previous election, but in 1994, a slim majority of Catholic voters favored Republicans for the House or Senate. Both the Christian Coalition and the Republican National Committee have created affiliates designed to bring Catholics, especially conservative Catholics, into the fold. (Edward M. Egan, who was installed as archbishop of New York--one of the most prominent posts in the country--after Cardinal O'Connor's death in May, is one of only two Catholic bishops in the country to have endorsed the alliance at its inception.) And the 2000 elections could prove to be a watershed: As of early May, George W. Bush held an 11-point lead over Al Gore among Catholic voters, owing largely to a rhetoric--compassionate conservatism--that is well-suited to wooing moderate, social justice-oriented Catholics.
Indeed, many of the GOP's brightest stars are Catholic, such as governors Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and John Engler of Michigan, and Representative Chris Cannon of Utah. In the East, ethnic, Catholic Republicans have in recent years led the GOP to a surprising revival in formerly Democratic precincts: George Pataki and Rudolph Giuliani in New York, Paul Cellucci in Massachusetts, John Rowland in Connecticut, and of course Ridge himself in Pennsylvania.
There's just one thing: All of the Republicans in this last group are, to varying degrees, pro-choice. And the Republican Party, officially, is not. Thus, much of the speculation over Bush's potential running mates has focused on two questions: whether he will pick a pro-choice Republican, and whether he will pick a Catholic. The worry is that he will pick both. Many anti-abortion conservatives claim that picking a pro-choice Catholic would not only alienate the pro-life Christian evangelical base of the party, but would insult Catholic voters to boot. Don Feder, a conservative columnist for The Boston Herald, recently went so far as to argue that in "turning off the traditional Catholic vote, choosing Ridge would be worth a dozen speeches at Bob Jones U."
Maybe. But Feder's "traditional Catholic vote" constitutes, at best, about half of the total Catholic vote. And where abortion is concerned, Catholics as a whole tend to share the same range of opinion as Americans in general. In 1995, for instance, one Time/CNN poll found that 82 percent of Catholics believed abortion should be legal either under certain circumstances or without restrictions; 39 percent supported unrestricted abortion; and only 15 percent agreed with the church's position that abortion should be illegal under all circumstances. Data from the University of Chicago's General Social Survey in 1998 gives similar percentages: About a third support the right to an abortion "for any reason," while two-thirds or higher support abortion under certain circumstances.
In other words, Catholics, like Americans as a whole, have mixed feelings about abortion, but are much more likely to support limited or unfettered abortion rights than prohibition. Which means that the social conservative wing of the Republican Party has it exactly backwards: Abortion is the last issue on which Bush should make a play for the Catholic vote. And Ridge would likely appeal to Catholics nationally for the same qualities that have put him at the top of Bush's list. He is ideologically placid, pragmatic, and moderately--not stridently--pro-choice. Even some of the staunchest movement conservatives have recognized this, pointing out that Ridge is about as weakly pro-choice as one can be without actually being pro-life. "His state legislation [on abortion] is the most restrictive of any in the country," notes Grover Norquist, the longtime conservative activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform. "He accepts all of the restrictions that the Supreme Court has allowed. Why he has become [social conservatives'] poster child for unacceptable pro-choicism is a little odd."
Moderation and ideological placidity, of course, aren't exactly high on the list of what the conservative base is looking for in the GOP vice presidential nominee. But the Bush campaign should take note: Every successful candidate since 1975 has won a majority or plurality of the Catholic vote, and Catholics are especially well-represented in battleground states like Michigan (23 percent), Illinois (31 percent), and Ohio (20 percent). With the GOP platform unlikely to shed its rigid pro-life plank, picking Ridge to open up the party's tent might just put Bush in the White House. "I believe it would be virtually suicidal to choose the religious conservatives--to satisfy them rather than the majority of Republicans and the vast majority of independents and others," says Republican political consultant Jay Severin. "And I have no doubt that the Bush people know how to count." ¤