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In Pennsylvania, Catholic Voters Are Targeted By Both Sides

The U.S. flag and flag of Vatican City are hung on the outside of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference building in Harrisburg, Pa., on March 26, 2019. Catholics outnumber Evangelicals in Pennsylvania by a 2-to-1 margin.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
AFP via Getty Images
The U.S. flag and flag of Vatican City are hung on the outside of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference building in Harrisburg, Pa., on March 26, 2019. Catholics outnumber Evangelicals in Pennsylvania by a 2-to-1 margin.

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify that Abby Bogdan's views are her own and not those of her employer.

The Trump and Biden campaigns this year are both targeting Catholics, with messages reflecting their differing judgments of how Catholic faith values might push swing voters in one direction or another. In the battleground state of Pennsylvania, it's a critical effort.

Republicans hope opposition to abortion will drive Pennsylvania Catholics to support President Trump.

"The life issue obviously is number one," says Michael Korns, a Republican Party activist in Westmoreland County, a semi-rural area about 20 miles east of Pittsburgh. "We are definitely trying to talk to Catholic voters who care deeply about issues of life and issues of culture. There is such a clear distinction between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and I think it's difficult for somebody who's a conservative Catholic to ignore that."

Catholics outnumber Evangelicals in Pennsylvania by a 2-to-1 margin. In 2016, Trump narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton in the state. This year, however, with Biden as his opponent, Trump is facing a lifelong Catholic and Pennsylvania native who regularly attends mass and carries a rosary.

"What we want to do is help people understand Joe Biden's character, his basic goodness, and [how he is] reaching out to people and trying to bring our country together," says Kevin Hayes, cofounder of Pittsburgh Catholics4Biden, a group of about 700 Catholics in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Hayes says the Biden campaign has learned from mistakes made in 2016.

"The Clinton campaign did not do as much faith outreach," he says. "They also made abortion more of a wedge issue."

Hayes and other volunteers are making little effort this year to defend abortion rights. Instead, they have encouraged fellow Catholics to move beyond single-issue voting.

"I'm against abortion," Hayes says, "but my pro-life beliefs are more than just anti-abortion. I really do believe in a 'conception-to-death' pro-life [view]. There are a lot of issues there, beyond just being born."

Catholic teachings

The themes of the rival Catholic outreach efforts in Pennsylvania reflect different aspects of Catholic church teachings.

In a document titled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, updated in 2019, U.S. Catholic bishops characterized opposition to abortion as the "preeminent priority." But the bishops also said they could not dismiss "other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty," and they said they did not intend to tell Catholics how to vote.

"We recognize that the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual," the bishops said, "in light of a properly formed conscience."

For Donna Fischer, a volunteer counselor at her local parish, Our Lady of Grace in Greensburg, Pa., such carefully worded guidance was reassuring, especially given all the partisan Catholic messages she had encountered on social media.

"I started seeing posts like, 'You are committing a mortal sin if you vote Democrat' or 'You can't be a Catholic and a Democrat,'" Fischer says. "And then I started seeing posts from the other side, [saying] 'No, you can form your own conscience.' I don't think that all Catholics know that. I would really prefer to see a lot more information [explaining] that you're allowed to look at all the issues."

Among the values highlighted by Biden's Catholic supporters are some that Catholics learned as children.

"When I went to Catholic preschool, I was taught by the nuns to respect others, treat others with dignity, treat your neighbor the way you would like to be treated," says Gina Cerilli, a Westmoreland County commissioner who is backing Biden. "That's not what's happening in the White House right now. The president of the United States is spreading hate."

For many conservative Catholics, however, the abortion issue is sufficient on its own to dictate their vote.

"You cannot be a true Catholic if you do not believe life begins at conception and ends at natural death," says Elaine Gowaty, a former president of the Westmoreland Federated Women's Club. "Abortion is not an option. President Trump is pro-life, and that's what I am."

The conservative organization CatholicVote.Org is ramping up efforts to mobilize Catholics behind Trump, launching a $9.7 million anti-Biden advertising campaign and releasing a 93-page Biden Report for Catholic Voters, highlighting stands Biden has taken on abortion, religious freedom, school choice, and judges.

Such efforts in recent years have undermined support for Democrats in Westmoreland County, a once-Democratic stronghold that since 2000 has consistently supported Republican presidential candidates.

Among the Catholic voters in the county who switched sides because of the abortion issue is Mary Turka, a nurse practitioner in the town of Murrysville.

"I was a Democrat until 2004," she says. "If there was a Democrat who was pro-life, I wanted to vote them in, because I do feel it is better to have both parties represented. But it got to the point where there were no pro-life Democrats. I thought, 'You know what? I'm done. I'm going Republican.' I'm Republican now because of that one particular issue."

Conflicting values

Given the political polarization among Catholics, the differences in outlook may actually be obscuring some commonality in their approach to elections.

"The dominant value that causes Catholic voters to vote in either direction has to do with the dignity of the human person and how to construe that," says Christopher McMahon, who teaches Catholic theology at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.

"In one direction, it's the dignity of the most vulnerable, the unborn, the ones that must be cared for and protected. Then, toward the other end, it's the vulnerable of the minority, those that have been oppressed by economic injustice and warfare."

In either case, McMahon argues, a "Catholic sensibility" is at work: "You have this power and responsibility in your vote to defend the dignity of the human person."

Conflicts arise because Catholics may not be entirely sure how to interpret that responsibility.

Gina Cerilli, though identifying as a Democrat, is uncomfortable with the extent that her party leaders have embraced abortion rights unconditionally, among other progressive positions.

"The majority of Americans are right in the middle," Cirelli says. "Unfortunately, the two parties have gone so far to the right and the left that we really don't have representation in D.C. right now."

Biden disappointed some Catholic Democrats in Westmoreland County with his decision last year to withdraw his support for a measure known as the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for most abortion.

"I would have preferred that he not have changed his position," says Kevin Hayes of the Catholics4Biden organization.

Trump's Catholic supporters in the county, meanwhile, have had to accept his name-calling and insults, habits that they themselves may have tried to repress.

"Sometimes he says what I'm feeling, and I don't want to say anything like that," says Elaine Gowaty. "But he does. And you know what? It's not bad. We've had politicians that are namby-pamby. He is not."

Most Catholics in Westmoreland County seem to have resolved any internal conflicts they may have regarding their election choices this year, but there are exceptions.

"I don't think there's a party that is really a Catholic party for me," says Abby Bogdan, 32, a physics instructor at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, who adds her views don't represent those of her employer.

"My views are shaped by my Catholicism," she says. "My fundamental value is the worth and dignity of a human person, and I think both parties have positions that are fundamentally not in keeping with that value."

Bogdan's focus on "the dignity of a human person" as the defining Catholic value is a view she shares with many other Catholics, both conservative and progressive. Unlike others, however, she has not been able to resolve the problems she sees in the positions Biden and Trump have each taken on important issues.

"Abortion is a big one," she says. "But so is immigration. The handling of the current pandemic is an issue. Health care is an issue. And I think the divisive rhetoric is actually a manifestation of not respecting other people. So in some ways I don't feel like I can vote for either candidate. I have been looking at third parties."

Undecided voters like Bogdan are rare in Westmoreland County, an indication of how polarized the electorate has become, Catholics included.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.