Catholics do not comprise a voting block in this country, but in this close election, whoever wins the majority of Catholic votes (even with a relativity slim margin) may well win the White House. The last eight presidential elections have demonstrated that neither party can be confident that it will capture a majority of Catholic voters’ support. The winner of the popular vote for presidency (whether Republican or Democrat) has also won “the Catholic vote” in each election. Hence it has been said, “as go Catholics, so goes the nation.”

But how will Catholics vote this time? The heat is certainly on, and not only from the candidates and their parties seeking to woo Catholics to their side. A handful of American bishops are actively proclaiming a new teaching: they have announced that it is evil, indeed a mortal sin, to vote for a pro-choice candidate for virtually any reason. This surprising doctrine has been hailed by conservative Catholic associations and trumpeted in public and private forums.

This attempt to ensure that the Catholic vote does not go to John Kerry will undoubtedly sway some Catholic voters, but whether it will succeed remains to be seen. Catholics are an independent lot who tend to think for themselves. Furthermore, a backlash against what may be seen as unwarranted episcopal interference is quite possible.

In any case, the conclusion that Catholics may not vote in good conscience for John Kerry has not been endorsed by the majority of American bishops or by the Vatican. It has also met with active resistance from progressive Catholics (most notably Martin Sheen and Sister Joan Chittister), who appeal to a recent statement made by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops entitled “Faithful Citizenship.” This document requires Catholics to weigh the full range of issues related to Catholic teaching, along with the integrity and performance of the candidates.

Mark Roche, a lay Catholic and dean at the University of Notre Dame, argued in a recent New York Times op-ed piece that President George W. Bush’s differences from Catholic teaching on the death penalty, health care, the environment, and just war may well outweigh his agreement with the Church on abortion and stem-cell research in a Catholic moral calculus.

Even if taken in its totality as a consistent ethic of life, however, the extent of influence that Catholic teachings have on parishoners’ voting practices remains unclear. Are Catholics actually weighing the liberal economic teachings against the conservative cultural teachings of the magisterium? Sociological as well as anecdotal evidence suggests that Catholics who vote Republican have no special discomfort with those aspects of the Republican platform that are contrary to Catholic social teaching, and the same can be said, mutatis mutandis, for Catholic Democrats. We like to think that most Catholics accept the magisterial teachings on social matters and disagree only on how best to further that Catholic agenda when required to choose between our two imperfect political parties, but it is doubtful that this is the case.

Indeed, some of the heat within the Catholic community may be due to the fear that Catholic teaching does not in fact have a discernible influence on Catholic voting practices. Are we failing as a Church to form people as Christians and to provide a clear identity that gives people a reason to be Catholic?

Though many Catholic leaders bemoan the loss of our “Catholic culture,” other Catholics remain undisturbed by the fact that many Catholics disagree with the conclusions of some Catholic moral teachings. It is, of course, to be hoped that any such disagreement is the result of thoughtful and prayerful consideration of the moral teachings in light of essential Catholic beliefs, rather than stemming from a refusal to think through the implications of Catholic faith for the issues at hand. Nevertheless, a community called to witness in our hope for union with God and humanity (as declared by the Second Vatican Council) ought not to demand a greater uniformity of thought than is necessary to adhere to the revelation of God in Christ Jesus. If we cannot achieve a differentiated unity as Catholics, we cannot hope to be the sign and instrument of the human unity amid diversity that this recent Vatican Council charged us to be.

More disturbing to me than the diversity among Catholics is the divisiveness, indeed the spirit of sectarianism, that is being fostered by this political contention. Apocalyptic and unnuanced rhetoric of good versus evil is deeply damaging when directed not only at serious moral issues but at well-intentioned members of the community. This absolutism discourages further attempts at mutual understanding and, when applied to the necessarily ambiguous act of voting in a United States election, it is surely misplaced. Those who find their best political judgments denounced as the embodiment of evil are not likely to feel welcome or at home in this Church. For many, this is a cause for sadness, but some of the bishops and lay Catholics wielding the rhetoric celebrate this division as a necessary purification.

If the American Catholic Church mirrors the political tensions of the nation, there may be more at stake here than the well being of this sizable community. When Republican and Democratic Catholics are no longer willing to tolerate each other, is there much hope for our Union as a whole? Will Abraham Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” continue to bind us to our shared national fate, when a common commitment to the Christian revelation as interpreted in the Catholic tradition cannot hold together Catholics on different sides of the political spectrum?

If “as go Catholics, so goes the nation” holds true, then the apocalyptic rhetoric of this culture war may be destroying the nation it seeks to save.

Mary Doak is an assistant professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Related article: “President’s policies are in opposition to a culture of life” by Bishop Thomas Gumbleton

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