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Carl Anderson, the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, bought several full-page newspaper ads in September criticizing Sen. Joseph Biden's stand on abortion. Anderson is pictured at a 2004 Knights of Columbus convention with President Bush.
Carl Anderson, the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, bought several full-page newspaper ads in September criticizing Sen. Joseph Biden's stand on abortion. Anderson is pictured at a 2004 Knights of Columbus convention with President Bush. Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
Over the past quarter-century, most anti-abortion Roman Catholics have voted Republican in hopes of overturning Roe v. Wade. But some are rethinking their strategy on abortion and other social issues — and some staunchly conservative Catholics are supporting Democratic Sen. Barack Obama because they believe the battle over Roe is lost.
In September, Obama running mate Joe Biden went on NBC's Meet the Press and wandered into the religious minefield that has harmed so many Catholic politicians. Citing Thomas Aquinas, he said it's not clear when life begins.
"There is a debate in our church," Biden said. "When Thomas Aquinas wrote Summa Theologica, he said ... it didn't occur until quickening, 40 days after conception."
One of those watching was Carl Anderson, head of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization. Days later, he bought several full-page newspaper ads criticizing Biden's stand on abortion. Anderson says he did it to correct what he saw as bad theology.
"We felt, look, this is taking the discussion to a different level, and it is a level which can confuse members of the Catholic community about the church teaching. And that's an issue that we should join in," Anderson says.
He signed the open letter to Biden "on behalf of the 1.28 million Knights of Columbus."
When third-degree knight Rick Gebhard heard about the ad, he thought, "Well, he doesn't speak for me."
Gebhard of Manistee, Mich., is married and has two children. He is anti-abortion and supports Obama, and he says he knows a lot of other Catholics who do, as well.
"I think a lot of people have been frustrated with supporting the pro-life movement for 30 some years and not see it accomplish anything," he explains.
So Gebhard set up a Web site called Knights for Obama.
"A few days after the Web site was up, I got a call from an officer in my local council," he recalls. "He said that due to my involvement with the KnightsforObama.org, that lawyers were going to be involved soon, and I shouldn't be surprised when my membership as a knight was terminated."
That hasn't happened yet. But the clash suggests how razor sharp the divide has become within the conservative Catholic community.
'We Are Not Baby Killers'
On a recent morning at Seton Hill University near Pittsburgh, about a dozen Catholics were gathered, saying the rosary and carrying signs with messages such as "Obama supports infanticide."
They were protesting the appearance of Pepperdine University law professor Douglas Kmiec, who was addressing 50 students on behalf of Obama — and explaining how an anti-abortion Republican who worked in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush could support the abortion-rights candidate.
"We are not baby killers," Kmiec said. "We are simply finding an alternative way to build up life, to honor the truth of the human person, to promote human good."
He also told the students that Obama's policies would reduce the number of abortions more than McCain's would. Kmiec says the position goes beyond abortion — it includes health care, living wages, caring for the poor.
Kmiec has paid dearly for his endorsement. He's been denied Communion, he's been publicly criticized by a U.S. bishop, and he's been told by many fellow Catholics that he's going to hell.
Kmiec says he's following the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. In an interview, he noted that the U.S. Catholic Bishops tell Catholics in their document Faithful Citizenship to judge candidates by their stand on a variety of moral issues.
"If they just wanted to say, find the candidate who labels themselves pro-life, and vote for that candidate, they wouldn't have given us a 36-page document," he says. "They would have sent us a postcard or printed a line in the bottom of the parish newsletter."
Going Beyond Theology
Other anti-abortion Catholics aren't buying Kmiec's argument. Robert George, a Princeton law professor, says a million abortions occur every year and wonder how any other issue can compare.
"Given the scope and magnitude of the injustice as it stands today, it looks to me like it's got to be the central issue in the consideration of any voter who really believes in the equality of all members of the human family," George says.
This debate goes beyond theology, to political strategy.
Canon lawyer Nicholas Cafardi is a Democrat, but for three decades, he has voted for the Republican candidate who would appoint the "elusive fifth justice" to overturn Roe v. Wade.
"But it finally dawned on me — I guess I'm slow on the uptake — that these promises were being made, but there was no follow through," Cafardi says. "And we Catholics were being asked to ignore all the other important social justice issues in exchange for voting for what was basically an empty bucket."
Even if Roe is overturned, Cafardi says, the debate doesn't go away. Abortion would still be allowed in 30 states. It's time, he says, to stop focusing on the Supreme Court and look for other solutions.
George Weigel says that kind of thinking is nonsense. A Catholic scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Weigel says the Supreme Court has chipped away at abortion — upholding parental consent laws, for example, and banning late-term abortions.
"Moreover, what does it mean to say that a fundamental injustice has been written into our law, and that we must be prepared to live with that?" he asks. "I'm not prepared to live with that. And millions of people — many not Catholic or religious — are not prepared to live with that either."