By Ryan Ekvall and M.D. Kittle Wisconsin Reporter
It was a familiar scene in Madison Thursday night.
Hundreds of protesters gathered on the steps at the Capitol, some wearing T-shirts with a clenched fist.
But this time, enclosed in the clenched fists were rosary beads.
It wasn’t a recall rally, but a demonstration with a conservative feel – led by Catholics who believe religious liberty is under attack.
The protesters prayed the Rosary in unison to launch “Fortnight for Freedom.”
Bishop Robert Morlino of the Diocese of Madison led the protesters in the rosary to launch the two-week vigil/protest – part of a national effort of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The American Catholic Church is pushing back against provisions in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, which require all organizations — even Catholic organizations — to provide contraceptive coverage and sterilization in their health care plans.
The nationwide vigil began as a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the validity of the health care act looms.
“We came here to pray hard that the Lord will continue to help us to defend our own religious freedom and our freedom of conscience when those are somehow endangered,” said Morlino.
“This issue is: do we have a right to live out our institutional conscience, our faith convictions in the public square, or do we have to keep it inside church?” the Bishop said.
“There’s another aspect of the (U.S.) Health and Human Services‘ mandate that seeks to define what religious activity is. And how can someone external to a religious community explain to that community how they are supposed to be religious? That again is a terrible infringement on religious freedom.”
Thursday night’s vigil for social conservative causes came on the heels of another Catholic demonstration, this time with liberal undertones. Earlier this week in Janesville, 45 minutes south of Madison, a group of Catholic “Nuns on the Bus” stopped by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s to protest the Janesville Republican’s ‘Path to Prosperity’ budget, which passed the House of Representatives in March.
They say the GOP plan would reward the rich and punish the poor.
“We’re a nation that values individual responsibility but treasures community, and we can only do it together, and that’s the same as our faith. It’s individual responsibility combined with solidarity that makes a whole; that’s who we are,” Sister Simone Campbell told Channel 3000.
Faith and politics
The two demonstrations – on opposite sides of the political divide – illustrate the often conflicted nature of American Catholicism and the political axis, where many of the faithful, according to one observer, live in “kind of half-life,” torn between liberal and conservative principles.
“It doesn’t match up very well with the divide in American politics, what we think of as left and right in American politics,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
The Catholic Church preaches peace and social justice. Indeed, one of its guiding principles is “preferential options for the poor,” demanding lawmakers consider the impact on the poor in the policies they craft.
On the conservative end of the political spectrum, dignity of human life – from conception to death – is at the core of Catholicism.
Schneck asserts most Catholics struggle to coalesce the two concepts, often preferring to let politics lead their faith. He calls them “cafeteria Catholics,” picking parts of the Church’s teachings to conform with their political views.
Constance Nielson, dean of faculty at St. Ambrose Academy in Madison takes issue with the characterization, arguing the dignity of life and social justice are a natural fit.
“I don’t care for that, because I think the right to life is social justice,” she said. “You’re often forced one way or another as a Catholic to concede something. There’s a tendency for people to separate poverty, education, immigration, and then put respect for life all by itself. I think it’s all one list and you wrap your arms around it.”
Nielson agrees that American Catholics, which make up about 29 percent of U.S. voters, are not some homogenous voting block – and they haven’t been for some time.
“There are specific issues that the church is very clear in its teaching on: religious liberty, right to life, but when Gov. (Scott) Walker limited collective bargaining rights, bishops said Catholics in good conscience can disagree,” Nielson said.
Courting the Catholic vote
Schneck has long studied the crossroads of Catholicism and politics. His organization is a nonpartisan, nonpolitical think tank that examines contemporary public policy through the prism of the Catholic Church’s moral and social teachings.
He asserts there are three Catholic voting blocks, nearly evenly divided.
• Latino Catholics – with as many as 70 percent supporting President Barack Obama, according to polls.
• Conventional Catholics – devout non-Latinos, deeply tied to the doctrinal teachings of the Church, more conservative in ideology. Polls show 60 percent-plus support the GOP
• Cultural Catholics – Those who go to church much less frequently, but they want to connect to the tradition of the Church.
“These Catholics are split down to middle,” Schneck said. “The party that’s able to appeal to that group best will be the one that wins the Catholic vote overall.” Ultimately playing a big role in determining who leads the nation.
Only three times in the past 50 years did the Catholic majority fail to pick the president, the last time Al Gore in 2000.
The conservative wing has been vehemently vocal in its opposition to a federal mandate for private employers to provide free coverage to workers. Obama and the Department of Health and Human Services pushed the rule, which goes into effect Aug. 1.
Some Catholics are concerned, too, that the health care act, could effectively force Catholic-based hospitals and institutions to cover abortions.
A QEV Analytics poll, commissioned by The Catholic Association, found that 29 percent of Catholics said they are less likely to re-elect Obama because of the HHS mandate, 13 percent said they were more likely and 56 percent said it had no effect on their decision.
In the heat of the presidential campaign season, the Catholic voter is being vigorously courted.
The question is, will it be a vote of faith or politics? Or both?
“It’s really a challenge to be a Catholic in America today,” Schneck said. Or, he might have added, to be a politician trying to craft a single message that resonates with America’s Catholics.