Tough choice awaits Catholics

Diocese of Winona plans election events

By Matt Russell

Divided as the rest of the country over politics, Catholics will face a dilemma when they vote for president next month, a Notre Dame University theology professor told an audience that included priests and Diocese of Winona Bishop Bernard Harrington on Thursday at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Rochester.

Speaking at a time when the Catholic vote is getting heightened attention around the country, the Rev. Michael Baxter told a mostly lay audience of about 70 people that President Bush has gone against Catholic teaching by supporting the death penalty and invaded Iraq despite protests from Pope John Paul II and other Catholic leaders. Baxter added that Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry also has fallen on the wrong side of church instruction by supporting abortion rights.


"Neither candidate embodies the fullness of our teaching," Baxter said.

The Catholic vote has received increased attention this year, not just because Kerry is the first Catholic presidential candidate since John Kennedy, but also because Republicans have worked aggressively to win Catholic voters with conservative positions on hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

Catholics were once a strongly Democratic constituency, said political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron, but a survey he conducted this spring found they now are almost evenly divided, with 44 percent identifying themselves as Democrats and 41 percent as Republicans.

The partisanship marking this year's campaign is pervasive among Catholics in the Diocese of Winona, said Suzanne Belongia, director of parish and community social action for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Winona.

"The divisions are deep and wide," she said. "It's sad we have lost the ability to sit together and talk."

Thursday's discussion was part of a series of events Belongia's office has scheduled in the weeks leading to the election. Belongia said the goal is not just to encourage discussion about the role Catholic values should play in this election, but to set the tone for more constructive political dialogue among Catholics in the future.

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