VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Two months ago, a Vatican official branded the U.S. Democrats the “party of death” because of its pro-choice stand on abortion. His words failed to sway millions of Catholics who cast their vote for Barack Obama.
Now, the Vatican will have to deal with the first pro-choice U.S. administration since that of former President Bill Clinton, with which it had very scratchy relations.
“Most Catholics ignored the bishops who told them not to vote for a pro-choice candidate,” Rev. Tom Reese, senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center, wrote in the Washington Post’s ‘On Faith’ blog.
Hours after the election of Obama, who has long been a member of a black Christian church, the Vatican said it was hoping God would “enlighten him and help him in his great responsibility.”
“It (the pope’s message to Obama) asks for God’s blessings on the American people so that together with all people of good will a world of peace and justice can be built,” Vatican chief spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said.
In September, Archbishop Raymond Burke, a senior American in the Vatican, said the party risked “transforming itself definitively into a party of death” because of its policies on bioethical questions and abortion.
Several U.S. bishops also made election appeals linked to bioethics and abortion but they fell on many deaf ears.
“The laity repudiated Archbishop Burke’s description of the Democratic Party as the party of death,” Reese said.
Nearly 25 percent of U.S. adults — about 30 million — are Catholic and, according to exit polls cited on the non-denominational Beliefnet website, some 54 percent of them voted for Obama as opposed to 46 percent for McCain.
Observers say the economy became the key issue for many Catholic Americans, which, along with issues such as the Iraq War and health care, eclipsed abortion.
Groups such as Catholic Democrats supported Obama, arguing his party supported social programs such as an increase in the minimum wage that empowered women to choose to have children.
That argument seems to have helped win over some Catholic voters, as did the presence on the ticket of Joseph Biden, a man with working-class roots who will become the United States’ first Catholic vice president.
Biden, who attends Mass on Sunday, once memorably commented: “the next Republican who tells me I’m not religious, I’m going to shove my rosary down their throat.”
In the election Catholics, showed they are not single-issue voters. But abortion can come back to haunt relations between the Vatican and the United States under an Obama administration.
This would be a return to the tense relations during the Clinton years of 1993-2001, when the two sides often clashed openly and harshly over abortion and population control.
One indication of trouble with the Vatican would be if Obama signs into law the Freedom of Choice Act, seen overriding local abortion restrictions — such as parental notification and waiting periods — which many Catholics want kept in place.