Black Catholics confront a moral dilemma in the upcoming presidential election: vote with their church or vote with the party that they have long preferred to keep the first African-American president in office four more years.
Three million black Catholics lived in the United States as of 2005, according to the Catholic African World Network, a fraction of the 44 million African Americans counted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011. (However, people of African descent constitute one-fourth of the world's one billion Catholics.)
While African-American Catholics are relatively few in number, they may represent enough of the black vote to make a difference in the outcome if they choose to bestow or withhold their support.
Obama took 96 percent of the black vote in 2008, according to exit polls. In 2012, the question for black Catholics is whether to vote black or Catholic? That is hard to say, but a recent survey suggests that black Catholics identify as Catholics even more than white Catholics do. The 2011 National Black Catholic Survey found that black Catholics were more religiously "engaged" by significant margins, than white Catholics were, and identify strongly with the church. As evidence of that, it found that 48.2 percent of African American Catholics attend church at least once a week, compared to 30.4 percent of white Catholics.
Catholics were once reliably Democratic as a bloc, when they were largely urban, ethnic, immigrant, working-class and shunned. As their offspring have become increasingly suburban, white-collar, and mainstream, they have become increasingly conservative and Republican. In 2008, Obama captured the Catholic vote, 54 percent to John McCain's 45 percent. Four years earlier, George W. Bush took 52 percent and John Kerry 47 percent, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Many Catholics and the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy part company with Obama for his support of pro-choice positions, same-sex marriage and requirements that religious institutions provide employees insurance coverage for contraception. At the same time, many in the church have expressed concern over how well Romney's plans for budget cuts and tax cuts for the rich would square with the church's teachings on social justice and the common good.
Straight From the Gospel
Catholic social doctrine basically derives from Jesus Christ's declaration that he was sent "to preach the gospel to the poor... to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed," (Luke 4:18- NASB), as well as from his instructions to care for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, homeless and imprisoned. "To the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me. (Matthew 25:40 NASB.) Thus, Catholic social teachings focus on issues of poverty and wealth, economics, social organization and the role of government.
In keeping with that, Catholic leaders have taken issue with Ryan's budget-cutting proposals.
Just prior to the Romney-Ryan debate, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, a non-profit research center, pointed out that it would be "the first with two Catholic candidates from opposing parties meeting in a televised national election forum."
"As they meet," CARA said, "the 'Catholic vote' is back to 'too close to call' with President Obama leading among all Catholic registered voters (49 percent Obama to 45 percent Romney) and Gov. Romney leading among all likely Catholic voters (50 percent Romney to 44 percent Obama)."
These figures indicate Catholic followers do not always side with the church's positions. In August, the Obama campaign unveiled its "Catholics for Obama" team, a 21-member group of prominent Catholics that includes Sister Jamie T. Phelps, a professor of systematic theology and director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans. As such, she is probably one of the most visible, respected black Catholic leaders in the United States.
Some black protestant leaders have urged their constituents to stay home on Election Day, largely because of the same-sex marriage issue. In contrast, at a national gathering of black Catholics this summer, a prominent black bishop warned 3,000 of the faithful not to abandon their "essential participation in democracy and become a part of the sad statistic of nearly 45 percent of Americans who are eligible to vote in a presidential election and abdicate this important civic and Christian duty."
"No matter how flawed you may think the candidates are, you have an obligation to participate," Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Ill., said at the opening Mass of the 11th National Black Catholic Congress on July 19 in Indianapolis, Ind.
"Both candidates are imperfect human beings," he said. "The American political system does not produce saviors for the nation or knights in shining armor who fulfill all of our hopes and expectations. Neither President Obama nor former Governor Romney espouses positions consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church on important moral, social, and economic issues."
Angela P. Dodson, a freelance editor and consultant in New Jersey, is the host for a radio program, "Black Catholics, Yes!"