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The Black Catholic Dilemma: How Would Jesus Vote?

10/31/2012, 1:37 p.m.

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."