When I met Robert Aguirre in Miami this August at a gathering of Hispanic Catholic leaders, someone handed me a bilingual, nonpartisan rubber bracelet asking, “How would Jesus vote?”
One of the biggest question marks about the coming presidential election results is what Catholics will do. Will Mass-attending Catholics be affected by calls to protect religious liberty in the wake of the Obama administration’s HHS mandate? Will other Catholics respond to religious-liberty-education campaigns with a tribal — or baptismal — loyalty?
Aguirre is president of the Catholic Hispanic Leadership Alliance, which has been doing its part to educate, urging Catholics to live their civic lives in accord with their faith. With a long YouTube voters’ guide that has been circulating since August, the group focuses on awakening a Catholic conscience, with an emphasis on issues involving the very dignity of human life. The guide asks voters in stark terms “What are you voting for?,” covering multiple policy issues involving abortion and innocent human life, explaining that the “services” mandated by the Department of Health and Human Services under the Affordable Care Act are, according to a well-informed Catholic conscience, “immoral” and “an unprecedented breech of religious liberty,” in American-historical terms. And lest you think it a commercial for Mitt Romney, it leaves him with a question mark (as well as the president) on immigration reform, and reminds Catholic voters we need to raise our voices as it pertains to the death penalty.
(The Catholic Association has also distributed a Spanish voting guide, focusing on religious liberty.)
“We are challenged to reconcile our strong feelings, opinions, and habits with what Catholic social teaching tells us is right and just, as we are faced with our commitment with our faith versus our public choices at the voting booth,” the YouTube guide emphasizes. Robert Aguirre, president of the Catholic Hispanic Leadership Alliance, based in San Antonio, talks more about the issues, the audience, and the future.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: According to a Gallup poll taken just before the Republican convention took place n Florida — about the time you introduced your guides — President Obama was leading with Hispanic registered voters 64 percent to 27. Is there really any competition for their votes?
ROBERT AGUIRRE: Yes, a lot of competition — in two ways: First we have to invest our efforts in informing all Catholics as they constitute one in four voters in the U.S. Second, historically, whoever wins the Catholic vote wins the election and recent research by Georgetown University puts the race in a dead heat. Just a few percentage points within the Catholic vote can make a huge difference in the outcome of the election.
LOPEZ: Mitt Romney has told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce he’d “permanently fix our immigration system.” Is this what Catholic Hispanics need to hear?
AGUIRRE: No, not really. Catholic Hispanics want to know that a candidate for president is serious about decreasing unemployment, improving the economy, providing better and safer educational options and improved educational outcomes for our children — especially low-income children. It’s about jobs, the economy, and the education of our children. These are the things most important to us. But having said that, everyone agrees that our current immigration system is broken. This is an issue that affects families, communities, and society as a whole. Anyone running for president should be committed to “fixing” our immigration system, something that we have not seen at all in recent years.
LOPEZ: Why do a “Catholic Hispanic” voter guide . . . why not one or the other?
AGUIRRE: The name of the voters guide is “Catholic Hispanic,” but the document is universal in absolutely every respect since it seeks to be a moral voice, reflective of Catholic moral and social teaching, for the country.
LOPEZ: Whom does the Catholic Hispanic Leadership Alliance speak for?
AGUIRRE: CHLA speaks on behalf of any Catholic Christian who seeks to be faithful to the principles of the Gospel and who wants to have their voice heard. In a broader sense, CHLA speaks on behalf of anyone who wants to see that the Godly principles upon which this nation was founded are preserved.
LOPEZ: What does “civic responsibility and . . . faithfulness” mean to a Catholic going into an election year?
AGUIRRE: As a community of Catholic faith, and as citizens of the United States, we all have the personal responsibility to help shape and preserve the founding moral character of American society, to share our values and moral principles, and to participate in the ongoing political process in order to build a just society. In the Vatican Council II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae), it says “society itself may enjoy the benefits of justice and peace, which result from [people’s] faithfulness to God and His holy will” (No. 6). Becoming faithful citizens, then, requires that the mind and the heart of Catholics be educated and formed to know and practice the whole faith. In our formed and informed conscience, responsibility and faithfulness come to term.
LOPEZ: Who realistically is your audience? How do you get these guides out, both on paper and on video?
AGUIRRE: Our audience consists of all discerning Catholic voters; we seek to provide them with materials that will allow them to take the time to learn more about the issues and the candidates prior to casting their vote in November. It is our hope that non-Catholics will also find our voters guide to be useful in their discernment.
LOPEZ: What does the Gospel have to do with voting?
AGUIRRE: The Gospel calls all followers of Christ to love God, ourselves, and our neighbors. They also call us to have a serious and lifelong obligation to forming our consciences in accord with human reason and the moral teachings of the Church. Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere “feeling” about what we should or should not do. Rather, conscience is the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil. Conscience always requires serious attempts to make sound moral judgments based on the truths of our faith. Those truths, based upon love of God, ourselves and others, tell us what is right and what is wrong. And as inconvenient and uncomfortable as that might be to us personally, we must recognize that the truths of the Gospel must be reflective of our choices in the voting booth.
LOPEZ: When you suggest that Hispanic Catholics “don’t vote from habit or tradition,” isn’t that implicitly a plea to consider the Republican party?
AGUIRRE: The statement cuts both ways. Pointing out that we should all pray, learn Church teaching, and apply the teaching to current social issues before we go into a voting booth is not a plea to consider one specific political party. Rather, it is a plea to consider a moral imperative. What we are doing is providing a substantive framework on how to make an informed and faithful decision this November. Voting out of habit or tradition does not lend itself to carefully discerning public policies which is what we as faithful citizens are called to do. “Don’t vote from habit or tradition” is a timely and timeless admonition!
LOPEZ: “It seems that in this presidential election year, more than most, we are challenged to reconcile our strong feelings, opinions or old habits with what our Catholic teaching tells us is right and wrong as we come face-to-face with our expressed commitment to our faith versus our public choices in the voting booth.” What accounts for that?
AGUIRRE: Sadly we find ourselves in a war — a war which we did not seek — declared on religious liberty and on social justice by the Obama administration. People of faith are deeply saddened by the attempts to curb, reduce, or eliminate the moral voice and fabric of our country which was founded on such principles. This attack on our freedom of faith, coupled with continued high unemployment, a very weak economy, and soaring poverty rates, especially among Hispanics, challenges us this year in more ways than most presidential elections.
LOPEZ: “This personal reconciliation can be difficult, even painful,” the voting guide begins. “It requires prayer, discernment, and a careful examination of a well formed and informed conscience.” Is choosing between President Obama or Governor Romney really all that complicated?
AGUIRRE: No, it’s not. But we must be clear that choosing a candidate for president should involve prayer, discernment, and careful examination. Choosing between the two isn’t complicated in and of itself. What can be complicated, and uncomfortable, and inconvenient is being faithful to the principles of our faith, sometimes in contrast to our personal opinions and wants.
LOPEZ: Why are voters’ guides important?
AGUIRRE: Voter guides can provide a moral compass in identifying and evaluating the issues that are important in an election, and they can define how candidates stand on such issues. They also provide an invitation to thought, discernment, and action with the realization that the private decisions we make in the voting booth are still a factor in how we are judged to be faithful.
LOPEZ: Why do you put the “right” to abortion in quotes? It is in fact a legal right, for 40 years and counting.
AGUIRRE: We put the “right” to an abortion in quotes to highlight that it was a right recently granted by the Supreme Court — yes, 40 years is recent when it comes to Supreme Court cases — and to highlight that the Court’s decision was based on unsound legal precedent which must be overturned. But much more importantly our faith’s teaching, which is supported by history, the Constitution, and the latest scientific information, is that there is no moral right to an abortion and that the destruction of innocent human life is intrinsically evil.
We also put the “right” to an abortion in quotes because many politicians falsely claim to be pro-life, but vote for and support the “right” to an abortion.
LOPEZ: Why is a candidate’s position on stem-cell research important in 2012?
AGUIRRE: While we are encouraged to see that more and more public officials are turning away from the immorality of embryonic-stem-cell research, there are still too many who do not understand this moral wrong, which involves the conceiving of a child for the sole purpose of killing that child in order to harvest stem cells. That’s why the Catholic bishops list stem cells as a “Major Issue” in their Faithful Citizenship publication.
LOPEZ: How important is the religious-liberty issue before voters, and what is it exactly?
AGUIRRE: Religious liberty is one of the formative principles of American democracy. Today, however, the challenge to faith-based ministries is twofold. The most obvious challenge is the Obama administration’s policy that would force the Church and Church-related institutions to provide drugs and services like sterilizations and abortifacients that violate their consciences. Less obvious, but even more serious, are policies that are designed to force the Church out of the practice of public ministry all together (such as hospitals, social services, adoption services, etc). Under these rules, a Catholic ministry forfeits its right to remain Catholic if it opens its doors to all in need, regardless of their faith. This administration’s challenge to our religious liberties must be a call to prayer and a serious call to action.
LOPEZ: Is there any evidence Catholic Hispanics consider this a concern?
AGUIRRE: The best evidence would be an independent, scientifically designed national survey of Catholic Hispanics — which does not exist. Other than that, we have only the hundreds of emails we have received as an indication of evidence.
LOPEZ: What’s wrong with the Affordable Care Act itself?
AGUIRRE: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has supported health care reform for decades, but the Conference was forced to oppose the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act because the statute appropriates billions of dollars in new funding without explicitly prohibiting the use of these funds for abortion, and it provides federal subsidies for health plans covering elective abortions. Its failure to preserve the legal status quo that has regulated the government’s support for abortion, as the original House bill of November 2009 did, undermined the law and threatened the consensus opinion held by the majority of Americans, that federal funds should not be used for abortions or plans that cover abortions (a promise reiterated by President Obama in a speech at Notre Dame University).
Additionally, the statute forces all those who choose federally subsidized plans to pay for other peoples’ abortions with their own funds. The statute is further profoundly morally flawed because it has failed to include necessary language to provide essential conscience protections (both within and beyond the abortion context).
LOPEZ: What should Catholics be doing about the death penalty?
AGUIRRE: Catholics have been very active over the years on this important life issue. The Church’s involvement has been instrumental in getting states such as New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and New Mexico to abolish their use of the death penalty. The bishops have also successfully weighed in on Supreme Court cases dealing with whether or not our society should be executing juveniles and the mentally retarded. There are now 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, which do not use the death penalty, meaning we still have work to do in 33 states, at the federal level, and in the military.
Currently the states of Maryland and California are considering changes to their death-penalty positions, and Catholics there should be making their voices heard on this important moral issue.
LOPEZ: You score Barack Obama as having “four out of twenty-three positions aligned with Catholic social teaching” and Mitt Romney, “twelve our of twenty-three.” Are some of these positions more important than others?
AGUIRRE: Let us say that not all issues are equal; some are always, always intrinsically wrong, such as issues dealing with respect for life and the sanctity of marriage. But equal or not, the disparity between the two scores is clear — and meaningful.
LOPEZ: Can a Catholic vote for Barack Obama?
AGUIRRE: The U.S. Catholic bishops provided us with an important publication entitled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility.” The purpose of that document was to form and inform our consciences. In the end what a voter does in the privacy of the voting booth is a function of his conscience and faithfulness to his faith.
But, as recent research from Georgetown University tells us, the Catholic vote — which is one in four voters — is currently too close to call and, historically, whoever wins the Catholic vote wins the election. It is interesting to note that while the “Catholic vote” is currently thought to be a toss up between the two major party candidates, President Obama’s strongest base of support comes from people who have no religious affiliation whatsoever. For anyone of faith, that should mean something.