Catholic voters at DePaul debate key election issues, finding no consensus

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Education reporter
  • October 15, 2008 @ 5:00 PM

A debate among many Catholics has some students and faculty at DePaul University weighing conflicting issues as they try to decide who to vote for in the presidential election.

The central issue is whether so-called life issues like abortion, assisted suicide and stem cell research should carry greater weight when comparing candidates than other issues, like health care or economic policies.

Not everyone thinks so.

While several people on a panel at DePaul earlier this week stressed the significance of life issues as being central in Catholic teachings, some students tended to look at a candidate’s whole record.

Devin Novgorodoff, 25, worked on Illinois U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s 2004 senate campaign and had no difficulty squaring his faith with the Democrat presidential candidate's political views.

“My political ideology is definitely driven by my faith,” Novgorodoff says. But that doesn’t mean putting abortion above everything else, he says. Economic issues rank high for him.

“Obama’s tax policy, for example, is more in line with the ideals of the common good,” Novgorodoff said.

For many Catholics, reconciling life issues with where candidates stand on other social justice issues like health care and poverty can be a tricky process, experts say. And while the panel at DePaul didn’t pretend to have answers, it did illuminate some of the differences among Catholics.

For example, when it comes to topics like abortion, “the Catholic church will never back down on those issues,” said Bob Gilligan, the executive director of the Illinois Catholic Conference.

But while the church’s position is clear enough, that doesn’t translate into consensus among voters. Overall, Catholics tend to favor U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., by a margin of as much as 13 percentage points over Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., says Molly Andolina, a DePaul political science professor.

McCain has taken a pro-life stance in this election, but experts say it is difficult to determine exactly why more Catholic voters favor him.

“There’s not a whole lot of evidence that their Catholic identities or their Catholic beliefs...are really driving their electoral choices,” Andolina says.

And Catholics under 30 are much more likely to consider themselves more liberal than older Catholics.

Parts of the panel touched briefly on topics like the war in Iraq and immigration, but the speakers spent the bulk of the two hours on abortion and related issues.

The most important thing for students isn’t necessarily their final decision on how to vote, but the thought process they go through to get there, said Liz Collier, a religious studies professor.

“This is a lifelong process and hopefully the majority of students that were there are probably first-time voters,” Collier said.

Wayne Steger, the chairman of DePaul’s political science department, said for anyone who is undecided, there are two sides to balance when comparing candidates.

“When you look at the full range of issues, do those other types of issues outweigh the right to life?” Steger asked.

Peter Sachs is a Chicago-based journalist. He covers higher education for the Daily News.