The Roman Catholic Church has been especially active this political season. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which includes Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, have called some Obama policies an "assault on the Catholic church." They’ve directed priests to give sermons and pass out pew cards encouraging political involvement.
The flurry of activity was sparked by a U.S. Health and Human Services mandate that includes contraception, which the U.S. Bishops call an “infringement on religious freedom.”
Polls show Catholics nearly evenly divided, with Obama up 2 percent.
Chicago had one of the biggest turn-outs at the recent "Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rally."
Nearly 2,000 Catholics and pro-life supporters chanting "Vote for freedom" marched up Dearborn Street last month. They were protesting abortion and requiring insurance coverage for contraception.
A giant, yellow Vatican flag billowed over the procession of marchers that met in Daley Plaza.
The rally was billed as a non-partisan event. Numerous signs reading “Stop Obama’s HHS Mandate” were dispersed among posters of Lady Guadalupe. One participant held up a homemade “Obamunism” poster that depicted Obama’s logo alongside hammer and sickle.
Rev. Rocky Hoffman, a Catholic talk radio personality, was the first to take the podium. He opened with a prayer and led the crowd in repeating the GOP convention chant, “We Built This.”
The co-chair of the rally, Eric Scheidler, said abortion and contraception should be pivotal to Catholic voters. He's the executive director of Chicago-based advocacy group, The Pro-Life Action League.
“You can’t be given a chance at a great education if you’re not even allowed the chance to be born,” Scheidler said. “Logically it’s the most prior issue of all.”
Another Chicago-based organization, CatholicVote.org, runs a national campaign that has "enthusiastically" endorsed Romney and uses blogs and social media sites to reach voters.
The Catholic Church itself cannot endorse candidates because of church teaching and its 501(c)(3) tax status.
But Scheidler said he wants his parish priest to openly support a candidate.
“I do hope and pray that the 5013c restrictions that were snuck into the IRS code will be struck down and churches will be freer to talk about politics from the pulpit,” Scheidler said. “I don’t think we have anything to fear from any individuals or associations of individuals (like churches) to be involved actively in politics.”
Sister Helena Burns, who attended the rally, said she thinks the bishops acted appropriately in their firm stance against contraception.
“People will say ‘Oh you shouldn’t be a one-issue voter,’ which you shouldn’t, but we’re looking at the most fundamental right of all rights, the right to life.” Burns said. “And if we see the most sacred part of life, which is life and love, is under attack, then sometimes you need to have a priority and a hierarchy of values, a hierarchy of issues.”
Not all Catholics are comfortable with the church’s involvement in politics this year.
A Pew Research Survey from October says 69 percent of Catholics do not want churches to favor one candidate over another.
Father Christopher Robinson, the pastor at St. Vincent DePaul Parish, said parishioners are so influenced by their priest that it would be an “abuse” of power to endorse a candidate.
“We’re talking about thousands and thousands of people, whose vote would be influenced. I mean, even I can’t even speak in conscience if my cardinal told me I must preach from the pulpit,” Robinson said. “If people are worried about church attendance now, I think it would just splinter, we’d lose all credibility.”
Robinson firmly believes that it all comes down to “individual personal conscience” when Catholics enter the voting booth.
“If somebody says ‘Father tell me how to vote,’ I will say, ‘Well, you walk into the booth and you look at the ballot, that’s how you vote.' I’m not going to tell you who to vote for.”
He says one singular “Catholic Vote” simply doesn’t exist.
“It’s very interesting when you have Catholics who are on two extremes in one community, and I certainly have this here. We have individuals who are extremely vocal about their beliefs and also about who they’re going to vote for. There’s no ambiguity whatsoever.”
One parishioner, Therese Rowley, is voting for Obama. While the church has been focusing on contraception and religious freedom, she says Obama is the best representative of Catholic teachings on service toward the poor.
“I think the church needs to become more democratic, and they need to understand that life happens with the people, and they out to learn from what’s going on in the street, rather than the other way around," Rowley said.
She added that church officials should give more emphasis to the "quality of life," with economic programs and benefits for the poor.
"I think Jesus was telling people at the hierarchy, ‘You guys aren’t getting it,’" Rowley said. "He worked at the street level. He talked to prostitutes and had dinner with tax collectors.”
“As long as we trust each other to do the hard work, to pray, to really read, to study, I think we trust each other to go into the voting both doing the very best they can,” said her pastor, Father Robinson.
But he said if Catholics don’t think either candidate fits the bill, they can just leave that spot on the ballot blank.