Chicago-Area Catholics Face A Test Of Values In The Upcoming Election

Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, is an avowed pro-lifer. But is abortion the only issue that matters?

Holy Name Cathedral
Holy Name Cathedral, 730 N. Wabash Ave., is the seat of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Despite the city being a Democratic stronghold, some parishioners said they support President Donald Trump because he's pro-life. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Holy Name Cathedral
Holy Name Cathedral, 730 N. Wabash Ave., is the seat of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Despite the city being a Democratic stronghold, some parishioners said they support President Donald Trump because he's pro-life. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago-Area Catholics Face A Test Of Values In The Upcoming Election

Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, is an avowed pro-lifer. But is abortion the only issue that matters?

Conservative federal Judge Amy Coney Barrett, whom President Donald Trump nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court, has widely been labeled a “devout” Catholic. But Damian Rico, a fellow Catholic from Barrett’s home state, said he had to look up the term.

Rico, who organized Bible study retreats before the coronavirus pandemic, said the word “devout” is being overused and people are being judged for their level of devotion.

“If you’re a devout Catholic, you’re trying to follow Christ. You’re just doing it you’re not saying it,” said Rico, a 47-year-old marketing director for Hospice of the Calumet Area in Munster, Ind.

“I know a lot of folks that go to church every Sunday, and they’re the first ones out of the parking lot, beeping at somebody and giving them the finger,” he said. “That’s not necessarily Christian. I have friends that never go [to church], and they’re probably the most humane people.”

With 22 days until the presidential election, religion is once again in the spotlight. And even Pope Francis felt compelled to weigh in on the issues at play in the U.S. elections just as Americans began to cast their early ballots.

On Monday, the U.S. Senate will begin four days of hearings toward confirming Barrett for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Barrett, a 48-year-old from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, is a member of the conservative religious group People of Praise and once signed a newspaper ad that supported overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that established a right to abortion. She would be the sixth Catholic justice on the nine member bench.

A reliable conservative on abortion and gun rights, Barrett clerked for former Justice Antonin Scalia and is often referred to as a protege of the late justice who was known for his strict “originalist” approach to the Constitution.

But it is Barrett’s stance on abortion that could dominate the hearings, and for many Americans the issue will be the knife that cleaves through the complicated hierarchy of values that voters bring to the ballot box. Even in Chicago, a notorious Democratic stronghold, some parishioners at Holy Name Cathedral said they emphatically support Trump because he’s the pro-life candidate.

Does the Catholic vote even exist?

For the 51 million Roman Catholics nationwide, the close timing of the Barrett nomination might have tipped a substantial number of those votes to the Republican incumbent — but, this year, there’s a dedicated Catholic on the opposite side in former Vice President Joe Biden. In the 2016 election, 52% of Catholics voted for Trump, 44% for Hillary Clinton, according to the Pew Research Center.

“There is no party that really has a lock on Catholic voters. That’s why political scientists are forever questioning whether a Catholic vote actually exists,” said Steven Millies, director of The Bernardin Center and associate professor of public theology at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Millies, who said Catholic voters support both Democrats and Republicans, noted that many Catholics don’t agree with priests and bishops who say voting for a pro-choice candidate could be a sin.

“The Catholic theology of sin tells us that sin depends on intention,” Millies said. “What you intend when you vote for a particular is what determines whether it’s sinful or not.”

For those who look to Rome for guidance, Pope Francis appears to be taking an anti-Trump position: In 2016, the pope called Trump’s plans to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico “not Christian.” Earlier this month, Francis released an encyclical — a teaching document usually focused on global issues — that criticized populism and nationalism.

“In some countries a concept of popular and national unity influenced by various ideologies is creating new forms of selfishness and a loss of social sense under the guise of national interests,” the pontiff wrote.

Christopher Cox, a former pastor of St. Adalbert Parish in Barrett’s home town of South Bend, Ind., said the political views of Catholics aren’t as simple as pro-life or pro-choice.

“I’m a pro-life Catholic. I care deeply about questions like abortion, but I also care about climate, I care about how the COVID pandemic is being attended to, I care about racial justice. I care about immigration and the care of refugees. I care about issues of gender and class in this country,” Cox said. “When I try to look at the whole thing, there may be ways one would be uncomfortable with any given political party, but it just becomes apparent to me which direction I need to vote in this election. As a Catholic, I choose Biden because Biden chooses the value of our faith.”

Cox was more direct about how the abortion debate in the Senate this week could influence Catholic voters.

He said Republicans have talked about overturning Roe vs. Wade for decades, but instead have focused on tax cuts, military spending, gun laws and “a host of other policies that run counter to Catholic social teaching.”

“On ending abortion, however, arguably their main selling point to Catholic voters, they have been strangely ineffectual,” Cox said.

What it means to be a ‘good’ Catholic

As local Catholics wrestle with their political options, some have decided. On a recent Sunday, one parishioner outside Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral voiced her support for the president.

“I love Trump! He’s strong. He’s strong in keeping our religions alive and our faith. He’s a fighter,” Chicagoan Kimberly Starr said outside the 145-year-old Gothic landmark near the Magnificent Mile.

And when it comes to abortion, Starr said she doesn’t believe it’s possible to be a “good” Catholic and support a pro-choice candidate like Biden: “They probably think they are. We all have our differences of opinion.”

Are the references to Barrett as a “devout” Catholic an attempt to link a pro-life stance with what it means to be a good or observant Catholic?

Juan Carlos Hernandez, a 47-year-old from East Chicago, Ind., believes “devout is a very loose term.”

“Some people may like to do the rosary, some people might not. Some people might like to read the Bible and meet with a small group of people to pray,” said Hernandez, who was born in Central Mexico and moved to East Chicago, Ind. as a child. “But that can vary from individual to individual, and family to family.”

Hernandez calls himself pro-life, but said any candidate should attract votes for more than just their stance on abortion.

“If you’re against abortion, then you’re also for the lives of immigrants, the lives of people who are in prison and leaving prison, for just laws and creating a just fabric in society for everyone,” Hernandez said.

Juan Carlos Hernandez
Juan Carlos Hernandez stands near the alter at St. Margaret Mary Roman Catholic Church in Hammond, Indiana. Hernandez says abortion is an issue for him in deciding on who to vote for president but that’s not the only issue. Michael Puente / WBEZ

Nilda Rivera, a 52-year-old mother and grandmother from the blue-collar city of Hammond, Ind., said the devout Catholic is “kind of an old-fashioned idea” because many practicing Catholics like herself “don’t actually follow everything that we’ve been taught.”

“When I hear the term devout Catholic, I think of my grandmother,” said Rivera, a retail store manager who sent her three children to Catholic school.

Rivera too believes it’s possible to be pro-choice and devout.

“Just because you don’t follow Catholicism to the letter you’re not a heathen,” she said. “For me, the things [Trump] does, the things he says, that’s not really a good example of a good Catholic or a good Christian or a good anything.”

Chicagoan Michele Sotak, a professional fitness instructor and a lector at Holy Name Cathedral, said she is proud that a devout Catholic like Barrett is being considered for the Supreme Court.

“I think that Catholics, if they are devout, it’s a lifestyle to us and we’re trying to be good people,” Sotak said. “If she’s a devout Catholic, I look up to her because she’s trying to be a good role model.”

Even without the Barrett nomination, Sotak said she was going to back the president in this election because he’s pro-life.

“I think the fact that he’s Bible-based and God-based is all I need to know because [Trump’s] going to make good decisions from the heart,” Sotak said.

Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.