Even with those strong numbers, 2012 is viewed as a potential turning point in the relationship between Catholics and the Democratic Party. Before 2012, there had been a fraying of the ties between Catholics and the party that most of their parents and grandparents automatically aligned with. But for some, the party’s convention in Charlotte was particularly unsettling, with what seemed to be a nightly parade of supporters of abortion rights, gay marriage, and the HHS mandate. Even worse was the embarrassing dispute when the platform writers stripped the phrase “God-given” out of the platform, forcing a public debate on whether to restore God to the party.
When some on the floor loudly booed the vote on God, it was too much for some Democrats. Bishop Thomas Tobin of the diocese of Providence in Rhode Island, spoke for them when he announced he was dropping his longtime registration as a Democrat and becoming a Republican. “I just can’t be associated structurally with that group, in terms of abortion and NARAL and Planned Parenthood and the same-sex marriage and the cultural destruction I saw going on,” he said, adding, “The a-ha moment for me was the 2012 Democratic National Convention. ... It was just awful.”
Jay W. Richards, who teaches at the School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University, said what many remembered from Charlotte was “that booing of God.” But, he added, “It was really over the course of the convention you remember the robust defense of abortion rights. I really think it was the culmination of the Affordable Care Act and lack of accommodation on these provisions on abortifacient drugs. ... For the president, surely he could come up with an exception for this. But he dug in his heels and he made it very difficult for a practicing Catholic.”
Luckily for Obama and the Democrats, many American Catholics do not really practice what the Church preaches on matters of birth control, homosexuality, and abortion. For Catholics who emphasize acts of charity and fighting poverty, Obama has distinct appeal. And Francis is the pope they have been waiting for.
The president referred to this when he addressed the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Georgetown University in May. Noting that his first job in Chicago was for a Catholic social-justice organization, with his office in a Catholic church, Obama said fighting poverty should be central to any ministry. “When it comes to ... what’s the thing that is really going to capture the essence of who we are as Christians or as Catholics or what have you, ... this is oftentimes viewed as a ‘nice to have’ relative to an issue like abortion.”
Instead, he said religious leaders have to focus on actions in the community. “Nobody has shown that better than Pope Francis, who I think has been transformative just through the sincerity and insistence that he’s had that this is vital to who we are, this is vital to following what Jesus Christ, our Savior, talked about,” said Obama. That, he said, is why Francis has “such incredible appeal” to young people. “And,” Obama concluded, “I hope that is a message that everybody receives when he comes to visit here. I can’t wait to host him because I think it will help to spark an even broader conversation.”