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Catholic Voters In Pennsylvania Talk About The Presidential Election

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Both the Trump and Biden campaigns are paying close attention to Catholic voters. Catholics narrowly supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016. They have voted Democratic in other elections, though, and those shifting loyalties may have to do with where their Catholic values lead them. NPR's Tom Gjelten says church teachings can pull Catholics in different directions.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Here in Westmoreland County, Pa., Catholics are by far the biggest religious group, and they are seen as swing voters. For those Catholics whose voting is driven by what they've learned in church, two values stand out. First is what the U.S. bishops say is the preeminent issue - opposition to abortion. That's what matters to Elaine Gowaty.

ELAINE GOWATY: You cannot be a true Catholic if you do not believe life begins at conception and ends at natural death. So abortion is not an option.

GJELTEN: But there are other parts of what Catholics call the social teachings of the church. In Gina Cirelli's case, it's what she learned from the nuns in her Catholic elementary school.

GINA CIRELLI: I was taught to respect others, treat others with dignity and respect, treat your neighbor as the way that you would like to be treated. And that's not what's happening in the White House right now.

GJELTEN: In this politically polarized climate, the divisions among Catholics have to do with which of these Catholic teachings they emphasize. Those who feel most strongly about abortion are more likely to support Donald Trump. Those who focus more on how to treat their neighbors and those in need may lean to Joe Biden. But maybe they have something in common.

CHRISTOPHER MCMAHON: The dominant value that causes Catholic voters to vote either direction has to do with the dignity of the human person and how to construe that.

GJELTEN: Christopher McMahon teaches Catholic theology at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.

MCMAHON: In one direction, the dignity of the most vulnerable, the unborn, the ones that must be cared for and protected. And then towards the other end, it's the vulnerable of the minority, those who've been oppressed by economic injustice and warfare.

GJELTEN: In either case, McMahon says, a Catholic sensibility is at work.

MCMAHON: That you have this power and this responsibility in your vote to defend the dignity of the human person.

GJELTEN: But how exactly to interpret that responsibility. Catholics themselves may not be entirely sure. Gina Cirelli, educated entirely in Catholic schools, thinks Donald Trump spreads hate. She's a pro-Biden Democrat, actually a Westmoreland County commissioner, but she calls herself pro-life. And the more her party embraces abortion rights unconditionally, the more estranged she feels from her party leaders.

CIRELLI: A majority of Americans are right in the middle, and unfortunately, the two national parties have gone so far to the right or to the left, we really don't have representation in D.C. right now.

GJELTEN: As for Elaine Gowaty, she supports Donald Trump. But as a Catholic, it means accepting that Trump calls people names and throws insults around. As a Catholic, those are things she was raised to keep to herself.

GOWATY: Sometimes he says what I'm feeling, and I don't want to say anything like that, but he does. And you know what? It's not bad.

GJELTEN: At this point, it's a rare Catholic voter who is undecided. One of the few is Abby Bogdan, who teaches physics at a local university, Seton Hill. Homeschooled in a Catholic family, she says her political views are shaped by her Catholicism. And like other Catholics, she says the top value is recognizing the worth and dignity of a human person.

ABBY BOGDAN: Both parties hold positions that I think are fundamentally not in keeping with that value. So in some ways, I don't feel like I can vote for either candidate.

GJELTEN: Like other Catholics, she sees how valuing human life can lead in different directions. But unlike others, she has not been able to resolve that tension.

BOGDAN: I mean, I think abortion is a big one, but so is immigration. The handling of the pandemic is an issue. Health care in general is an issue. I think the divisive rhetoric is actually a manifestation of not respecting other people.

INSKEEP: One of the voters who spoke with our colleague, Tom Gjelten in Pennsylvania. And, Tom, I gather there is one more undecided Catholic voter whose voice we didn't hear in that story.

GJELTEN: That's right, Steve. It's an African American woman, one of just a couple in her parish. She says she's already encountered a lot of racial hostility, and she worried that if she were quoted, it might have put a target on her back. She is deeply opposed to Donald Trump because she thinks he empowers that same racial hostility that's directed against her and her family. On the other hand, she's not a Democrat. When she was 17, she told me, Steve, she had an abortion. She told me it's haunted her for her entire adult life. She said, I feel like I killed my own child. She views abortion as an intrinsic evil and cannot support a party that thinks abortion should be legal.

INSKEEP: How does she seem likely to vote then?

GJELTEN: She says she still doesn't know. I checked with her yesterday. You know, it comes down to this core central value of the dignity of the human person, the same value that other Catholics have talked about. Figuring out how to apply that can be difficult.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks for that insightful reporting, always appreciate it.

GJELTEN: You bet.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Gjelten. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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