Battle for Catholic vote inflames Pa. governor’s race

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette [Pittsburgh PA]

October 30, 2022

Mastriano accuses Shapiro of grudge against the church 

Flanked by tearful victims and their families, Attorney General Josh Shapiro took to the podium in the state Capitol and delivered perhaps the most defining remarks of his career as Pennsylvania’s most powerful law enforcement official.

It was August 2018 and the state Supreme Court had just approved the release of an explosive grand jury report revealing decades of child sexual abuse by hundreds of Catholic priests, as well as efforts by church leaders to cover up their crimes.

He accused the church’s bishops of choosing to protect the institution over the young men and women to whom they were entrusted to lead in their spiritual growth.

He spoke of the euphemisms that some of the church leaders used — “horseplay,” “wrestling,” “inappropriate contact” — to paper over the sordid activities of the priests. 

Jabbing his hand into the air, Mr. Shapiro declared that the actions against the victims amounted to “sexual abuse, including rape, committed by grown men — priests — against children.”

The grand jury report — released 16 years after the first wave of the clerical abuse crisis unfolded — rocked the church, leading to a host of lawsuits and reform legislation that lengthened the time that victims could sue their abusers while toughening penalties for those who fail to report the crimes.

It would also unleash criticism of Mr. Shapiro by some church groups that has spilled over into his current campaign to become Pennsylvania’s next governor, and has placed faith once again at the center of one of the most watched elections in the country.

In September, the Catholic League — the largest Catholic advocacy group in the nation — took aim at him for touting the grand jury report on his campaign website, calling the report “disgraceful. That he is now using it as a campaign weapon makes him all the more contemptible,” wrote the group’s president, Bill Donohue.

He went on to accuse Mr. Shapiro of misusing the grand jury process “for political purposes, and now he is at it again.”

Mr. Shapiro’s opponent in the race, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, leveled his own attack, accusing the attorney general of harboring a grudge against the church and for filing a lawsuit against the Little Sisters of the Poor — a Catholic charity that cares for the elderly.

“He’s got, really, some beef against the Catholic Church. I’m not sure why,” Mr. Mastriano said Oct. 17. 

Though the attorney general’s office never sued the nuns, but filed a case in a larger legal fight in which the nuns intervened, the attacks demonstrate just how deep and pervasive the allegations have been.

Mr. Shapiro’s campaign has fought back, saying Mr. Mastriano “is well known for peddling false and dangerous lies and conspiracy theories — and this is just the latest example in his track record of doing so,” said spokesman Will Simons in an email to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Mr. Shapiro has long advocated for all residents “no matter what they look like, who they love, who they pray to, or who they voted for,” he said.

But the issue continues to unfold in a state where Catholics represent more than a quarter of the voters and faith continues to be weaponized in elections that are shaping the future of politics.

A divided church

Religious political alignments have played out for generations, especially among Christian groups that have taken vastly different stances on abortion and immigration and the role of government in fulfilling scriptural decrees to help the poor.

But several political experts interviewed by the Post-Gazette say the recent attacks by Mr. Mastriano represent efforts to speed up that realignment by taking aim at a church that once voted as one bloc — John F. Kennedy overwhelmingly captured the Catholic vote in 1960 — and is now far less unified.

The efforts are expected to tap into those differences in a race that shows signs of tightening as election day Nov. 8 draws near.

While Mr. Shapiro holds an average 7% edge in the polls, a comfortable margin in a divided state, Mr. Mastriano has narrowed the gap over the past several weeks from what was once a double-digit lead.

The tactic is designed to peel off votes, but it also has the potential to lay bare divisions within the church that are driven in part by the country’s deepening political divides.

“There are Catholics who identify themselves as evangelical not because they’re Protestants but because they identify with that political movement,” said Brock Bahler, a religious scholar and University of Pittsburgh professor. “That’s what he’s tapping into.”

What used to be closed-door discussions to protect the sanctity of the church are now public differences that have exploded in the news and social media.

In June 2020, one of the nation’s top Catholic clerics openly took on President Donald Trump as well as the church’s largest lay organization for allowing the president to use a shrine sponsored by the Knights of Columbus as a backdrop for a photo op.

A day earlier, law enforcement had cracked down on a crowd of peaceful protesters near the White House, using tear gas to clear the way for Mr. Trump to stage a now-famous photo op — clutching a Bible — outside a historic Episcopal church.

There are also the ongoing “liturgy wars” over Pope Francis’ efforts to rein in the traditionalist Latin Mass and his overtures to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion in some cases — changes that triggered harsh criticism from conservative Catholics, most notably the television outlet EWTN.

The 2020 presidential race showcased just how vastly different Catholics can be in faith and politics.

Among those who regularly attend Mass, most practitioners tended to vote for Mr. Trump – about 60%, but among all Catholics, it was far more evenly divided, according to the Associated Press.

Even on the most important practice in the faith — communion, a sacrament that typically brings people together — the church could not be more fundamentally divided.

While many bishops argue that President Joe Biden should not receive the host because of his support of abortion rights, the vast majority of Democratic Catholics say that should not disqualify him, while more than half the Republicans say it should, according to a Pew Research Center poll in 2021.

Political observers say Mr. Mastriano may be able to carve into the more conservative Catholic voters, but not because of his accusations the attorney general is anti-Catholic.

It will be because Mr. Mastriano is the standard-bearer of their deeply held beliefs about abortion, gun control and issues they see as threats to the social order such as gay marriage and transgender rights.

“I have a hard time imagining those voters would be swayed by [the attacks] who are not already coming out and voting for Mastriano,” said former Democratic U.S. House Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, an anti-abortion Catholic.

The bigger test is whether finding common cause in one candidate — Mr. Mastriano — will open the door for Catholics who were historically marginalized to join forces with a rising movement that wants to declare the country an officially Christian nation.

While Mr. Mastriano has tried to distance himself from the nationalist label, he’s espoused the core of its rapidly spreading ideology: that the country’s founders intended to create a Christian nation.

The movement overlaps with others in history that embraced white supremacy and anti-Semitism.

“He absolutely represents Christian Nationalism — absolutely — and it’s very scary,” said Kevin Hayes, a Pittsburgh architect and a board member of the national Catholics Vote Common Good.

Mr. Mastriano’s campaign grabbed nationwide attention a few months ago when it was revealed that he paid $5,000 from his campaign to the social media site Gab, a white supremacist haven that was used by accused Tree of Life shooter Robert Bowers moments before the massacre four years ago.

“Thank God for what you’ve done,” Mr. Mastriano told the site’s founder, Andrew Torba, an avowed Christian Nationalist who has spread anti-Semitic remarks and content. Mr. Torba donated $500 to Mr. Mastriano in July.

During the backlash that followed, Mr. Mastriano initially stood by his relationship to Mr. Torba and Gab, but eventually cut ties with the site.

“I reject anti-Semitism in any form,” Mr. Mastriano said in a statement at the time.

But he has also used religion as a weapon in what’s arguably one of the most consequential governor’s races in the country because of the executive power over all elections.

Again and again, he accused the attorney general of taking on Catholics, “chasing nuns around and suing nuns,” and “persecuting these beautiful people who’ve dedicated their lives to helping the poor.”

But in his fervor, he erred repeatedly in just what transpired in a case that reached the nation’s highest court, records show.

Conflicted Catholics

The debate began over a key provision of the Affordable Care Act — the mandate that employers pay the cost of birth control.

Though religious institutions were allowed to request exemptions — the Catholic Church rejects the use of contraceptives to avoid pregnancy — Mr. Trump took it a step further by greatly expanding the field to allow most employers to do the same.

Mr. Shapiro sued to block the rule change, and when the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the Little Sisters of the Poor sued to intervene against the commonwealth. Mr. Shapiro’s office argued the nuns were already exempt from the birth control mandate, so the case had no impact on them.

Despite the legal differences, Mr. Shapiro never sued the religious order.

Still, the line of attack serves to remind some of Mr. Shapiro’s earlier clash with the church: the grand jury report four years ago that revealed decades of abuse and cover-up.

Though many Catholics lauded Mr. Shapiro’s inquiry as a necessary fight against an evil within their own institution, even they acknowledge there are others who believe Mr. Shapiro treated the institution unfairly.

“The bottom line is I feel Josh Shapiro did the state and the Catholics in the state a great service,” Mr. Hayes said.

“Clearly, there is another camp that I would call … defenders of the institution of the church, who say, like the clerics before them, ‘We need to protect mother church against these attacks and the institution is going to be held above the abuse of these children and their families,’’’ Mr. Hayes said.

“There is definitely that group of Catholics that did not like that there was this investigation into the church and felt it was an intrusion on church privacy.”

Mr. Hayes, who led a Catholic group supporting Mr. Biden for president, estimated that equal numbers of Catholics identify deeply with one of those two camps, while about 40% fall somewhere in the middle.

“There is no way Josh Shapiro could be doing as well in the polls right now if that 40% didn’t feel he didn’t do some service to the state and to the abuse victims and their families — and help the Catholic Church become better,” Mr. Hayes said.

Many Catholics still hold on to a tradition of social justice, especially when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable, he said.

“Catholics have long had a history of advocating for the poor, advocating for unions,” Mr. Bahler said. “This is part of the shaping of Pittsburgh.”

The abortion issue

But those Catholics who have moved from that tradition argue that the most vulnerable are the unborn.

In a recent poll by EWTN and polling aggregator RealClear Opinion, Catholic voters say they support the Republican candidate for governor in five out of six swing states.

The lone exception: Pennsylvania, where 51% of Catholics are behind Mr. Shapiro compared to 45% for Mr. Mastriano.

“They’re not going to vote as a bloc. The Catholic group really is about the same as Protestants. There are liberals, there are conservatives, there are extremists and there are those in the middle,” said Joseph DiSarro, a political science professor at Washington & Jefferson College and a member of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County.

Consider: the same EWTN poll that shows Catholic voters preferring Mr. Shapiro also shows them backing GOP Senate candidate Mehmet Oz over Democrat John Fetterman by the same margin — 51% to 45%.

Mr. Mastriano’s attacks may not win enough Catholics to even the race, but his hard-line campaign has helped further define the issues that divide Catholic voters.

On one side are conservatives whose major political issue is abortion — something Mr. Mastriano said he would ban in Pennsylvania, with no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother.

On the other side are more liberal adherents who embrace the gospel’s social teachings, aligning with candidates who prioritize helping the poor and marginalized.

For Mr. Mastriano, the challenge will be to convince enough voters from both sides to tolerate his more strident positions, including his belief that the separation of church and state is a “myth” and that undocumented immigrants should be shipped out of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Hayes said he’s among many in his Catholic faith who reject those views. “The gospel of Jesus Christ that I believe in says that the most vulnerable are the ones you have to lift up and protect,” he said.

Mr. Mastriano’s approach will lock in evangelical and “Trumpian populist” voters, Mr. DiSarro said, but for many others, the message is extreme. “I have not seen anything to suggest that [average] Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims are going to vote for Mastriano. I just don’t think that what might be considered mainstream groups are going to support him.”

Michael Wereschagin:; @wrschgn; Michael Sallah:; @mikesallah7

First Published October 30, 2022, 6:00am