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updated 9/17/2008 3:01:38 AM ET 2008-09-17T07:01:38

Until recently, Matthew Figured, a Sunday school teacher at the Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church here, could not decide which candidate to vote for in the presidential election.

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He had watched progressive Catholics work with the Democratic Party over the last four years to remind the faithful of the party’s support for Catholic teaching on the Iraq war, immigration , health care and even reducing abortion rates.

But then his local bishop plunged into the fray, barring Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, from receiving communion in the area because of his support for abortion rights.

Finally, bishops around the country scolded another prominent Catholic Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, for publicly contradicting the church’s teachings on abortion, some discouraging parishioners from voting for politicians who hold such views.

Now Mr. Figured thinks he will vote for the Republican candidate, Senator John McCain of Arizona. "People should straighten out their religious beliefs before they start making political decisions," Mr. Figured, 22, said on his way into Sunday Mass.

A struggle within the church over how Catholic voters should think about abortion is once again flaring up just as political partisans prepare an all-out battle for the votes of Mass-going Catholics in swing-state towns like Scranton.

Pivotal swing vote
The theological dispute is playing out in diocesan newspapers and weekly homilies, while the campaigns scramble to set up phone banks of nuns and private meetings with influential bishops.

Progressive Catholics complain that by wading into the history of church opposition to abortion — Mr. Biden brought up St. Thomas Aquinas, Ms. Pelosi discussed St. Augustine — Democratic officials are starting a distracting debate with the church hierarchy.

"Getting into Augustine and Aquinas — it is just not helpful," said Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, a progressive Catholic group running television commercials that emphasize the church’s social justice teachings. "It would be wise for them to focus on how policies they are going to implement as leaders are going to move forward the church teachings they say they believe in."

Catholic conservatives, in turn, until recently had worried about a resurgence of the progressive forces in the American church. Now they are reveling. "The Democrats have actually given back some of the progress they had made," said Deal Hudson, a Catholic conservative who worked with President Bush’s campaign and is now advising Mr. McCain’s.

Once a reliable Democratic voting bloc, Catholics have emerged as a pivotal swing vote in recent presidential races. Evenly divided in a New York Times-CBS News poll over the summer, Catholics make up about a quarter of the national electorate and about a third in the pivotal battleground states of Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania . "Whoever wins the Catholic vote will generally win our state and, most of the time, the nation," said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

And Scranton, a city dominated by the kind of white working-class Catholics who have often defected from the Democrats in presidential elections, is a focus of special attention this year. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who generally underperformed with Catholics in the Democratic primary, lost the surrounding Lackawanna County by a margin of three-to-one to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who has family in the area. Now, the Obama campaign often highlights Mr. Biden’s local roots — he was baptized and spent his early years in Scranton — in a bid for Pennsylvania voters.\

'Social-justice' versus 'the life issue'
Dozens of interviews with Catholics in Scranton underscored the political tumult in the parish pews. At Holy Rosary’s packed morning Masses on Sunday in working-class North Scranton and the Pennsylvania Polka Festival downtown that afternoon, many Clinton supporters said they were planning to vote for Mr. Obama, some saying they sided with their labor unions instead of the church and others repeating liberal arguments about church doctrine broader than abortion.

"I think that one of the teachings of God is to take care of the less fortunate," said Susan Tighe, an insurance lawyer who identified herself as "a folk Catholic, from the guitar-strumming social-justice side" of the church.

But more said they now leaned toward Mr. McCain, citing both his experience and his opposition to abortion. Paul MacDonald, a retired social worker mingling over coffee after Mass at Holy Rosary, said he had voted for Mr. Kerry four years ago and Mrs. Clinton in the primary but now planned to vote for Mr. McCain because of "the life issue."

The choice of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as Mr. McCain’s running mate had clinched it for him, Mr. MacDonald said. "She is anti-abortion, anti-gay-marriage, anti-Big Oil, a lifetime member of the N.R.A., she hunts, she fishes — she is the perfect woman!"

One parishioner ruled out voting for Mr. Obama explicitly because he is black. "Are they going to make it the Black House?" Ray McCormick asked, to embarrassed hushing from a half dozen others gathered around the rectory kitchen. (Five of the six, all lifelong Democrats who supported Mrs. Clinton in the primary, said they now lean toward Mr. McCain.)

Mr. Madonna, the political scientist, said of the Catholic vote in white, working-class Scranton, "This is a tough area for Obama and some of it is race."

Both campaigns have dispatched teams of operatives and high-profile allies to help fire up like-minded Pennsylvania Catholics. The McCain campaign also disclosed last month that the senator was meeting privately with Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia. He met with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver shortly before the Democratic convention. Both were outspoken critics of Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Biden.

Former Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, a director of Catholic outreach for the McCain campaign, said the meetings Mr. McCain has held with bishops around the country were "strictly ceremonial." But the campaign welcomed the bishops’ comments about the Democrats and abortion, Mr. Keating said, as "statements of affectionate support" for Mr. McCain.

Both sides say that Mr. Obama has a broader grass-roots turnout operation than Mr. McCain. In Pennsylvania, the campaign has trained organizers to talk about Catholic doctrine on abortion and other issues, held about two dozen "brunch for Barack" events after Sunday Mass and organized what the campaign calls "nun banks" to call lists of Catholic voters.

Catholic Democrats outside the campaign have also worked hard to avoid repeating the experience of 2004, when a small group of outspoken bishops dominated news coverage of the church with criticism of Democratic Senator John Kerry focused on the single issue of abortion.

Many parishes distributed a voter guide, produced by an outside conservative Catholic group called Catholic Answers, which identified five "nonnegotiable" issues for faithful voters: abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

Progressive Catholics win some victories
After the 2004 election, progressive Catholics started to organize and appeared to win some victories. In 2006, the bishops’ conference all but banned outside voter guides from parishes. And last fall, the bishops revised their official statement on voting priorities to explicitly allow Catholics to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights if they do so for other reasons. And it also allowed for differences of opinion about how to apply church principles. The statement appeared to leave room for Democrats to argue that social programs were an effective way to reduce abortion rates, an idea the party recently incorporated into its platform.

Their revisions set the stage for a clash of voter guides. Catholic Answers is again promoting its "nonnegotiables" voter guide; a new group, Catholics in Alliance for Common Good, has produced a chart comparing the candidates’ views on the war, taxes, the environment and other issues as well as abortion.

The same debate is already playing out almost every day in the letters section of Scranton’s newspaper, said Jean Harris, a political scientist at the Jesuit-run University of Scranton. "It is a running debate between Catholics saying ‘abortion is the only issue’ and others saying ‘you have to look at the whole teaching of the church,’ " she said.

This article, "Abortion Issue Again Dividing Catholic Votes," first appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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