Can Catholics Root for Rudy?

Rudy Giuliani has a Catholic problem and it's not, strangely enough, that he was raised as a Roman Catholic, considered becoming a priest, then dumped his second of three wives on television and has been photographed in a dress. Rudy's Catholic problem is this: he is pro-choice, and 63 percent of white Catholics who go to mass weekly are not. This is a small activist group, yet they are determined, it seems, to see the former mayor fail. Before the Iowa straw poll in August, Fidelis—a Chicago-based conservative Catholic group—ran anti-Giuliani ads in Iowa pointing to the candidate's longstanding pro-choice record. A month earlier, the group's president, Joe Cella, stepped down to go work for Giuliani opponent Fred Thompson. Thomas Melady, former ambassador to the Vatican, recently announced that he'll support Mitt Romney. The bottom line: "In the primary election, Catholics cannot vote for Giuliani," says Fidelis treasurer Brian Burch.

Can these orthodox Catholics really sink Rudy? The prevailing wisdom is that a candidate needs a majority of Catholics to win the general election, but since they voted overwhelmingly for Kennedy in 1960, the question of what Catholics want in a politician has become murky. Today "Catholics are divided by income level, political affiliation, socioeconomic status," says R. Scott Appleby, a historian at Notre Dame. "There is still a Catholic vote, but it's getting harder and harder to identify." Since 1992, Catholics have shifted slightly to the right, according to the Pew Research Center, and 59 percent of traditional Catholics say that issues like abortion and same-sex marriage will be "very important" to their 2008 vote.

Now the U.S. Catholic bishops are raising their voices against Giuliani as well. Last week a number of activist bishops told NEWSWEEK they would deny Giuliani communion for his views on abortion—if, after counseling, he continued to hold them. Their rhetoric emphasized human rights and first principles: almost every bishop interviewed by NEWSWEEK called abortion an "intrinsic evil." "What if a candidate were right on all the issues except racial discrimination?" asked Denver's archbishop, the Most Rev. Charles Chaput. "Why isn't [abortion] as important as that?" If Giuliani is the nominee, Chaput says, Catholics will have to choose between the lesser of two evils or stay home from the polls in protest.

The Giuliani camp has been making some effort to reach out to these orthodox Catholics (and, indeed, other conservatives) by stressing the mayor's war on porn and what he calls "sacrilegious" art in New York City. His most significant peace offering, though, has been his commitment to "strict constructionist" judges, which which has been interpreted to mean judges who will consider overturning Roe v. Wade. So far, the faithful aren't buying it. "That's your strategy? Give me a break," says Alexia Kelley, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. "What are you going to do in the meantime to change the culture and the economics and all the contributing factors to abortion? Wait for one of the justices to die? That's pathetic." (Giuliani personally believes abortion is wrong but, from a policy standpoint, thinks the decision rests with the woman, says a spokesperson. He also supports adoption.) This level of outrage is powerful, but it may be reverberating in circles so small that Giuliani can ignore it. Among traditional white Catholics, 63 percent have a favorable view of the former mayor, compared with just 55 percent of white evangelicals—a sign, perhaps, that what Catholics like about Rudy has nothing to do with religion.