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CITIZENSHIP Oct-4-2004 (840 words) xxxn

Flynn, Catholic Citizenship hope to get more Catholics to polls

By Josh Zywien
Catholic News Service

MILLBURY, Mass. (CNS) -- In an effort to mobilize Catholic voters, former Vatican ambassador Raymond L. Flynn is urging Catholics across Massachusetts to "engage themselves in the civic arena."

According to Flynn, 39 percent of Massachusetts Catholics did not vote in the 2000 presidential election.

"People always like to fall back on the belief that 'my vote doesn't matter,'" said Flynn, a former three-term mayor of Boston. "If one-tenth of that 39 percent had voted, the outcome of the election would have been completely different."

As part of a statewide mission to register and educate voters, Flynn, president of the nonpartisan group Catholic Citizenship, spoke recently at Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Millbury in the Worcester Diocese.

The diocese also organized voter registration drives to be held at every parish for the weekends of Oct. 2-3 and Oct. 9-10.

Flynn believes higher voter turnout will give Catholic issues a "much more prominent voice."

"Right now, politicians know that regardless of the effort they put in Catholic votes will most likely be split 50-50," Flynn said in an interview with The Catholic Free Press, newspaper of the Worcester Diocese. "So they don't waste their time. They spend time working with interest groups they know will give them money and votes."

One factor causing division among Catholic voters is party affiliation, according to Flynn. Voters get caught up thinking they have to remain loyal to one political party, he said.

"We try to get the idea of voting Democrat or Republican out of people's minds," Flynn noted. "What the Catholic population needs to do is examine the issues and use their own moral values to decide which candidate best represents those issues."

"I'd rather be a good American and a good Catholic than a good Democrat," he said.

But some parishioners, like Claire M. Desrosiers, a longtime member of Our Lady of the Assumption Parish, are torn.

"I want to be a good Catholic, but I don't want to vote for (George W.) Bush," she commented. "If it means voting for (John) Kerry to get Bush out of office, I guess that's what I have to do."

Taking "the lesser of two evils" approach in the voting booth is something Flynn and others at Catholic Citizenship attempt to discourage.

"There are certain issues that carry more weight than others," said Larry Cirignano, executive director of Catholic Citizenship.

He said that he was not encouraging people to vote against Kerry because of the candidate's support for keeping abortion legal, but he said that "moral obligations must be considered."

But he and Flynn were quick to point out that they refrain from endorsing candidates.

"It's extremely important to remain objective and let people decide for themselves," Flynn said. "If we attach ourselves to a particular political philosophy, people will shut us out."

"That's not our goal," he continued. "We won't succeed by saying 'vote for Bush' or 'vote for Kerry.' We just have to say 'vote.' We have to educate."

Catholic Citizenship's drive to encourage Catholics to vote has some critics claiming the movement is violating the separation of church and state.

But Flynn and Catholic Citizenship say their goal is to register and educate voters, rather than endorse candidates or party platforms.

Retired Worcester Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, a supporter of Catholic Citizenship, said in a phone interview that the Boston-based organization has every constitutional right to educate the Catholic voter.

"This talk of separation of church and state is irrelevant," the bishop said. "The church has every right to be part of the community. Claiming that involving yourself in an election as a religious person is a violation of church and state is a very secular interpretation of the Constitution."

Bishop Reilly said he refrains from disclosing who he supports politically.

"It doesn't matter who I support," he said. "I'm 'RC,' not 'PC.' I'm Roman Catholic before I'm politically correct. The essential element is that this group gets people registered to vote. We've had enough trouble as Americans doing that. I don't see how this is a conflict of interests."

One of Catholic Citizenship's chief goals is to get immigrants and young people registered and prepared to vote, Flynn said.

In the 2000 election, only 36 percent of voters ages 18 to 24 voted, according to a press release from the National Association of Secretaries of State. The same report estimates that 50 percent of minority voters cast a ballot in 2000.

However, the association's report also showed that simply registering citizens increases the likelihood that they will show up at the voting booth. Eighty-six percent of registered American voters followed through at the polls in 2000. That number was a bit lower in Massachusetts, with 67 percent of registered voters casting a ballot.

If Catholic Citizenship "can convince a few thousand to go out and vote, we're taking huge strides toward strengthening the Catholic voice in the political arena," Flynn said. "Politicians will start listening to us and to our issues."


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