The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento on Sept. 12, 2022. Catholic churches are leading the opposition to a ballot measure on abortion rights. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

From the pulpit of the bright and airy Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove, Father Bao Thai delivered a homily on a recent Sunday morning, urging his congregation to vote against Proposition 1, a measure on the Nov. 8 ballot that would enshrine the right to abortion in California’s constitution.

“A steward is entrusted to care for the master’s property until his return,” he preached. “What precious goods has the creator placed in our care? Do they include the innocent and sacred lives of the unborn and children to be born?”

A few weeks earlier, at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Pacifica, two congregants spoke at weekend masses to ask attendees to support the campaign against the “harmful” Prop. 1 with prayers, fasting and money.

Bishops and other clergy from California’s dozen Catholic dioceses and archdioceses — spanning Sacramento to Fresno, Monterey to San Bernardino — have released videos to speak directly to the faithful, sometimes in multiple languages, about their concerns that the initiative would remove all existing restrictions on abortion in the state.

“Life is precious from the very moment of conception,” Father Michael Mahoney of Our Lady of Angels Parish in Burlingame said in a recent message filmed at the site of a future parish garden, where he encouraged families to take home “No Prop 1” signs for their yards. “This is against everything that we believe in as Catholics.”

Fundraising by the opposition campaign is trailing significantly, in a state where a clear majority of adults regularly express support for abortion rights. So the success of a long-shot effort to defeat Prop. 1 may rest primarily on outreach by faith leaders and their ability to mobilize followers from the pews to the polls.

About a month before Election Day, as mail ballots are set to begin arriving at the homes of every registered voter in California, officials across several major denominations are tapping into their networks of worshippers to get the word out against the abortion measure. Meanwhile, some conservative faith-based political groups are organizing voters to involve their churches in the campaign. Though not legally allowed to endorse partisan candidates because of their tax-exempt status, churches can advocate on issues, including ballot measures.

Fighting an ‘egregious expansion’ of abortion

The most significant push so far has come from the Catholic Church. Over the summer, it started training clergy and parishioners, registering voters and developing educational resources about Prop. 1, which it calls the “most egregious expansion of abortion this country has ever seen.”

A novena led by the California bishops — nine days of prayer to Our Lady of the Holy Rosary for the defeat of the initiative — began late last month, ahead of Respect Life Month during October, an annual Catholic program to advocate against abortion and support women dealing with unexpected pregnancies.

Nearly one in three Californians is Catholic, providing the church an immense platform from which to try to shift the tide on Prop. 1. An August poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found 71% of registered voters were prepared to support the measure.

Kathleen Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, the state public policy office of the church, said even Catholic leaders are divided on whether they have a real chance to defeat Prop. 1. But they are undertaking a serious organizing effort regardless, she said, because it also presents an opportunity to get more people involved in their regular activities serving needy women, children and families.

“Win or lose, there’s benefit in the process,” she said. “It’s never a bad thing to get people thinking about vulnerable people in their communities.”

Wide gap in fundraising

The main opposition campaign to Prop. 1 stresses that its coalition is broader than faith-based organizations.

And its arguments against the measure are entirely secular: The campaign dismisses Prop. 1, placed on the ballot by the Legislature, as a cynical attempt by Democrats to boost voter turnout that is unnecessary to guarantee abortion access in California, where the procedure is already protected by law.

Opponents also raise concerns that the broad language of the initiative (“The state shall not deny or interfere with an individual’s reproductive freedom in their most intimate decisions”) would override all existing restrictions, allowing abortions past the current limit when a fetus is viable outside the womb at around 24 weeks and putting taxpayers on the hook as people come to California from other states seeking to terminate their pregnancies.

Yes on Proposition 1 spokesperson Molly Weedn said the characterization that the measure would remove all abortion restrictions in California is false. “That is a lot of misinformation and fear-mongering from the opposition,” she said. “The initiative is simply going to take existing law and add it to the constitution.”

Catherine Hadro, a spokesperson for California Together, No on Proposition 1, said that while the campaign is grateful for the assistance from religious leaders, it is targeting its communications to all Californians. She said opponents can see the momentum against Prop. 1 growing with a rise in grassroots donations.

“We know this is a message that resonates with Californians, no matter their faith,” she said.

But spreading that message through traditional electoral methods, such as digital advertising and mailers, has been challenging. The campaign has reported raising $1.1 million so far, most of it in the final week of September. Hadro declined to discuss the specifics of the opposition strategy.

A separate effort, led by groups affiliated with the evangelical Christian movement, has raised about $73,000.

Proponents of Prop. 1, by comparison, have reported $11.8 million in contributions, including a $5 million donation by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.

The measure was also recently endorsed by Catholics For Choice, a national nonprofit that advocates for abortion access and other policies in conflict with church doctrine. In a statement, President Jamie Manson said “the bishops’ radical anti-choice views are wildly out-of-step with the majority of the people in their own pews.”

A July survey by Pew Research Center found that Catholics in the United States are split on abortion, with a majority now agreeing that the procedure should be legal in most or all cases — though more than two-thirds of regular mass attendees believe it should be illegal in most or all cases.

“This faithful pro-choice majority supports abortion access because it aligns with our Catholic social justice values of human dignity, justice for the poor and marginalized, and religious freedom — not in spite of our Catholic faith, but because of it,” Manson said.

‘A culture of death’

Nearly 60% of what the No on Prop. 1 campaign has reported raising so far comes from the Catholic Church and affiliated donors, including $500,000 from the Knights of Columbus, a national Catholic fraternal organization. Officials at its Connecticut headquarters did not respond to an interview request.

Priests, deacons and other church employees, largely in Orange County, have directly donated $20,000 to the campaign. Another $105,000 so far has come from the California Catholic Conference and half a dozen of the dioceses and archdioceses, which Domingo said are in-kind contributions for the extensive work that the church has done on its No on Prop 1 campaign.

That includes developing bilingual fliers and pew cards in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean to distribute at masses, as well as suggested weekly bulletin announcements (“Don’t hand lawmakers a blank check to pay for abortions, and don’t let them make California an ‘abortion sanctuary’”) and homily helps for pastors that recommend readings from the Bible and how to connect them to Prop. 1 (“the abortion industry has been as clever as a fox in its self-interest, like the dishonest steward who acted to preserve his income by immorally manipulating his master’s debtors, at the master’s expense”).

Bishops and other high-ranking clergy from across the state are making their own direct appeals to Catholic voters in video messages that amount to campaign advertisements. Though often framed within religious reflections, their arguments are also largely focused on what they consider to be the extreme implications of Prop. 1, which they believe would allow abortions until the moment of birth without exception. Some have compared the measure to human rights violations in North Korea and challenged parishioners to bring their pro-abortion rights friends into the campaign against the initiative by educating them about what it “actually does.”