01/20/2012 08:37 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2012

Catholics Warn Gingrich, Santorum On Race Baiting

By David Gibson
Religion News Service

(RNS) More than 40 Catholic leaders and theologians have issued an open letter to Catholic candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, warning them "to stop perpetuating ugly racial stereotypes on the campaign trail."

The signers of the open letter, which was released Friday (Jan. 20), cited Gingrich's repeated criticisms of Barack Obama as a "food stamp president" who encourages government dependency for the poor, especially for African-Americans.

They also criticized Santorum's statement that he does not want "to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money." Santorum later said he intended to use a word other than "black" but did not say what that word would have been.

At Thursday's debate in South Carolina, both Santorum and Gingrich continued to blast the Obama administration for allegedly encouraging the use of food stamps.

Those statements have been criticized for encouraging racially charged associations between blacks and government welfare, and have drawn sharp denunciations from civil rights groups and many pundits.

In their open letter, the Catholic leaders -- many of them associated with progressive and Democratic causes -- say that raising "racist caricatures is irresponsible, immoral and unworthy of political leaders."

"Some presidential candidates now courting 'values voters' seem to have forgotten that defending human life and dignity does not stop with protecting the unborn," the authors write.

"We remind Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum that Catholic bishops describe racism as an 'intrinsic evil' and consistently defend vital government programs such as food stamps and unemployment benefits that help struggling Americans."

Since December 2008, a month before Obama took office, food-stamp use has increased 46 percent, The Associated Press reported. Even though the economy has begun to recover, total spending has more than doubled in four years to an all-time high of $75.3 billion.

Research shows that more whites than African-Americans receive assistance through food stamps. Some 41 percent of all recipients live in households where family members are employed. Surveys show that strong majorities of Americans say they do not want food stamp programs cut.