The myth and the reality of the “Catholic vote”

Author Stephen S. Schneck, from Catholic University, argues that there are actually several different kinds of Catholic voters:

While there is not an obvious Catholic vote on the macro scale, there are three discreet “Catholic votes” that really matter in American elections.

The first of these is Latino Catholics.  Over the last three decades, Latino immigration has washed over the church in America like a flood.  From insignificant numbers 40 years ago, Latinos now constitute one-third of all American Catholics.

In the not-too-distant future, the majority of American Catholics will probably be Latinos.

Unlike the Italians, Poles, Irish and similar white ethnics, Latino Catholics have retained their distinctive identity as Catholics. Their voting behavior reflects that.

This is particularly true when considered from the perspective of the famous social teachings of the church, which emphasize social and familial solidarity, the common good, preference for the poor, tradition, and welcoming of the immigrant.

Latino American Catholics (excluding Cubans) strongly associated with the Democratic Party in 2008, with 67% of Latino Catholic voters supporting Obama. But the bloc includes swing voters, and turnout can be volatile. This vote can be critical in swing states like Colorado, Florida and New Mexico, and perhaps soon in states like Arizona and Texas.

A little deeper in the weeds are two other important groups of white Catholic voters, who might be called “intentional Catholics” and “cultural Catholics.”

An important social phenomenon for understanding intentional Catholics is what’s sometimes referred to as distillation. A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life last year found that one-third of those raised Catholic have left the church. Fully 10% of the American electorate is formerly Catholic.

Because of assimilation, the glue of tradition and culture that previously inclined many to adhere to the church has lost its stickiness. Leaving is easy, whether by decision or atrophy, and little shame results.

Such disaffiliation happens for liberal reasons, conservative reasons, personal reasons and no reason at all. Some who leave still feel lingering allegiance to things Catholic, but many do not, and former Catholics do not have a distinctive political identity.

But as a result of disaffiliation, many Catholics who remain with the church are “distilled.”  More and more of those who remain are those who actively choose to embrace the church and its teachings. These “intentional Catholics” are the second of the three important groups of Catholic voters.

Largely white, with impressive education levels, mostly suburban and with moderate to high income levels, such Catholics are in evidence in weekly Mass attendance and parish activities. Politically active, intentional Catholic voters lean toward the Republican Party (with some youthful swing voters) and are motivated by economic issues and increasingly by opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and illegal immigration.

“Cultural Catholics” make up the third important group of Catholic voters. They are a complicated mix of mostly white Americans with lower levels of Mass attendance and higher levels of ambivalence toward Church authority.

These assimilated voters have varying education and income levels, often hail from urban and suburban communities, are more female than male  often with blue-collar roots  and are not intentionally but culturally oriented toward the church.

Read it all.


  1. As with white vote, there is also sepeate Hispanic vote divided by those who are practicing Catholics versus pure cultural Catholics. The Hispanic vote, especially the cultural catholic vote, is far from predictible and in many states, those coming to vote are being much more closely watched to determine if they are truly eligible to vote. Many states since 2008 have put laws in place to monitor this carefully. The practicing Catholic vote is very much influenced by the Bishops and by far the most reliable. With the solid Bishop support over the issue of religious liberty, and the ongoing messages from the pulpit, many expect this vote to be high with the culture catholic hispanics running much lower.

    However, in the past week, I have heard a lot more cultural Catholic voters very upset with this move and Obamacare in general as well as the failure to handle the economy. I predict you will see the Catholic vote this time go away from Obama.

  2. I actually think there are two more important things from earlier in the same article (copied below.) The first is that only 11% of Catholics think that they need to follow the Church’s teachings on issues like contraception and gay marriage. It shows a tremendous disconnect between what the Church hierarchy if focusing on and what the people in the pews think is important. Say what you will, the Bishops are obviously doing a lousy job of communicating their message.

    The second is how both politically conservative Catholics and Politically liberal Catholics tend to pick and choose what they ignore and what they listen to. It would be nice if responders to this blog would begin to recognize themselves! Of course, the conservatives among us, at least on my Catholic radio, tend to put the things they listen to as “non-negotiables.” Pretty convenient that they agree with the non-negotiables! : )

    To put this differently, 88% of Catholics in the poll said that it’s OK for Catholics to make up their own minds about these moral issues. That represents a growing trend. In 1992 only 70% supported the “make up their own minds” argument. In 1999 it was 80%.
    Today’s Catholics are picky and even suspicious about political signals from the institutional church.
    Politically conservative Catholics bristle at do-gooder messaging from their bishops about climate change, immigration reform and Catholicism’s important “preferential option” for the poor. Politically liberal Catholics, meanwhile, are not much swayed by the righteous tone of church pronouncements about same-sex marriage and contraception.

  3. Well, Schneck never says the percent split between the intentional and the cultural Catholics. This article doesn’t strike me as very profound. You can divide the Catholic vote in different ways. I don’t see why his three divisions he puts forth are the correct alignment. And I’m of Italian ethnicity, and for the most part Italians still retain their identity as Catholics. I have no idea from where he got that line. Not impressed.

  4. pagansister says:

    OK, how does dividing “Catholics” into separate groups help the Church try to be one united Church? It doesn’t. Having said that, it is, IMO, good that not everyone will be inclined to vote the same way/for the same person, even though I suspect “guidance” will be coming from the pulpit.

  5. Pagansister, I believe he was just trying to understand how the Catholic votes breaks out into groups. No different than understand the youth vote or the elderly vote or the suburban vote or the city vote. Those groups are trends, not absolute.

  6. Scout, you say conservatives put the things they listen to as non-negotiables. No, the magesterium and Pope determine non negotiable teaching. People who practice their faith take this very serious. We also take the other issues seriously, but understand that ther are more than one way to solve the problems such as illegal immigration and overall immigration. A growing number of people question the entire matter of “climate change” which has gone from another ice age prediction which failed to global warming which was going to have NY under water, to climate change which can mean anything. The doubt grew when it became obvious that the data used for this had been manipulated and lied about to produce the result they wanted to see. Of course even if the data was accurate and had not been lied about, they show no proof that anything man does has an impact. Because of this, many do not want to destroy our economy worse than it already is for questionable science.
    As to poverty, the document many quote for the “preferential treatment” starts with the assertion that before you worry about poverty, it asserts the fundamental dignity of each human being starts with life, one of the non negotiables. When you have life, and start to talk about the poor, the Catholic Church throughout history has done more for the poor than anyone else, especially the government. No document anywhere says the solution to all poverty is big central government programs. If anything, it condemns socialist programs for they end up robbing the dignity of the poor. Catholic teaching talks about us as Catholics promoting help for the poor by digging into our own pockets very deep and pulling out not the excess, but what goes deeper and even causes us to sacrifice. If the federal government were not taxing people to death on massively flawed programs and putting us and our children in ever deeper debt, we could do more. If the Democratic Party as pay off to teachers unions was fighting any attempt to provide vouchers to poor kids to allow them to escape schools that condemn those there to lifelong poverty, there would be hope. Obama just cut vouchers in Washington DC as part of his new budget and this means the Republican Party will again as it does every year, have to fight to get that restored.

    Wake up. Learn the teaching and how they are applied. You seem to be advocating that it is good for Catholics to ignore the Church teaching in areas that have been listed as infallible and magesterial. Not a good sign for a Catholic.

  7. Manny, what this reflects is something that both parties do to every vote which is to understand it and try to determine how to manipulate it. We need to start with Catholic teaching as you well know, and then seek out the party that first matches the non negotiable teaching of the church. I have posted it before, but this is from Pope Benedict talking to the Bishops and he has reinforced this several times.

    “As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable. Among these the following emerge clearly today:

    - protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death;

    - recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family – as a union between a man and a woman based on marriage – and its defence from attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different forms of union which in reality harm it and contribute to its destabilization, obscuring its particular character and its irreplaceable social role;

    - the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.”

    I note there is nothing here about global climate change, poverty, or any of the social justice positions. He believes all are important, but the above is non negotiable and support of them in the public arena by Catholics is to be avoided at risk of serious harm on ones soul.

    Cardnial Raymond L. Burke, has warned Catholic voters in the United States that they may never vote for politicians who support abortion rights or same-sex marriage. Why is this important? He is the current Cardinal Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest judicial authority in the Catholic Church apart from the Pope himself.
    In quoting the Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, that a Catholic voter would be unfit to receive communion “if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of “proportionate reasons”.” Cardinal Burke clarified this further in his comments with the judgement that “No matter what good I’m trying to achieve by voting for a candidate who favors some possible good, but at the same time favors the grave evil of abortion, can never justify voting for the abortion candidate. There have been no true proportionate reasons presented that justify this slaughter of innocent human life.”
    That is why I have said since reading these things over the past few years, that I see no way that a Catholic can vote for the Democratic candidate as long as the party supports abortion and the ongoing attack on family unless they emphatically run as pro life and vow to never support the Democratic position on these grave evils. Senator Casey ran as pro life, but when the Bishops advised him that Obamacare as presented could not be supported based on abortion, Casey cast an important vote with the party under great pressure. He put Party over his faith. At least he could have been given Wales.

  8. Good information about climate change at and

  9. Good points, Manny!

  10. Mark, a person’s vote, at least in the USA, is secret. If indeed a Catholic votes for a candidate that among other things, happens to believe in CHOISE for women (and that is not necessarily voting “for abortion” but the right for a woman to make up her mind on a very personal decision) because that candidate has in his/her platform other items that the voter agrees with, IMO, the Church really has no way of knowing. The Catholic voter is the untimate decision maker on who she/he votes for. It is not the busiess of her/his priest, bishop on up to the pope, who she/he votes for. I expect there are cases where the only candidate that a voter agrees with on other issues happens to also be pro-choice.

  11. Still looking for solid proof that anything man is doing has had any major impact on climate change. There is too much data long before man moved to industrial age showing climate change.

    I think we should be good stewards of the earth. I do not thing that there is a Catholic teaching that says as stewards, that the radical solutions some want to impose that would hurt the economy and thus the poor should be done at the altar of information that is far from compelling or that if undertaken would make any difference to good old mother earth. I will be more convinced when I see those on the left moving to give up all their nice homes and big cars and flying on private jets to conferences to try to impose this on the world. Same as those who are rich saying they should be paying more taxes in support of this policy when they could sign over everything they want tomorrow to the IRS.

  12. What is the choice? to kill or not to kill a human being. To say the Church should not be involved in helping those placed in their care by Christ when making decisions like this in life is in essence to say the Church has no role in life at all. If not helping advise them on the impact to their soul of supporting the holocaust of 54 million babies, what role would religion have in life. They are not talking to those who are pagans, but those who claim to be of the Catholic faith. Christ chose Peter and his successors and gave them the power to bind and forgive sin, the gift of infallibility on matters of faith and morals.

    The statements they have made clearly provide a crystal clear warning to those who claim to be Catholic that they are doing something which places them in grave danger. We also believe that if they have done this grave evil their soul is not in the state of grace and thus going up to receive the Eucharist is another grave sin. The kingdom they are trying to advise about is not of this world.

    You are right, they were given the right to choose by God. He will never take it away from us even when we choose grave evil. The Church role is to help us by having a place that is our true north, our guide, the rock we can cling to as we try to fight the evil around us and within us. When we leave this God given road map aside, we are travelling on our own and the sheep away from the herd is easy prey for the evil one.

  13. This is not a left/right or rich/poor issue. You have to get beyond the political spin.

  14. pagansister says:

    Nothing new in your response. I was pointing out that the vote of anyone is no one’s business —it’s a secret ballot for a reason.

  15. pagansister says:

    Meant to say the remark above was for Mark, and his 12:19 PM response. Don’t worry, if there is an evil one, I’ll keep an eye out while I’m voting. :o)

    BTW, the choice is to make the best decision possible from the candidates on the ballot. IMO, that sometimes might include a person who happens to believe in women’s legal rights regarding their bodies.

  16. Just say what you mean, pagansister.

    I am fully supportive of women having rights over their own bodies. Absolutely nobody is against that.

    Some people think she also has the right over someone else’s body. That’s where we differ.

    The whole abortion debate is about whether the rights of a human individual begin at the zygote stage, the embryo stage, or somewhere later. There is full consensus on the scientific definition that a human zygote is a human individual. There is no consensus on whether that human individual has rights under the law.

    The abortion question is an argument over human rights, not over a woman’s right over her body. It doesn’t help anybody to come to an agreement if we refuse to face that fact. It’s not a question of “spinning” or “word choice” or political agenda.

  17. pagansister says:

    Mary H. What? I did say what I meant. As to whether to continue a pregnancy is not about human rights IMO, but the rights of the woman involved. If indeed full human rights are given to a zygote, then it should be a tax deduction immediately, put on health insurance as a covered peson etc. Right? Am I in favor of abortions? No. Would I rather have alternatives offered? Yes. Is that reality for some women? No. I disagree that human rights start at zygote stage. However, back to voting—-as I have said many times—-if the only candidate a Catholic can agree with regarding his/her platform , and if that candidate also is in favor of continuing the legal right of women to have a termination, then I see no reason for him/her to forego voting for that candidate. It is IMO not the business of the Church—only of the person voting. Secret ballot, applies to all.

  18. @pagansister Sorry, things haven’t been going well lately. No reason for me to take it out on you.
    “If indeed full human rights are given to a zygote, then it should be a tax deduction immediately, put on health insurance as a covered peson etc. Right?”
    I have no problem with that.
    As to voting, of course it’s private. The guidance from the Pope and bishops is what we ought to do: it’s up to us to do it or not.
    Since abortion kills an innocent human individual, it is murder. From a Catholic point of view, all we need to know is that it is a human individual to consider it a person with all the rights of a person. With over a million abortions a year in the US, this means that to a Catholic there are a million innocent people being murdered every year. That’s why if there is a choice between two candidates, one of whom is pro-abortion-rights and one who is not, it’s very hard to find something that is proportionate to the murder of one million innocents a year. Immigration policy isn’t. Payroll tax isn’t. Support of torture is not. Some 100,000 Iraqis and 30,000 Americans have died in Iraq since 2003, so even the Iraq War isn’t.
    In the current field, the only candidate who is NOT in favor of anything that is considered an evil by the Catholic Church is Ron Paul. In many ways, the Republican candidates are also in favor of moral evil. It’s just that it isn’t proportionate to a million murders a year.

  19. pagansister says:

    Mary H. Sorry to hear things aren’t going well for you lately. I can relate.
    If indeed a zygote has what you call human rights, then what happens when there is a natural abortion/miscarriage? How do you handle the exemption on your taxes, that you have already filed and then? Seriously. How would that be handled? I am not in favor of abortion, but choice. I think that after a certain time frame, if a woman can’t make up her mind within a very narrow time frame, then she should continue the pregnancy and if she still can’t or chooses not to be a mother, then putting the child up for adoption is always an option. I’ve known a few women who did what they had to do, and never looked back. I do not look down upon them, nor think they have committed a “sin”. In fact, in one case it was the best thing she could do—her husband had almost killed her a couple of times, and the pregnancy made him even more unstable. In that time there were few places she could go, and was at the time apparently to ashamed to come to us. She ultimately left him, but the choice there was either the termination or she would have been killed. She happened to be my sister-in-law. We knew nothing about the unstable marriage until after she left him. This was just after it became legal—or she would have had to go underground or to another country. She was able to have the procedure in a safe environment—a hospital. Her husband accompanied her—to make sure she went thru with it. So, with that in my life time, as well as another family member with a situation, I would never want to see it made illegal. Returning to the butchers, IMO, is not an option. We will not agree, I’m sure, as I expect you are of the opinion that there is never a reason (rape/incest/life of mother count as a reason maybe?) . I have enjoyed the discussion. Hope things start looking up for you.

  20. Thanks for your concern. As for me, I haven’t had steady work for the last three years, but we’re doing okay. Just makes things tense sometimes.

    As for tax exemptions, who knows? The exemptions are meant to allow for a minimum cost in taking care of a dependent. I suppose a case could be made that an unborn child doesn’t require extra cost to care for until it reaches a certain age, but I’m not a tax lawyer.

    I’m very sorry for your sister-in-law. But you’re very correct, we won’t agree on this.

    I don’t see someone who was served by legal abortion. I see someone who was forced into it by her unstable husband to save her life. The answer in such a case is not to make abortion legal – it is to make sure such a woman has somewhere to go and knows it. (It is so sad that she was unable to reach out to you, but I truly understand how that can happen.) She needed a Battered Women’s shelter or a Crisis Pregnancy Center, or something that would have enabled her to approach you, not an abortion.

    I do think what she did (as well as her husband and the abortionist) was an objective evil. How guilty she is of sin is not something I can or even should judge; the guilt for a sin is lessened or removed altogether based on various factors, including knowledge, coercion, and others. It doesn’t mean an objective evil didn’t occur – the unborn child is still dead. But she may not be guilty of sin. And even if she were to some degree, there is always forgiveness. We’re all sinners, after all, at least according to the Catholic / Christian understanding of sin.

    In the case of rape or incest, there is some evidence that the victim experiences the abortion as a second violation rather than a solution. Instead of assuming that abortion is a good thing in most or even any of these situations, it would be better to actually study the effects in these cases. Abortion can allow the rapist to “get rid of the evidence” and in the case of a minor or someone involved in sex trafficking, simply make it easier for the rapist to continue and lead to multiple abortions. So no, in addition to the fact that the child is killed, it’s probably not good for the mother either.

    It’s actually a pretty good rule of thumb that abortion is bad for the mother as well as the child, and that a situation where a mother feels an abortion is her only real option means that she needs help, not an abortion.

    And then you have someone like me, who had options, but got an abortion just because my birth control failed and I didn’t think I was killing another person and it was legal and available. I also had dropped away from the Catholic faith at the time. So the other case is where abortion isn’t the mother’s only option and she knows it and does it anyway because she doesn’t want to deal with a pregnancy at the time. In that case, the woman doesn’t need abortion either, she just needs to deal with it.

    In the case of the mother’s life, it’s a question of taking into account the equal right to life of both. Saving the mother’s life may lead to, as an unwilled side effect, the death of the unborn child. Where only one can be saved, it is allowed to treat the one in a way that will lead, as a side effect, to the death of the other.

  21. pagansister says:

    Mary H: Yes, things would be tense with the unstable job situation. In my life there are health problems with my husband of 47 years—-so I can relate to tense.
    You mentioned that you had had a temination—-and you are obviously one who has regreted it. The 2 women in my family don’t regret their decision. IMO, many women do regret and IMO, many women don’t. It depends on the personality of the woman.
    Hope you have had a good day!


  1. [...] Patheos (blog) – Author Stephen S. Schneck, from Catholic University, argues that there are actually several different kinds of Catholic voters: While there is not an obvious Catholic vote on the macro scale, there are three discreet “Catholic votes” that really matter in American elections. The first of these is Latino Catholics.  Over the last three decades, Latino immigration has washed over the church in America like a flood.  From insignificant numbers 40 years ago, Latinos now constitute one-third of all American Catholics. In the not-too-distant future, the majority of American Catholics will probably be Latinos. Read more – [...]

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