Catholic vote vs. Catholic voters (updated)

stange 12colorTim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times is a columnist and, thus, tends to produce the kinds of opinion-driven pieces that we don’t deal with a lot here at GetReligion. However, we will mention op-ed pieces and work in advocacy journals (you know, like Newsweek) when we think the topic will be of interest to journalists who cover the religion beat.

Whether you agree with him or not, Rutten is genuinely fascinated with the role that religion plays in American politics and culture. He wrote a piece the other day — “The end of the Catholic vote — Obama’s lead among Catholic voters may signal a profound shift” — that deserves some careful thought.

Now, the minute you GetReligion readers scan that headline, one question should pop into your heads: “OK, which Catholic vote are we talking about?”

Rutten opens with the basic history, from the role of Catholics in the Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt era until the rise of the Reagan Democrats. It is in that context that we read:

Karl Rove, Bush’s strategic eminence grise, thought he’d found a way to pry Catholics, as ostensible social conservatives, out of the Democratic embrace and into a new conservative coalition using so-called wedge issues — such as abortion, same-sex marriage and aid to parochial schools and social service agencies.

That approach isn’t working for John McCain, particularly in Pennsylvania, where strategists in both parties seem to agree the Republican nominee’s chances will rise or fall. … In fact, nearly one-third of all Pennsylvanians are Catholics, and in recent weeks, McCain’s candidacy has received a major boost from their clerical leaders. Last week, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia wrote in his archdiocesan newspaper: “The transcending issue of our day is the intentional destruction of innocent human life, as in abortion … [and] no intrinsic evil can ever be supported in any way.”

Yet Obama is leading McCain in Pennsylvania and a recent New York Times/CBS poll showed Obama maintaining a 59 percent to 31 percent lead among Catholics — everywhere.

So what is going on? I think it is crucial, at this point, to remember that there is no one Catholic vote. There are multiple Catholic votes and different ways to divide it, including region, age and ethnicity. Here at GetReligion, we kind of like to focus on the role that religious practice and doctrine play in the news, so I am fond of the typology that a veteran Catholic priest in Washington, D.C., gave me a few years ago. He argued that there are four Catholic votes. Any poll that lumps all of these groups together is basically meaningless.

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. GOP has no chance.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter — check out that classic Atlantic Monthly tribes of American religion piece — depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* The “sweats the details” Roman Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but it is a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

how vote catholic gw imageNow, with those categories in mind, let’s read the end of Rutten’s piece:

What we’re seeing in these three swing states is the end of the Catholic vote, as conventional political strategists traditionally have expected it to behave — in part because it’s now so large it pretty much looks like the rest of America; in part because of its own internal changes. National polls have shown for some time that, although Catholics are personally opposed to abortion, they believe it ought to be legal in nearly identical percentages to the rest of America. Moreover, as a survey by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found earlier this year, only 18% of Catholics “strongly” agree with the statement: “In deciding what is morally acceptable, I look to the church teachings and statements by the pope and bishops to form my conscience.” …

What all this suggests is that, in this and coming election cycles, we may see a new model for the Catholic vote, one whose participation more closely resembles that of Jews, 75% of whom are overwhelmingly pro-Democratic, while a devout minority, the Orthodox, tends more strongly Republican. If you break the Catholic vote down in roughly the same pattern, you get something that looks like the current national spread. According to most reliable data, slightly less than one in four Catholics now assist at weekly Mass and are more open to GOP policies, while the overwhelming majority of their co-religionists have cast their lot with the Democrats’ domestic and foreign policies.

So, what do the bishops think of that?

I continue to argue that one of the most interesting stories in American religion, right now, is the status of confession in the Roman Catholic faith. Chase that story and you will run into all kinds of interesting material. Some of it will even be political and, thus, real news as defined by most editors.

UPDATE: OK, here’s a new roundup of some fresh material on these issues from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and the omnipresent expert John Green is in the house.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • John

    Rod Dreher addressed this the other day and came to the conclusion that “4 out of US Catholics functionally protestant.”

  • FW Ken

    A good piece, though I question the 18% figure, if for no other reason than the Hispanic in-migration should have raised it significantly. And the real question: where do those 82% (probably less) of Catholics look to form their conscience or make moral decisions.

    slightly less than one in four Catholics now assist at weekly Mass

    Other figures I’ve seen are in the 35% to 40% range. All of which are appalling, of course, except that (per Fr. Andrew Greeley)Catholics are more likely than others to retain their Catholic identity when they cease to practice or even believe. Polls are meaningless unless they control for the Catholic typology above.

    But to use the phrase “assist at Mass” is really interesting. I’ve never seen that from a journalist and it is the best theological usage. It’s also an accurate translation from Spanish for “attending” Mass, as us bolillos might say.

  • Ozzie

    I was poised to vote for McCain, based on the abortion issue alone. And then I got this note from a friend:

    My problem is that if Christians always vote with Republicans due to one single issue, the Democratic party won’t ever have any incentive to develop a more pro-life platform. Republicans certainly don’t have any incentives to change their platform, if Christians continue to vote for them based on one single issue.

    As heavy as this issue is for me, I might just break rank this year, be the first in my family to vote Democratic since FDR’s time.

    I have to admit, though that some of it though is due to the right-wing coverage of Obama, which with its myths and fables is pushing me, and I think others over the edge.

  • Julia

    “Assisting at Mass” means functioning as a server or acolyte. Accordingly, the voting patterns of these folks would be irrelevant, since almost all of them are too young to vote.

    The Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate is for Catholic dissidents what the Guttmacher Institute is for Planned Parenthood – neither is likely to report on results not in keeping with their philosophies. Keep in mind that Georgetown is the home of dissidents such as the late Fr Drinen, who helped “Catholic” pols such as Cuomo and Durbin craft their abortion mantras.

    An article in the Christian Science Monitor linked at The Pew Forum update relies on the ubiquitous Fr Thomas Reese at the very liberal Woodstock Seminary (since he was canned as editor of America magazine) which is also part of Georgetown in DC. He’s hardly neutral since he badmouthed Cardinal Ratzinger in his magazine and on national television and then publicly mourned the Cardinal’s election as Benedict XVI on CNN.

    Here’s how the CSM presents some dissident Catholic groups as per Fr Reese:

    Four years ago, conservatives helped deliver the Catholic vote to George Bush over fellow-Catholic John Kerry, insisting that an antiabortion stance was a litmus test for the candidates.

    Viewing that effort as divisive and narrow, other Catholics have since worked to broaden the political agenda to more fully reflect the church’s social teaching and its emphasis on promoting the common good.
    They’ve created new organizations, such as Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, and reached out to ordinary Catholics of every stripe, urging them to consider candidates’ positions on a wide range of societal issues.

    “These new groups are moderate voices who are presenting the whole array of Catholic social teaching, and they are having an impact,” says the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington.

    These are very small and out-of-the-mainstream groups that probably couldn’t use the church basement for meetings in most Catholic parishes – they are not “moderates”. They use Democratic-style pressure tactics to try to change a very non-democratic church. What they are promoting is a form of Liberation Theology which has been condemned by the Church. They, like Fr Reese, are awaiting the day when Benedict is no longer a stumbling block to their agenda.

    I think the unspoken problem is the loss of credibilitiy the bishops have suffered over the child abuse scandals. That and a re-wording of the “seamless garment” argument which originated in Chicago with Bernardin and is most certainly not accepted in Rome.

  • Peggy

    Note to Ozzie,

    You can find pro-life Dems at the level of the US House in some rural areas of the country. Our own Roman Catholic Dem is pretty pro-life. But Obama’s devotion to abortion is more extreme than anything we’ve ever seen. So, research the candidates below the presidential ticket and you might find some you can vote for in good conscience. In fact, Dems have responded by finding pro-life candidates in places such as Mississippi. They know that’s a way to win seats. [I saw an article a couple days ago. Don't know if I can find it again.]

  • Peggy

    Oh, Duh! GR here covered the issue of pro-life Dems in the south, at “Abortion: A Challenging Year.”

  • C. Wingate

    I came across this article from America which seems to be driven by a different but somewhat consonant data set.

    There’s a big ghost hidden inside of Rod Dreher’s convertissimo analysis: that the Catholic church member’s approach towards obeying the hierarchy is grounded in a more holistic approach than simple proposition-pushing (which, in the end, I’d say is very American-Protestant). Pre-Reformation European culture was not necessarily a hotbed of obedience to clerics; conversely, conspicuous theological dissent in the period (e.g. the Cathars and the Dolcinians) is impossible to separate from politics. To me it isn’t very surprising that Catholics don’t vote as a bloc, because the notion of them as a party is something imposed upon them in Protestant countries.

  • FW Ken

    Julia -

    In my part of the world, acolytes and others “serve the Mass”, or “serve at Mass”. Usually, the rest of us, “go to Mass”, “go to church” (my Baptist family’s terminology), or, per my parish’s religious formation director, “assist at Mass”.

  • Nancy Reyes

    I have read on Catholic sites that fifty of the 150 bishops have spoken out and clarified that abortion should be a major issue. Much of this is on church papers, but the press is ignoring it.

  • Maureen

    Re: The ex-Catholic vote

    It should be pointed out that ex-Catholics who become evangelicals, etc., are much more likely to stand on the right and vote for the GOP. Ex-Catholics who simply define themselves as ex-Catholics (and stay home on Sunday morning or go to the Unitarian church) are the voters that this set of definitions is talking about.

    Re: “assist at Mass”

    Yes, that’s what we do in the pews. :) Ironic that such wording, with its connotation of prayerful power vested in ordinary layfolk, went out of vogue after Vatican II, which was supposed to increase lay involvement. Now you’re only seen as “involved” if you’re up in the sanctuary next to the altar. No wonder people stay home on Sunday morning.

  • Jim

    Most of the commentaries about Catholic votes fail to consider another bloc of voters-the ‘Roman Catholics’. They are the ones who accepted John Paul II’s and the Vatican’s pronouncements about the grave immorality of the invasion of Iraq. The American Bishops wrote President Bush on the same subject, but it was the Vatican-the head Bishop and then Cardinal Ratzinger who defined the Iraq war as not being moral within the Church’s definition of a ‘just war’.

    But, the American Bishops and Catholics in general took what can be defined as a nationalistic view of the war and in effect, wittingly or unwittingly, shaped their American version of Catholicism to support their political and geo-political views.

    Whether President Bush’s 2004 visit to the Vatican had anything to do with a letter sent shortly thereafter by Cardinal Ratzinger to the U.S. Bishops is a big question. The letter nevertheless showed up with a statement that disagreement with John Paul II’s views about the war were allowable. The letter also clarified the Church’s stand on giving Communion to politicians (Kerry) who supported legal abortion. Without that letter, American Catholics would have had a moral dilemma in choosing between Bush and Kerry.

    That said, the war is still considered one of the key issues the U.S. Bishops have asked all Catholics to include in their consideration of political candidates. Moreover, the Roman Catholic Church has never changed its statement that a deliberate vote for a candidate because of their pro-choice stand is reason to abstain from Communion. There is no sin in voting for such a candidate for other sound moral reasons. While most American Catholics have been quick to say the war ‘doesn’t count’ which clears them from considering that issue, it ‘does’ count and the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church has never withdrawn its statement that the war was and is unjust.

    Given that moral concern, and two pro-choice candidates for president (for some reason American Catholics choose to ignore the fact that McCain is pro-choice)Roman Catholics made a voting decision based on a properly informed conscience. The decision was difficult but followed the Magisterium.

    For my part, when a small group of Bishops suddenly engage in a political issue, I look to the USCCB, and to the Magisterium (Rome) for my ultimate guidance.