Those consistently complex “Catholic voters”

51772329If you read the comments threads on the Divine Mrs. MZ’s recent post on Notre Dame, President Barack Obama and the U.S. Catholic bishops (or some of them, at least), you can see that we are veering back into familiar territory. I am referring to the tendency among many mainstream journalists to make references to trends among “Catholic voters,” “American Catholics” and other broadly defined terms that reveal next to nothing in terms of usable information.

The truth, of course, is that it is becoming harder and harder to argue that American Catholics are part of one church, with one approach to doctrine, morality or church life.

At the Washington Post, Michelle Boorstein managed to pack some of this complexity into a way-to-short update under the headline, “Notre Dame’s Obama Award OK with Most Catholics.” The word “most” is crucial, of course. Here’s the lede:

There is a vocal and influential constituency of American Catholics who disapprove of the University of Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama to speak at the Catholic university and receive an honorary degree in mid-May. But almost twice as many Catholics approve of the invite — not a total shock since the majority of American Catholic voters cast ballots for the president.

Catholics upset with Notre Dame for giving Obama (a supporter of abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research) what many see as American Catholicism’s highest award have been slamming Notre Dame since the honor was announced.

So who are these angry Catholics? The road, as usual, leads to the omnipresent pollsters at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. And once again, the most significant statistic can be found further into the report, way past the headline grabbing fact that 50 percent “of Catholics” (whatever) back Notre Dame’s decision to violate a U.S. Catholic Bishops policy (full text here) by giving Obama an honorary doctorate, while 22 percent “say they disaprove.”

But here is the key statistic, if you want to understand the complexity that many reporters are missing — especially in newsrooms without experienced religion-beat professionals.

… (A)uthors of the poll note that there is a gap in the Notre Dame controversy that persists in so many arenas — between more and less observant Catholics. Among white, non-Hispanic Catholics who attend church weekly or more often, approval of the decision plummets to 37 percent. Forty-five percent said the decision was wrong. Among those who attend “less often,” 56 percent support the invite while 23 percent oppose it.

Pew’s poll also shows that weekly attending white Catholics are now noticeably more negative toward Obama’s performance compared with earlier this year. In fact, a plurality of this group (45%) now disapproves of the job Obama is doing, more than double the figure in February (20%).

Here is the actual language from the poll’s executive summary:

… (A) new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life also finds a deep division on this issue between the most-observant Catholics and those who are less observant, as defined by frequency of worship service attendance. These findings are consistent with Catholic’s overall views of Obama: a majority voted for him in the 2008 presidential election and express approval of his performance in office thus far. The new findings are also consistent with Catholics’ views on abortion and embryonic stem cell research, with pluralities in the poll expressing support for each. But a division between the most-observant Catholics and less-observant Catholics also is apparent on these issues.

Did you catch that? The disagreement over Notre Dame and Obama is essentially the same as the disagreement among clashing American Catholic camps over the issue of the moral and legal status of abortion itself. In fact, 61 percent of the “attend less often” Catholics believe that abortion rights should be protected in all or most cases, as opposed to 30 percent (still an interesting number) among the “attend weekly” Catholics.

Clearly, there needs to be another line drawn inside the “attend weekly” flock if we are interested in finding what unites the Catholics — the pro-catechism Catholics? — who back the U.S. bishops’ statement opposing the granting of honors to those who actively oppose Catholic teachings. We need to know more about the Catholics who are mad at Notre Dame.

Thus, let me once again share the four-pronged typology that a veteran priest here in Washington, D.C., gave me a few years ago. There are, he said, four kinds of Catholics in this country and, thus, four “Catholic votes” on almost any issue. Any news report that lumps these groups together isn’t worth very much.

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. Cultural conservatives have no chance.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be one of those all-important “undecided voters” depending on what’s 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 a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

So, who is cheering for Notre Dame? Who is booing?

I confess (key word) that I think the pros at the Pew Forum needed to ask one more question. The weekly Mass question is crucial, but what about that other controversial sacrament? What about people who do and don’t go to confession?

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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.

  • Zak

    I’ve never seen polling from anyone but CARA that included questions about confession, and none that used it as the basis for comparisons between subgroups. Is that common? Part of me worries the sample size for regular confession would be too small. I assume that’s why they don’t break down Hispanic Catholics on mass attendance (although that could also be because they might not have done the survey in Spanish).

  • Julia

    Copied from earlier thread:

    There’s a category not mentioned that covers Get Religion’s ex-Catholics and Cultural Catholics - the “raised-Catholic”. Especially the ones who “used to be altar boys”. Although not actively practicing the faith and often very opposed to the Church’s teachings, these folks like to opine on Catholic Church matters because they think they know the territory. You will find a lot of them in comboxes and I’m guessing they enjoy responding to surveys and polls on Church issues. Often they mis-remember what they learned about Catholic teaching way back in grade school.

    Here’s an angle most reporters probably don’t know. In the Catholic Church, it’s not just a good thing to go to Mass on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation, it’s a serious sin if you miss without an excuse. People who are already comfortable with repeatedly breaking official church law in that regard are less likely to accept and follow other Catholic precepts. Especially if they don’t even think they need to confess all the missed Sunday obligations as part of their Easter duty that would have restored their good standing in the church.

  • Susan

    The difficulty in understanding what it means to be “Roman Catholic” is that weekly attendence at Mass is a requirement. It is the lowest level of participation that defines one as a RC. If a RC misses Mass (except for a few very good reasons), the expectation is that the RC will confess before receiving the Eucharist again.

    Does every RC behave according to these very minimal expectations? No, but not complying with this baseline of religious observance would indicate someone who is not participating in the RCC in any meaningful way and whose beliefs and understanding of RCC theology are already pretty severely compromised. Sunday morning services in Protestant churches are not exactly equivalent to Mass in terms of what it means not to attend.

    Therefore, anyone who does not attend Mass on a weekly basis (assuming that there is not a good reason to regularly miss Mass) is acting as a cultural Catholic. Certainly, not to want to attend Mass means that the RC does not really understand what is happening at Mass. Sadly, that is all too common.

    It also means that the RCC is much smaller than the statistics indicate. People can and do label themselves in any way they wish, but behavior is a much better indicator of what people really believe. This is true for most labels people give themselves that involve a commitment or a practice of any kind … not just religious labels.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    All that polls do is increase and magnify the power of the MSM. I suspect that is why they love polls so much–even ones with wildly divergent reliability factors within the same poll and even giving headline status to the results from some with rotten reputations for accuracy.
    Unfortunately, too many Americans equate success on polls as having something to do with Truth, But that is far from the Truth and ridiculous.
    When members of any organization or religion are polled frequently much of the result is caused by the echo effect from the pervasive media. The poll then acts as a megaphone to further enhance the effect. And, although active members of a group are sometimes less affected by media propaganda, there is still a corrosive effect over time.

  • B

    With regard to polling Catholics and ex-Catholics, I wonder whether there has been any actual support for the idea that ex-Catholics are “solid for the Democrats.” My parents left the RCC when I was very young, but left for conservative Baptist churches, where they stayed for over twenty years. During that time, Democrats and liberals were considered anti-Christian in our house, and it has only been in the last five or ten years (when all the kids were out of the house) that they have veered into liberal territory. Interesting that this more recent change has been accompanied with a loss of faith identity as anything but “angry self-governed Christian against the Church” — what I take to be the gist of the ex-Catholic category above.

    My impression from them growing up (and being in very conservative Baptist circles) was that there is a large population of conservative Christians “saved” out of the Catholic Church. What if any actual numbers exist about such a group?

  • Katherine

    I think “B” has a good point. I know of too many souls that have left the Catholic Church because they consider her too “left-wing” and many who have become evangelical Protestants.

    As for the “sweat the details” Catholics, it seems that they break down in rather strongly on racial lines. None of the daily Mass attendees in my parish voted for McCain, but only a few of us are white.

    In fact, I believe the most stark difference among Catholics as to their support of the President is not by frequency of Mass attendence but by if they belong to an all-white parish or not.

  • R.S.Newark

    Anothr unmentioned and yet critically important conditon is that vexing one of who’s being truthful….’ya know’. many people will say what the want to say not what they really do when being questioned by those without reason to ask…who deserves to know the truth.

  • tmatt

    If people leave Catholicism to join another church, I am sure that they show up in surveys under that new affiliation. The ex-Catholics are those who have left the church — but hang on to some sense of Catholic identity.

  • Julia

    Some of those former Catholics who show up in surveys under new affiliations are the same people who self-identify in comboxes and news articles as “raised Catholic” who still like to comment on Catholic issues in the news.

  • Sabrina

    Katherine, #6 –

    None of the daily Mass attendees in my parish voted for McCain, but only a few of us are white.

    In fact, I believe the most stark difference among Catholics as to their support of the President is not by frequency of Mass attendence but by if they belong to an all-white parish or not.

    Quite right. “Liberal” and “conservative” labels have no value (and aren’t particularly apt or descriptive) as the Catholic Church in the United States becomes less homogeneous ethnically.

  • FW Ken

    Following Fr. Andrew Greeley, “ex-Catholic” is best used for Catholics who actually convert to another religious traditions (Christian or non-Christian); “lapsed” or “inactive” are probably better terms, though I like the rather snarky, not to mention imprecise “tribal Catholic”.

    B, I like in the Baptist belt, and most Baptists I know (including relatives) seem to know folks who “got saved out of the Catholic Church”. I went the other way, and know more than a few Catholics who used to be Baptists. Go figure.

    If I may, Professor Mattingly, I thought your post was an excellent take on the subject, but I take exception to one thing:

    The truth, of course, is that it is becoming harder and harder to argue that American Catholics are part of one church, with one approach to doctrine, morality or church life.

    This is true only if you begin with the individual and try to fit the individual into a voluntary social organization. There is one Catholic Church and one Catholic Faith. It’s not, strictly speaking, “voluntary”, nor is it merely a social organization (it’s that, of course, but more).

    Virtually all of us fall short of understanding and practicing this Faith but call ourselves Catholic, mostly in hope. Some honestly struggle with this doctrine or that. Some actively dissent (and aren’t they the media darlings!) Some call themselves Catholic without believing or practicing at all. Is there a religion of which this is not true? I don’t know a lot of Orthodox, but don’t you have your dissenters? I heard of an EO parish that had a parish barbecue during Lent, but kept the priest in the dark about it. Are there two Orthodox Churches, one that keeps Lent and another that doesn’t?

    Protestantism can reasonably speak of the individual as primary. I remember reading in the Baptist Standard that the core of Baptist theology is the competency of the individual soul to determine truth before God. Catholics (and Orthodox?) cannot make such a claim, and failing to grasp that will inevitable lead to a failure to “Get Catholicism”.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Fw Ken’s line is extremely important to remember when trying to understand media polls of Catholics. He wrote:
    “Virtually all of us fall short of understanding and practicing the Faith, but call ourselves Catholic.”
    That is why the Church is so very patient with those who do not seem to understand or practice the Faith. But when a Catholic University or Catholic political leaders who know little about their own Faith say or do things that could mislead 10′s of million of people, Catholic bishops have a duty to speak out and correct the record, so to speak. Yet that takes tremendous courage and a thick skin because it is such bishops who will be viciously attacked in the media and elsewhere frequently by using polls as their attack weapon.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Talk about poll indigestion. I just saw the latest Rasmussen poll on the Notre Dame situation. It reported that 52% of ALL Americans disagree with ND’s decision to honor Obama against the wish of the bishops. And 60%of ALL Catholics say the same –as well as 66% of Evangelicals and 52% of ALL Protestants.
    This is almost exactly the opposite of the Pew poll results which had virtually all the statistics exactly the opposite and in ND’s favor.
    I had mentioned here some of my reservations about the Pew poll and the way it was reported in the media.
    Did the people change as they learned more??? or is one of these two polling organizations (Rasmussen or Pew) totally incompetent??? And will the MSM give the same coverage to Rasmussen (which normally is one of the most respected polls) as it has given blanket coverage to Pew in stories of the ND situation????

  • tmatt


    I think the key is that the Pew poll said INVITE Obama and the other poll said HONOR Obama.

  • The young fogey

    Yes, there are factions/churchmanships (for those of us with Anglican backgrounds as I think many Touchstone readers have) among the RCs in practice.

    A quick review by me:

    The orthodox including traditionalists (Tridentine Mass and immemorial custom) and various ‘reform of the reform’ types (conservative Novus Ordo, big on the authority of the Pope as the law-and-order solution to this fragmenting, from almost-Tridentine high churchmen to charismatics… think EWTN). 100-percent believers in RC doctrine, which they’re well informed about. What a lot of converts are.

    The rank and file not exactly sure which side they’re on; they go to church for their needs but are non-ideological.

    The Modernists: wannabe liberal Protestants who don’t logically quit Rome because of real or imagined ethnic and/or class ties (they don’t like high church and WASP culture). They stay and try to transform Rome into something more to their liking. What a lot of the baby-boomer and generation before them of priests and nuns are: aged 50+. Most young people aren’t.

    And like the shadow of the rank and file, Bad Catholics. There are and always have been a lot of them. They rarely if ever attend and ‘don’t believe in all that’ but unlike the Modernists they know, just like the orthodox, that the church’s essence is unchangeable so they don’t complain about church.

  • Norman

    I heartily endorse your suggestion that the media explore the fault-line surrounding confession within Catholicism, tmatt. As a Catholic myself, I did not even realize this was an issue until quite recently, and discovering that a fair number of Catholics would like to do away with private confession has been a stunner for me (the anti-Confession types beaver away quietly and obscure their agenda by inveighing against “auricular confession” as opposed to simple plain speech [] ,so it’s easy even for observant Catholics to miss the story ) This is the biggest unreported story in contemporary Catholicism and it would be a feather in the cap for any reporter who would take the time to break the story.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    t.matt. Your observation seems to be correct. And, of course, that is the great problem in figuring out polls–even one word difference can make a universe of difference in the results. And since ND is honoring Obama, the huge negative attitude toward honoring him by Catholics and Evangelicals–as well as Protestants as revealed by the Rasmussen poll shows it is the poll the media should be spotlighting–not Pew. (And how about Orthodox??? which group were they subsumed under or, as usual, were they just kicked to the curbside if one was reached on the poll??)
    And since the difference in results is so drastic and the Rasmussen poll’s wording is so much closer to the actual situation–that doesn’t say much for Pew polling research -as I have suspected here. From the very first it has been reported that ND was honoring Obama (through an honorary degree) not just inviting him. But Pew decided to word their question as if he were only being invited.
    It will be interesting to see which poll’s results the MSM will highlight and headline as the date of Obama’s appearance at ND approaches. Somehow I don’t think we’ll see headlines stating: “Huge Majorities of Catholics and Even Evangelicals Oppose Notre Dame Honoring Obama –Surprisingly, Protestants Also Opposed.”

  • FW Ken

    Sorry to post on a dead thread, but this was too good:

    Templeton prize winner Bernard d’Espagnat, quote in a Ruth Gledhill column:

    I was born a Catholic. I am still a Catholic. Most of my friends and family are Catholic. But I do not consider being a Catholic something essential. I realise that if I were born in a Protestant country I would be a Protestant, and so on.’

    Earlier on in the column, Gledhill reports that he “now does not accept Catholic doctrine”. I suppose this is a good example of what Julia calls “raised Catholic”.