The Mythical Catholic Vote: The Harmful Consequences of Political Assimilation

Are Catholics now so “successfully” assimilated into American political life that they are without political impact—that there really is no such thing as a “Catholic vote”? Unfortunately enough, Catholics are largely indistinguishable from non-Catholics and, despite a few pundits, no, there really is no “Catholic vote.”  This obvious conclusion—clear enough from the fact that the vote for the winning candidates in the last national election was approximately the same for Catholics and non-Catholics—has serious current implications as the anti-Catholic posturing of the Obama Administration escalates.

Various studies have tried to detect a voting pattern in order to justify the term “Catholic vote.” One attempt distinguishes Catholics in general from “practicing” Catholics. Another sorts Catholics into three categories: practicing, nominal (or “cafeteria Catholics”), and Hispanics. A third variant, sees as many as five categories of Catholic voter: ethnic blue collar types; suburban Catholics; Midwestern German and Polish Catholics; Hispanics; and the cafeteria Catholics.

These efforts ultimately misfire because they assume a vote based on a “Catholic issue” or that “priest-ridden Catholics” (to use an historic term) vote pursuant to direction from the hierarchy. The term “Catholic vote” implies the existence of a certain cohesiveness, a unity—even a “bloc” of votes—held together by 1) a shared view on particular key issues and/or 2) a coalescence under respected Church leadership. American Catholics today have neither. Apart from national voting statistics, indicating that Catholic millions in 2008 supported the pro-abortion presidential candidate, a glance at some state statistics with respect to the presumed “Catholic” states, and their lack of successful political effort to limit abortion, is revealing. Compare two lists:

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According to the USCCB, the five most Catholic states, in population, are:  Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

According to the American Life League, the states with the most pro-life legislation (i.e., inhibiting abortion in various ways) are: Oklahoma, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Texas.

This is a shocker. In short, there is no Catholic political impact in support of life in those states reportedly having the most Catholics. As Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia put it, after the 2008 election, “[w]e need to stop overcounting our numbers, our influence, our institutions, and our resources, because they are not real.”

 The United States, having been “born Protestant,” as history tells us, has seen its percentage of Catholics grow from microscopic at the time of the Revolution, through the election of the first “Catholic” president in 1960, to today’s asserted 24 percent. But since the presumed high water mark of the Kennedy election, the seeming solidity of Catholic laity has been dissipated by several factors, principally three:  confusion following Vatican II; the issuance of Humanae Vitae in 1968; and the abuse-and-coverup scandals which emerged starting in 2002.

The result has also been threefold: Catholics are not following Church teaching; “Catholic” politicians are both publicly dissenting and voting contrary to Catholic principles, usually without correction from their bishops; and Catholics are walking away from the Church. Where should we be?

Non-Conformity and the Real “Call to Action”
Pope John Paul II and Vatican II documents have made the point that ALL Christians are charged with the obligation to renew the culture. The present pope, while still a cardinal, repeatedly said (in the interview later published as the Ratzinger Report), “It is time to find again the courage of nonconformism” … the “capacity of nonconformism, i.e., the capacity to oppose many developments of the surrounding culture.” Philosopher Jacques Maritain had long ago said that we do not “kneel to the world.” Historian James Hitchcock put it this way: “[A] modern faith … lived in the midst of modern culture, will not be a faith which simply allows itself to be shaped by that culture.”

The obligation of Catholic laity to confront and impact the culture is particularly set forth in the Vatican II document, Apostolicam Actualitatem: “The mission of the Church is not only to bring to men the message … but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal sphere with the spirit of the gospel” (#5).  Other documents also sought to energize the laity. In Lumen Gentium we read that “[t]he lay apostolate…is a participation in the saving mission of the Church itself…the laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can she become the salt of the earth”(#32).

While it has sometimes been said that Vatican II was an embracing of the world by the Church, the pope has instead described the council as a point of “transition from a protective to a missionary attitude” vis-à-vis the world. Vatican II thus was not a rupture between “old Church” and “new Church”—the spirit is rather of continuity, transitioning to a missionary emphasis from the protective post-Protestant Revolution emphasis of the 1500s.

Can Catholic Leadership Emerge to Impact Politics?
Any evaluation of episcopal leadership today should ask two questions: first, are Church leaders effectively communicating with the laity about the moral issues affecting politics? And, secondly, are the bishops themselves now speaking with a unified voice? Furthermore, is the laity listening?  A poll in 2011 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate indicates that only 16 percent of Catholics had even heard of the bishops’ 2007 Faithful Citizenship document before the 2008 elections. Yet in November 2011 the bishops basically reissued the same document. (We are reminded of Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.) The late Bishop James McHugh admitted, as to an earlier, similar document, that “our great effort was a failure. Many of those elected…took positions directly opposed to Church positions… [a]nd Catholics voted for such candidates without any apparent scruple….”

This lack of interest by the laity, in the wordy documents from the USCCB, has led to the broader question as to the very efficacy of the conference. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger spoke in 1985 of the lack of basis for episcopal conferences generally which “do not belong to the structure of the Church” and the tendency to issue what he termed “flattened documents in which decisive positions (where they might be necessary) are weakened.”

Related, of course, has been the devastating effect on episcopal credibility of the abuse-and-cover-up scandal. That credibility was not enhanced when the bishops’ “panicked meeting of 2002” (as Father Richard John Neuhaus described it) produced the “Dallas Charter.” As widely noted, that document failed to address the unpleasant reality that while a small minority of priests was involved in abuse, a majority of bishops was involved in transfers and cover-ups.

At the level of the bishops, there has been a surprising breakdown in “collegiality”: One bishop transferred a predator priest to another diocese with a recommendation that led to the suggestion that there might be a cross-claim against the originating diocese when the receiving diocese was sued.

More publicly, as to the disappearance of episcopal unity, dissension surfaced during the 2004 election concerning the array of pro-abortion Catholic politicians. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger set out principles, as to denying Communion, in a memorandum to a bishops’ “task force” on Catholic politicians—but confusion followed as to whether the task force head had withheld part of the Ratzinger instruction. The bishops waffled in their subsequent meeting and asserted, unconvincingly, that denying Communion is a “complex question.” As Catholic World Report put it, however, it really “isn’t even a close call” on the question of distributing Communion to politicians who “could not be clearer about their declaration of independence from the Church.”  Courageous speaking used to be expected from bishops. The example of Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel of New Orleans, who confronted and then excommunicated politician Leander Perez in 1962 for opposing desegregation, should be instructive.

Looking to the November 2012 Election
At the moment, in the run-up to the 2012 elections, there are at least two areas in which the fragmented state of the Catholic electorate is evidenced. Because the bishops have dodged Humanae Vitae for four decades, the media have been able to spin the debate on the HHS mandate under Obamacare to a discussion of contraception, while the bishops have tried to frame the issue as concerned with “religious freedom.” The polls indicate a lukewarm response from Catholic laity. Secondly, there now emerges a perceived dichotomy in Catholic teaching between the demands of “social justice” and the principle of subsidiarity. As fashioned by the USCCB over the years, the social justice and indeed Christian “preferential option for the poor” should be implemented, not by private charity or local churches or local government but preferentially via various federal programs. Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has, accordingly, been criticized by the chairman of the bishops’ committee on Domestic Justice, Peace and Human Development for his proposed federal budget. In response, Ryan’s own bishop rode in to his defense, considering, as he put it, that Ryan’s reputation had been unjustly attacked. As to the principle of subsidiarity (CCC#1883), invoked by Ryan, this is a sort of mystery word to many Catholics. When Paul Ryan speaks of subsidiarity, he might as well be speaking in Aramaic for American Catholics.

The natural promoters of Catholic thought as we approach this election, should be the bishops—vigorously teaching principles and leaving their prudential application to the laity. But consider the credibility problem. The episcopal pretension is that the abuse-and-coverup crisis is “over” having been “handled well,” etc. The lead shepherd of the hierarchy is presumably the President of the USCCB who, coincidentally, is also the relatively new Cardinal Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan. His media appearances, unfortunately, which presented major evangelizing opportunities, have tended to dissolve into personal trivia and joviality.  This summer he performed a trifecta of political gaffes: 1) by inviting our strongly pro-abortion president to the prestigious Al Smith Dinner; 2) by announcing his satisfaction that the country will have two “Catholic” vice-presidential candidates; and 3) by offering the benediction at both the Republican and the Democratic conventions. For weeks after the Al Smith Dinner announcement, and loud dissent from informed Catholics, Dolan and staff were feebly and naively attempting to nuance a distinction between an award (per the Notre Dame University fiasco), contrary to the bishops’ declared policy, on the one hand, and merely supping at the Waldorf, on the other. The immediate fallout is obvious: first, there will be photos nationally (especially in diocesan newspapers via CNS) of a cardinal and a president smiling together; second, a perception will be generated that Paul Ryan and Joe Biden are somehow equivalently Catholics despite Biden’s long public opposition to Church teaching; and, third, as to the conventions, some Catholics will conclude that the candidates and their platforms are to be equally blessed for sincere efforts to promote the common good. The result in November, of course, can be projected: many millions of Catholics, thus reassured and comforted, will again vote for Obama, with all that that may mean for the Church and the country (including, inter alia, the future Supreme Court).

Overcoming Clericalism and Energizing the Laity
But if the hierarchy is unwilling or unable to step up to the political plate effectively, what about the laity? (Supposedly gone are the days when a passive laity was expected to “pray, pay and obey.”) After Vatican II, did the laity really become “involved” in renewal of the culture, charging out into the public square or, instead, was there a charge forward into new ministries in the sanctuary? Failed lay initiatives that demonstrate the continuance of the clericalism problem have included the “Catholic Campaign for America,” and the “Catholic Alliance.” Despite the call of Vatican II, as Archbishop James Weisgerber has pointed out, “Clericalism, a culture of privilege and entitlement of the ordained, maintains a firm grasp on so much of the Church.”

Catholics of all ages need serious catechesis as well as encouragement to participate in politics, politics being a year-round process not affected merely on Election Day when the choices have been limited. We have to be participants in the many small ways that influence citizens and legislators and we have to recruit the best and brightest Catholic students.

Our responsibility is threefold: Evangelization, the mission of the entire People of God, starts with real catechesis of students of all ages; that catechesis has to include Catholic social doctrine, particularly the neglected principle of subsidiarity so applicable today. Secondly, it is our responsibility to confront boldly the secular—indeed anti-Christian—culture surrounding us. Conformity and timidity are not Christian. Thirdly, in participating in the sometimes foggy and messy business of politics, we have to make informed judgment calls, applying Catholic principles, mindful of the necessary distinction between immutable principles and their practical application.

Finally, should there be a Catholic vote? The answer is yes, properly understood to mean that Catholics should vote in a manner informed by Catholic principles—never in breach of immutable Catholic moral teaching and otherwise applying properly informed prudential judgment to those policy issues where Catholics in good faith can disagree.


  • Charles Molineaux

    Charles Molineaux is a recovering lawyer and father of six children. He is also a writer from northern Virginia whose commentaries have appeared, among other places, in The Wall Street Journal, the New Oxford Review, and the Homiletic & Pastoral Review.

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