Nov 7, 2012

Catholics to bishops: never mind our souls

American Catholic bishops attempted to exert their influence on the electorate, but to little effect.

Looking at the Catholic vote the day after the election doesn't reveal any significant shifts or surprises, but the results do indicate the political impotency of a Catholic hierarchy that has become very strongly identified with politics.

The American bishops didn't appear to hesitate in picking political sides in this last election. That has not always been the case, but this time the church's hierarchy leaned heavily on Catholic parishioners, making strong pronouncements about the morality of voting one way or another, clearly indication how good Catholics should cast their ballots if they cared about their souls. Picking up issues such as abortion and mandated coverage of contraception, the church's leaders issued strongly worded statements that, ostensibly, left little room for differences of opinion among the faithful.

And yet they were ignored by significant portions of the church.

One poll in the final days of the campaign put Catholic support of Barack Obama's reelection at 52 percent. An exit poll widely cited had half of self-identified Catholics saying they'd voted for Obama, and only 48 percent saying they'd supported Mitt Romney.

The bishops were spurned by sizable portions of Catholic voters, nationally and locally.

In Illinois, for example, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki wrote that voting for candidates who supported the Democratic Party platform -- which, in contrast to the Republican platform, has planks that "explicitly endorse intrinsic evils" -- puts one's soul in danger. But many, many Illinois Catholics voters just didn't seem to care.

Paprocki's message:
"I am not telling you which party or which candidates to vote for or against, but I am saying that you need to think and pray very carefully about your vote, because a vote for a candidate who promotes actions or behaviors that are intrinsically evil and gravely sinful makes you morally complicit and places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy."
Nearly half of the Catholic voters in Illinois disagreed with or disregarded the bishop's warning. The CNN exit poll shows that 48 percent of the state's Catholic voters cast their ballot for Obama on Tuesday.

This is true other places as well: The bishops simply do not have significant influence over their supposed flocks.

In Colorado, some lay Catholics paid for a full-page newspaper ad carrying the political message of Denver's Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila. Aquila urged Catholics to do their "moral duty" in opposing Obama's health care plan, and the Heath and Human Services mandate that insurance coverage, including that offered by Catholic charities, include coverage of contraceptives.

Colorado opted to re-elect the president by about 110,000 votes, though, and many of those were the state's more than 700,000 Catholics.

There is some minor variation from state to state in the break-down of the Catholic vote, but it doesn't seem to have anything in particular to do with the efforts of statements or activism of the region's respective bishops.

In the five states with the largest percentage of Catholics, Obama actually won, and CNN's exit polls show that the Catholic voters were split between the parties:
  • In Rhode Island, 59 percent of the population is Catholic, and Obama won by 29 percentage points.
  • In Massachusetts, where 43 percent of the population is Catholic, only 21 percent of voters identify as conservative, and more than a quarter of those calling themselves conservative reported they voted for Obama.
  • In New Jersey, 41 percent of the population is Catholic, and 45 percent of Catholics voters said they voted for Obama. The number of Catholics in New Jersey is about six times the number of votes that made up Obama's margin of victory.
  • In Connecticut, 36.6 percent of the population is Catholic, and 49 percent of Catholic voters cast their ballots for Obama. The state went for the Democrats by 17 percent.
  • In New York, where 37 percent of the population is Catholic, 47 percent of Catholic voters went for Obama. 
The 47 percent of New York Catholics who voted for Obama presumably did not include Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who went on television in the Spring to describe Obama's policies as "dramatic, radical intrusion of a government bureaucracy into the internal life of the church," and an attempt to silence people of faith, saying: "I think the public square is impoverished when people might be coerced to put a piece of duct tape over their mouth keeping them from bringing their deepest held convictions to the conversation."

And, presumably, the 47 percent of New York Catholics who voted for the president don't feel that they've been violently gagged by the policies of the man they voted for.

There will likely be arguments that those Catholics who didn't vote in accordance with the wishes of the hierarchy are, in some way, not really Catholic. It is true that Catholics who attend weekly mass -- the one measure of religiosity in election polls -- were more likely to vote for Romney. FOX's exit poll shows 57 percent of weekly mass-goers voted Republican, nationally. Of those who attend less than once per week, 57 percent voted for Obama.

The much more sharp division, though, seems to be between white Catholics and non-white Catholics, not the devout and the irregular church-goers.

According to a Pew poll done in October, 71 percent of Latino Catholics identified as Democrats, and 73 percent were planning on voting for Obama. They were nearly 20 percent more likely to support Obama than non-Latino Catholics. That overwhelming support didn't disappear when one measured for religiosity, either: among Latinos who attended mass weekly, more than 60 percent said they would vote for Obama. Where the so-called "God gap" is in effect with whites, it seems minimal at best with Latinos.

This support came despite what they heard in church when they were there every week, too, further demonstrating the church's lack of authority on these matters. Nearly one third of the church-going Latinos told pollsters they had heard sermons on candidates and elections, and more than half said they'd heard priests speak from the pulpit about abortion. It's not that they're not paying attention when, for example, a church includes a weekly prayer that "the federal government will be restored to its founding principles and allow religious liberty," it's just that they disagree.

Latino Catholics express a clear political preference, a preference which is not represented in their church's leadership.

As Eduardo Peñalver wrote in Common Weal today,
"the hierarchy finds itself identified more closely than ever with a single party in the United States, a party that is on the wrong side of inexorable demographic change. The result will be diminished influence for the Church in American politics and greater hostility towards requests for accommodation from the Democrats in power."
This divide isn't new, actually, as the numbers in this election more or less match those of the last few presidential races. Increasingly, though, the clash within the Catholic church is aggravated, as "Catholic leaders and Catholic voters can’t agree on what they think these Catholic teachings actually mean. Nor can they agree on how, or whether, those teachings might apply to the public square," as exemplified, quite publicly, in the vice presidential debate.

The election results raise very real questions about what it even means to talk about a "Catholic vote," given these divisions, and it undercuts the claims of conservatives who want to speak unilaterally about what "the church" supports or doesn't. It also especially demonstrates the hierarchy of the American Catholic church, try as they might, don't carry that much weight when it comes to the country's voting Catholics.