On deaf ears?
That’s the question U.S. Catholic bishops are asking themselves as they learn the results of a new survey commissioned by Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture and conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. According to the findings — presented by Peter Steinfels at a Fordham forum on Tuesday — just 16 percent of Catholics remember even hearing about the most recent Faithful Citizenship statement. Three-quarters of those who were aware of the document said it had “no influence at all” on how they voted. And about the same number of respondents who had not heard of the document said it probably would have had the same effect on their political choices. (You can read the full report right here [.pdf]; it will be available on the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture Web site soon, along with the transcript of Tuesday’s forum.)
Every four years since 1976 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has published a statement designed to help Catholics bring their faith to bear on their political choices. In recent election cycles, both the document (most recently called Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship) and the process of putting it together have been the subjects of some criticism. Conservatives accuse the bishops of leaving too much wiggle room for Catholic voters to support candidates who aren’t strong enough on the life issues. Liberals complain that the statement emphasizes abortion, gay marriage, and embryo-destructive research to the near exclusion of other key aspects of Catholic social teaching. Even if 1 percentage point of the whole sample represents about 570,000 Catholic adults, when 84 percent of them say they either were not sure whether they’d heard of Faithful Citizenship or had not heard of it at all, then is the document really worth the effort?
Despite the bishops’ claim that Faithful Citizenship is not intended to tell Catholics how to vote, not everyone agrees. According to the study, 43 percent of Catholics who were aware of the document agreed that “the bishops outlined the moral principles in a way that left little doubt about which party or candidates they thought Catholics should support.” About one-third said they thought the bishops left the final choice to voters. And 23 percent had no impression one way or the other.
So how did respondents hear about FC? A plurality (43 percent) can’t recall. About a quarter heard about it in their parish, 20 percent say they learned of it in the secular media, and just 9 percent heard about it the Catholic media (woe is us).
But there’s hearing about FC and then there’s reading it. Faithful Citizenship comes in two forms — full length and condensed. Less than 1 percent of adult Catholics have read the full statement, and just 2 percent say they’ve read the shorter version. That means 90 percent of adult Catholics did not read the ’08 FC in any form.
Perhaps more troubling for the bishops, 74 percent of Catholics who were aware of FC say it had “no influence at all” on the way they voted. Just 4 percent of Catholics overall say that the document was a major influence on their political choices or that it would have been had they heard of it.
The subgroups within the data set are also revealing, if not terribly surprising:
* Mass attendance: Of course, frequent Mass attenders are more likely to have heard of FC (34 percent), and are more likely to say that the bishops left the final choice up to Catholic voters (33 percent).
* Regional differences: Midwestern Catholics were most aware of FC and least likely to say it had no influence at all.
* Educational background: There was no difference in the responses of those who had gone to Catholic grade school and those who had not. The differences emerge in those who had gone to Catholic high school and Catholic college. Twenty-six percent of respondents who had gone to Catholic high school or college were aware of FC. Just 15 percent of those who had not gone to such schools had heard of FC. Despite that higher level of awareness, however, just 5 percent of those who had gone to Catholic college said FC was a major influence in 2008.
* Language: Eighteen percent of respondents who took the survey in English were aware of FC. Just 5 percent of those who took the survey in Spanish had heard of it.
* Time of initiation: Twenty-three percent of adult converts (using the term loosely) had heard of FC, while 16 percent of those who became Catholic as infants were aware of the document. More interesting, all of the respondents who affirmed that FC was a major influence on them in 2008 became Catholic as infants or children. Maybe cradle Catholics aren’t such bad Catholics after all.
* Age: No one will be shocked to learn that pre-Vatican II Catholics are the most likely to have heard of FC (34 percent), and Millennials (those under the age of thirty this year) are the least likely (10 percent). More interesting, even though Catholics under thirty were least likely to have heard of FC, they were also least likely to affirm that in the document the bishops had stuck to moral principles and left the final choice to voters (9 percent). What does that say about young adult Catholics’ perceptions of the bishops’ interventions in political life? Perhaps that’s a topic for another survey.