The Catholic Voter

A Description with Recommendations

During the 2004 election, some bishops insisted that Catholics should obey church teachings in deciding how to vote. Some bishops even declared that prochoice Catholic politicians should be denied Communion. The ensuing public controversies shed more heat than light on many questions: Which church teachings on what issues ought to matter most? How should Catholics decide between candidates? If Catholic politicians are obliged to follow church teachings when making laws, are Catholic judges also supposed to “vote Catholic” in deciding cases?

But let’s start with an easier-to-answer empirical question: How, in fact, do American Catholics vote? The basic answer is that Catholics are political centrists. Catholics come closer than any other large religious cohort in the country to mirroring the American electorate. Start with partisan affiliations. About 44 percent of Catholics, compared to 42 percent of all Americans, identify as Democrats; 41 percent of Catholics, compared to 38 percent of all Americans, identify as Republicans; and 15 percent of Catholics, versus 20 percent of all Americans, identify as Independents.

Opinion surveys typically find that about one-third of Americans describe themselves as “conservative,” roughly one-fifth call themselves “liberal,” and a plurality chooses other labels, mostly “moderate.” Nearly a fifth of Catholics choose the label “liberal,” slightly over a third select “conservative,” and about 30 percent self-identify as “moderate.” Catholics are less red (conservative Republican) versus blue (liberal Democrat) than purple (swing-voting centrists). Only 5 percent of Catholics identify themselves as “very liberal,” and only 6 percent call themselves “very conservative.”

A 2004 survey sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life divided white Roman Catholics into three categories: “traditionalists” with orthodox theological beliefs who attend church regularly; “modernists” who are the least orthodox in beliefs and not much involved with religious institutions; and “centrists” who fall in between the other two groups. Centrist Catholics constitute the religious subgroup that most nearly parallels the national partisan affiliation map (46 percent Democratic, 35 percent Republican, and 19 percent Independent).

Conservative churchgoing Catholics tend to remain closer to electorate-wide voting patterns than do religiously committed political conservatives of other faiths. For example, as documented by political scientist John C. Green, in the 2004 presidential election, highly committed Catholics joined the roughly 24 percent of all Americans who in exit polls chose “moral values” as the issue that mattered most to them. Catholic moral-values voters, though, figured far less prominently than did Evangelical moral-values voters in supporting Bush over Kerry.

Catholics are closer to the general public than are Evangelicals, Jews, and nonreligious citizens in agreeing that elected officials who are deeply religious should be willing to compromise with other elected officials whose views are different. Catholics also echo the general public regarding whether politicians mention their own faith or religion too much or too little (21 percent of Catholics and 20 percent of the general public say “too much,” while 37 percent of Catholics, and 41 percent of the general public, say “too little”), and whether churches should express views on political matters (55 percent of Catholics and 52 percent of the general public say they should, while 42 percent of Catholics and 44 percent of the general public say they should not).

Pro-Life/Pro-Poor

So, Catholics are less likely than other religious believers to deviate widely from national norms related to voting, public opinion, and political ideology. There are big political divides between Catholic bishops and their flocks on controversial issues. For instance, the Catechism of the Catholic Church condemns and forbids abortion. The first entry in the subject index says it all: “Abortion: condemnation in the early church; excommunication as penalty; inalienable right to life; protection of human life from the moment of conception.”

Yet, in a June 2004 survey of Catholics likely to cast votes in the November 2004 national elections, about 60 percent of Catholics agreed that abortion should be legal under some or all circumstances, and roughly three-quarters of Catholics denied that Catholics have a religious obligation to vote against prochoice candidates. Asked whether Communion should be denied to Catholic politicians who support abortion’s legality under some or all circumstances, Catholics were more likely to disagree (78 percent) than the general public was (64 percent).

As prolife activist Kim Marshall has acknowledged, few elections actually offer Catholics a clear-cut choice between two otherwise comparable candidates, one prolife and the other prochoice. In “all cases,” she counsels, Catholics should decide how to vote by applying “the unequivocal teachings of sacred Scripture” and the Catechism.

Agreed, but sacred Scripture is “unequivocal,” and the Catechism is, too, on many politically important issues other than abortion. Take poverty. The church is as absolutely propoor as it is abundantly prolife. In Evangelium vitae, Pope John Paul II repeatedly calls Catholics to “the service of charity”:

By virtue of our sharing in Christ’s royal mission, our support and promotion of human life must be accomplished through the service of charity, which finds expression in personal witness, various forms of volunteer work, social activity, and political commitment....In our service of charity, we must...care for the other as a person for whom God has made us responsible. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to become neighbors to everyone...and to show special favor to those who are poorest, most alone, and most in need.

The Catechism, too, is replete with moral injunctions to attack “sinful inequalities”: “There exist also sinful inequalities that affect millions of men and women. These are in open contradiction of the gospel....God blesses those who come to the aid of the poor and rebukes those who turn away from them.”

As a rule, however, politically conservative Catholics focus more on abortion, while politically liberal Catholics focus more on poverty. Likewise, politically conservative Catholics emphasize church teachings against same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and embryonic stem-cell research, while politically liberal Catholics invoke church teachings against the death penalty, racism, and environmental degradation.

But even if one faithfully tries to apply all relevant church teachings to given issues and vote accordingly, one still must decide which issues matter most. How much should poverty matter versus same-sex marriage? How much should environmental protection matter versus the death penalty? Which issue is more vital, embryonic stem-cell research or public education? What about housing, food and nutrition, medical assistance, veterans affairs, public transit, criminal justice, and energy? What about taxes and the economy? What about foreign and military policy?

The complications only deepen when we consider that two politicians who are equally faithful on a given issue may yet differ prudentially on how best to address it. Antipoverty policy poses this complication in an especially illuminating way.

Always, the Catechism instructs, we must “take care not to usurp the family’s prerogatives or interfere in its life.” Sometimes, though, families, local nonprofits, and local or subnational governments fail or fall short in the aid they can offer, as happened on a massive scale during the Great Depression. “Larger communities,” the Catechism teaches, also have “the duty of helping” needy people who are our fellow citizens, if not our nearby neighbors.

Thus, Catholicism is not addicted to national government, but neither is it allergic to it. Government, like all human institutions, is supposed to serve the common good. But, even accepting all that, it is still possible for Catholics to disagree reasonably with one another about how much government at what level is needed, or which competing government antipoverty policies to support.

There were, in fact, many such reasonable disagreements in the mid-1990s over proposed reforms to the federal government’s main welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Some well-informed Catholics, including the late Democratic senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, argued that, while AFDC had indeed begat many perverse social consequences and badly needed to be reformed, the bipartisan plan to abolish AFDC was morally suspect and might unintentionally result in millions more children and families falling into poverty. Other well-informed Catholics, like Pennsylvania’s then-freshman Republican Senator Rick Santorum, argued instead that AFDC was beyond repair, and that the sounder moral and practical policy course would be to replace it with a program that enforced time limits on assistance to welfare beneficiaries, among other new features.

Now, nearly a decade later, AFDC has been widely credited with reducing chronic welfare dependency, spurring successful welfare-to-work programs, and consigning fewer people to poverty than it has lifted into economic self-sufficiency. Many studies, though, doubt the glowing statistics and suggest that things are now worse than ever for the working poor.

I myself had publicly sided with Moynihan. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) also weighed in against abolishing AFDC. Alas, nobody, whether wishing to vote Catholic or not, has a policy crystal ball.

Words Versus Deeds

There is another complication: political talk, whether on the campaign trail or inside government, is not only cheap, but also not always highly predictive regarding what politicians actually believe or really will do. Consider, for example, the rhetoric spoken during the 2004 presidential campaign concerning same-sex marriage.

The Catechism plainly forbids sexual relations outside the context of “conjugal fidelity” expressed in marriage between one man and one woman. It also plainly states that homosexual persons “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

The USCCB had addressed the same-sex marriage issue many times before the 2004 presidential campaign season. For instance, in 1996, the USCCB issued a statement opposing “attempts to grant the legal status of marriage to a relationship between persons of the same sex,” and stressing that “the Catholic Church teaches emphatically that individuals and society must respect the basic human dignity of all persons, including those with a homosexual orientation.” Homosexuals, the bishops instructed, “have a right to and deserve our respect, compassion, understanding, and defense against bigotry, attacks, and abuse.”

In 2003, the USCCB issued a statement reiterating what it had said on same-sex marriage in its 1996 statement, and quoting a just-then-released Vatican document declaring that when “legislation in favor of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic lawmaker has a moral duty to express opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it.”

On February 24, 2004, George W. Bush and John F. Kerry each issued a public statement on same-sex marriage. Both statements agreed that marriage is between a man and a woman, and both supported letting the states, not the federal government, decide the issue. The Bush statement endorsed “leaving the state legislatures free to make their own choices in defining legal arrangements other than marriage.” The Kerry statement advised that “the issue of marriage should be left to the states.” Bush’s statement did not call for granting same-sex marriages legal status as civil unions; but, a few weeks before Election Day, Bush told an ABC television reporter that he did, in fact, favor civil unions.

Bush, unlike Kerry, endorsed the Federal Marriage Defense Act, which had passed both the House and the Senate by wide margins, as an amendment to the United States Constitution. The Act defines marriage “as the legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” A constitutional amendment containing such language would probably not, per Bush’s February 2004 statement on the issue, leave “state legislatures free to define legal arrangements other than marriage,” nor grant legal standing to civil unions or other so-called domestic partnerships. During 2005, the White House did not push for related legislation or proposals for a constitutional amendment.

Be Not Afraid

Catholic bishops should speak out on whatever social, economic, and international issues they choose. Morally, they have a solemn religious duty to guide their flocks. Politically, they have as much civic right to debate issues and question candidates as any other religious leaders do.

Still, many Catholics feel that their bishops made some mistakes during the 2004 election season. The most commonly heard criticisms are as follows: Catholic bishops focused almost exclusively on abortion and same-sex marriage. They did little to hold politicians’ feet to the Catechism’s moral fires on poverty. Sometimes, the bishops seemed partisan, not pastoral. Some bishops seemed to parrot positions staked out by conservative Christian leaders who reject Catholic theology. They scolded prochoice Catholic Democrats, but they did not scold prolife Catholic Republicans who endorsed prochoice candidates. With most Americans deciding how to vote based mainly on Iraq, terrorism, and homeland security, the bishops said little regarding what the church believes about war and peace, human rights, and international relief.

Whatever one’s take on these criticisms, the Supreme Court’s new Catholic majority raises more thorny questions for the bishops. A Catholic judge could reasonably argue that his or her jurisprudence or respect for legal precedents requires a vote on abortion or other issues that contradicts church teachings. Then again, a Catholic politician could reasonably argue the same about his or her public philosophy, or with respect to what a persistent popular majority in his or her district or state favors. Arguably, democratically elected public officials have more, not fewer, legitimate reasons than life-tenure justices do to compromise their Catholic beliefs when deciding what positions to take on given issues.

In sum, even if one agrees that Catholics, including judges, should vote Catholic, many difficult practical, conceptual, and moral questions remain. Much spiritual guidance will be needed to address these questions, and Pope Benedict XVI has blessed us with some. In his first papal encyclical, Deus caritas est, he exhorts Catholics to engage in civic life in ways that benefit all persons without proselytizing and without partisan purposes.

Amen. I would only add that Catholics who desire to vote Catholic, and bishops who seek to speak truth to power, should not be afraid to bring the whole gospel, the complete Catechism, into the public square.

Published in the 2006-03-24 issue: 

John J. DiIulio Jr. directs the Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society (PRRUCS). This essay is adapted from a PRRUCS report available at www.prrucs.org. During 2001, he directed the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He has served on the domestic policy steering committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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