Communitarian Lite

American Catholics & their politics

When President George W. Bush gave the commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame in 2001, he did not hesitate to invoke the legacy of Dorothy Day, the patron saint of American Catholic radicalism, and proclaim "God’s special concern for the poor." What stirred these thoughts in a president known for his political conservatism and support for big business? At Notre Dame, Bush was enacting what has been dubbed the "Catholic strategy," the courting of churchgoing Catholics by his administration. Having put that and other political projects on hold after September 11, the Republican National Committee now says it will renew its outreach to Catholics during this midterm election year.

The undertaking is similar to the Republican wooing of evangelical Protestants in past decades, a project that has to be judged a success: Churchgoing white evangelicals are now almost wholly appended to the party (having given Bush 84 percent of their vote, according to a postelection survey by political scientist John C. Green and colleagues at the University of Akron). Some strategists believe active Catholics are ready to imitate evangelicals in this regard, moving to the Republican Party because of its political conservatism and promises of moral restoration, including its opposition to abortion. Yet party operatives must also think Catholics are somehow different. Why else would Bush proclaim at Notre Dame a preferential option for the poor?

The Democrats have no parallel scheme to speak of, but there is another Catholic strategy at play among the American bishops, though it has been rather eclipsed recently by their concerns with clergy sex scandals. The bishops have their own ideological approach that can move to the left or the right, depending on the issue. They are often seen shifting in one direction when pressing for government assistance to the needy and in another direction when advocating traditional moral norms regarding birth, death, family, and society. At the core of this approach, however, is a call to Catholics to embrace a communitarian ethic, one that seeks to curb individualistic excess in all quarters of life, from the family to the economy.

Are Catholics in the United States tilting toward either of these strategies? How many are attracted to either the wall-to-wall conservatism of Republicans (with room, at least occasionally, for references to compassion), or to the bishops’ more communitarian stance?

From a larger point of view, the pressing question is whether the 60-million-plus Americans who call themselves Catholic make a distinct contribution to public life. Are their political values any reflection of Catholic teaching and tradition? Are their views much different from those of other Americans? If so, are they different for religious reasons, because of their faith and exposure to the Catholic ethos?

Half-full or half-empty

Despite the intermittent buzz about Catholic strategies or, a few years ago, about a "Catholic moment," research about the political sympathies of Catholics, especially the religious factor in those sympathies, is surprisingly sparse or tentative. Some original data and useful measures have been compiled as a result of the three-year-long American Catholics in the Public Square project initiated in 2000 by Commonweal and the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts. The idea was not to see which voting levers Catholics pull or to count their dimpled chads, but to bring to light their underlying values and attitudes toward the connection of their faith to public life. The project commissioned the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University to conduct focus groups nationwide and two national telephone surveys during election year 2000 (this CARA survey can be found on:

There will be little astonishment that the opinions of American Catholics are not always in line with Catholic social teaching. Most Catholics are not clones of their bishops, whose rare political blood type reads liberal on economic and international issues and conservative on moral and cultural issues such as abortion. Most Catholics are not card-carrying communitarians, who (if there were such a club) could be counted on to espouse an antilibertarian attitude or ideology. Nor are they true believers in the consistent ethic of life, which threads through causes such as the rights of the unborn and justice for the poor as well as an end to capital punishment. Many Catholics do, however, nurse sympathies in these directions.

Surveys conducted for the Public Square project signal what could be called a "consistent-ethic lite" or soft communitarianism among Catholics. Other research has revealed Catholics as being somewhat to the left of other Americans on bread-and-butter issues and to the right on lifestyle questions. The research conducted by CARA digs further into these somewhat different political positions, priorities, and self-understandings.

"Somewhat" may begin to look quite different when questions are put to highly religious Catholics, who are-by some measures-alternately liberal and conservative, unlike highly religious Protestants who are more inclined to stay steadily in the conservative corner. The views of these faithful Massgoers are a leading link to the question of whether religion makes a difference in the political attitudes of Catholics.

An opening question is whether Catholics are at all taken with the idea of folding faith into their political choices. In the telephone survey taken in January and February 2000, 2,635 adult (self-identified) Catholics were asked how much they draw on their faith and values in making political decisions. About one-quarter replied "very much" and 21 percent said "not at all," with the largest portion (38 percent) giving a "somewhat" response and the smallest (14 percent) saying "not much." One could ruminate on whether this represents a half-full or half-empty glass of Catholic commitment. More revealing, perhaps, is what happens when Catholics talk it over, albeit in the contrived focus-group setting.

A review of transcripts of the eighteen sessions, held in fifteen cities, reveals an interesting pattern: though parishioners often started out hazy or contrary on the given subject, faith connections grew as they tossed around the topics. Consistent-ethic language resonated even with some parishioners who seemed ambivalent about one life issue or the other. A police officer in a suburban Phoenix parish, speaking ambiguously about capital punishment, said, "On the other hand, as I get older, I also see the pope’s perspective. We cannot take human life lightly and we tend to take [it] lightly."

The focus group participants sounded more Catholic when they had time to consider and shade their first reactions. Some groups warmed to Catholicism’s cordial view of political community, with scarcely a nudge from facilitators. Discussions often began with the usual put-downs of politicians and government, before settling into neutral or thankful sentiments. "When you look at it, government’s done pretty good. It’s fought wars and won them...gotten out of depressions. So I think we’re a little harsh sometimes," a suburban Atlanta parishioner declared.

Hard numbers, too, tell of a soft communitarianism or "consistent-ethic lite." Consider a pair of findings from the second telephone survey of twelve hundred Catholics in September 2000. Although closely divided between self-identified pro-life and pro-choice people, most opposed access to abortion in most circumstances, the two clear exceptions being a threat to the mother’s life and fetal deformity. Arguably, this landed them near the conservative camp on that issue. On social welfare issues and the role of government, however, they cruised toward the liberal side. Sixty-two percent favored "improving government services such as education and health care, even if it means higher spending." Unexpectedly, a fair number of Catholic Republicans (41 percent) held that view. Only 38 percent of all those polled thought "cutting taxes and reducing government spending" were more important.

When it comes to identifying themselves ideologically, Catholics, not surprisingly, are like most Americans more at peace with the conservative label than with the "L" word. More interesting, this identification swings in accord with the category of issues. So Catholics were most likely to think of themselves as conservative on "moral issues like abortion" (42 percent) and least likely to say they are conservative "when it comes to social welfare programs that help the poor and needy" (29 percent). As for self-identified liberals and moderates, both groups outnumbered conservatives on social welfare issues (the Ls just barely), but neither came close to doing so on moral issues. Basically, Catholics split their ideological vote in the January-February 2000 poll.

Are Massgoers distinctive?

These leanings can seem weightier among highly religious Catholics. As would be expected, those who said they attend church at least every week or that faith is most important to them are most likely to reject abortion. (Nearly a third of those surveyed reported attending Mass weekly or more often, and 18 percent saw Catholicism as the most important part of their lives.) They were also more likely than other Catholics to sympathize with the plight of the poor and to support a social assault on poverty. One question asked whether the responsibility for getting poor people out of poverty rests primarily with "poor people themselves" or with society. Among weekly communicants or those who say that faith is most important to them, 70 percent said that society was responsible. That is nearly 20 points higher than among less committed Catholics.

That too might be expected, given the church’s social teachings. In any case, the finding suggests these Catholics pursue a distinctive path in American politics. Among Americans generally, greater faith commitment normally equals greater likelihood of political conservatism-across categories of issues-or at least that is the accepted wisdom. "That pattern doesn’t hold among Catholics," explains Sister Mary E. Bendyna, a political scientist who supervised the data collection and analysis for CARA with sociologist Paul M. Perl. While religious commitment pulls Catholics in conservative directions on moral and cultural issues, it frequently routes them in liberal directions on social welfare as well as capital punishment and immigration, as Bendyna showed in her illuminating doctoral dissertation at Georgetown two years ago. "Catholics are different," she adds.

Admittedly, the findings about daily-bread liberalism can be open to different interpretations in these and other studies. Still, indications of liberal sympathy on bread-and-butter issues leap out enough to suggest that while Americans may have been more upbeat about the intervening role of government after September 11, practicing Catholics have been well ahead of that political curve. For example, on a cluster of questions related to the scope of government, other data have shown committed Catholics registering as more liberal than liberal Protestants and secular Americans, not to mention evangelicals and other Catholics. (They are, as is to be expected, less liberal than black Protestants and Jews.) They also come across as relatively liberal on race but not on the environment and defense, in research gathered by Andrew Kohut, John C. Green, Scott Keeter, and Robert C. Toth, in The Diminishing Divide: Religion’s Changing Role in American Politics (Brookings Institution, 2000).

Priest-sociologist-author Andrew Greeley has limned a Catholic imagination or sensibility that sees "grace lurking everywhere," as he styles it in The Catholic Imagination (University of California Press, 2000). Could it be that Catholics see grace lurking even in the Social Security Administration? Republican pollster Steve Wagner of QEV Analytics in Washington probably wouldn’t put it that way, but even he urges President Bush and others in the Republican Party not to use blanket antigovernment rhetoric "within earshot of Catholic voters" (advice rendered on his Web site, Coming from a different direction, Notre Dame political scientist David Leege probably wouldn’t put it that way either. He allows only that religiously minded Catholics are ever so slightly more likely than less religious ones to sympathize with the poor and favor antipoverty programs, based on data he has analyzed (in "The Catholic Voter," a paper delivered to the joint consultation of Commonweal and the Faith & Reason Institute, June 2000, Leege agrees that Catholics in general look at the world through a more communitarian lens, but he sees pale evidence that this translates into greater zeal for social justice among religiously active Catholics.

The ambiguity of these findings undoubtedly has something to do with the way questions are asked. Perhaps when the questions get too close to the pocketbook, too specific about taxes and spending (and thus removed from general sentiments about helping the poor), middle-class Massgoing Catholics back off. A more interesting possibility has to do with the basic matter of who gets counted as "highly religious." Researchers use standard measures like frequency of church attendance and Bible reading, which supposedly work well enough for Protestants. Specifically Catholic indicators-like whether someone sees the Eucharist as pivotal to one’s own Catholic identity-are often lacking, however. Without that sort of empirical lens, we could have too narrow a view of how Catholic identity acts upon Catholics in the public square.

The surveys conducted by CARA took a stab at such measures. The results, although hardly definitive, suggest a high correlation between a communitarian politics (with a social-justice outlook) and characteristically Catholic attitudes, including the importance placed on the Eucharist, following church teaching, and learning more about the Catholic faith, as well as helping those in need. Catholics were categorized here as communitarian if they explicitly identified themselves as conservative on moral issues and explicitly admitted to being liberal on social welfare issues. This is a stiffer standard than the measures of opinion on different issues, measures revealing more of a soft communitarianism. Such "hard" communitarians constituted only 10 percent of those questioned, but, all tallied, they scored highest in distinctively Catholic measures (see sidebar 1).


SIDE BAR 1: Drawing on their faith
As related in this article, many Catholics evince a "soft communitarianism" that sidles somewhat to the left on social-welfare issues and somewhat right on questions like abortion. Yet there are also "hard" communitarians of the type spotted in one study commissioned by the Public Square Project.

In that CARA survey of Catholic opinion, a little less than two-thirds of the respondents could be placed in clear-cut ideological categories. Respondents were classified as communitarian if they explicitly identified themselves as conservative on "moral issues" and liberal on "welfare" issues having to do with government spending and programs for the poor. That explicit standard was met by 10 percent of the 2,635 Catholics polled. Other ideological types pinpointed in the survey included those who say they are consistently conservative (18 percent of the sample), consistently liberal (16 percent), consistently moderate (16 percent), and libertarian, which is communitarian in reverse-to the right on welfare and left on morality (6 percent).

These "hard" communitarians racked up high scores on the scales of Catholic religiosity (see chart), according to the findings, which came with a two-point margin of error. They are far more likely than any of the other ideological types to say helping the needy is very important to what it means to be a Catholic, and just as likely as conservatives to say the same about the Eucharist. They are somewhat less insistent than conservatives on "following church teaching," but clearly more interested in "learning more about the Catholic faith." Communitarians are also distinctly more likely than conservatives and those of other stripes to say they draw on their faith in making political choices. W.B.


Meaning of Faith by Ideological Positions on Issues
Percentage saying each is "very important" to what it means to be Catholic


-The Eucharist 76%
-Helping those in need 95%
-Following church teachings 55%
-Learning more about the Catholic faith 64%


-The Eucharist 60%
-Helping those in need 73%
-Following church teachings 48%
-Learning more about the Catholic faith 39%


-The Eucharist 50%
-Helping those in need 73%
-Following church teachings 48%
-Learning more about the Catholic faith 49%


-The Eucharist 76%
-Helping those in need 68%
-Following church teachings 62%
-Learning more about the Catholic faith 49%


-The Eucharist 43%
-Helping those in need 79%
-Following church teachings 22%
-Learning more about the Catholic faith 28%


Is there a ’Catholic’ ethic?

So, Catholics may be different, but why they would be is less easy to assess. If they are more likely than other Americans to view the world through a communitarian lens, is that because of a distinctive Catholic sensibility? Bendyna, Perl, and other CARA researchers would likely say yes. They seem partial to sociologist John E. Tropman’s explanation, in The Catholic Ethic in American Society (Jossey-Bass, 1995), that there is a Catholic ethic that values sharing and mutuality above achievement and self-reliance, as well as to Greeley’s Catholic-imagination thesis. Some polling (by Greeley and others) has teased this out, but Leege of Notre Dame is among those who demand harder evidence that religiosity tilts Catholics in this direction.

Leege’s skepticism has much to do with his reading of religiously active Catholics as not appreciably more sympathetic toward the poor than other Catholics (about which he and others among us will have to agree to disagree, lacking better measures). He is far more impressed by generational factors, including the fact that older Catholics, churchgoing and non-churchgoing alike, tend to be more liberal in these matters than younger Catholics. (This may be a generational difference that transcends religious denominations.) Older Catholics are also more Democratic in party affiliation, though gender is another factor. "And so, it’s really a race between the stork and the grim reaper," said Leege in an interview, noting that since the New Deal generation of Catholics, each successive generation has been less communitarian-minded in its politics than the previous one.

There is another precinct to be heard from on this matter. Wagner, the Republican pollster, believes Catholics are making public space for their faith, but that increasingly this space is reserved for moral conservatism or restoration. Pointedly, he argues that committed Catholics are trading in their traditional social-justice orientation, which he derides as "an ideology of victimization," for a "social renewal" orientation that targets declining moral standards. This, he argued at a June 2000 consultation of the American Catholics in the Public Square Project, is propelling them irreversibly into the Republican coalition.

Wagner’s latest exhibit A, as presented in the January 2001 issue of Crisis, is the 2000 presidential election, in which weekly churchgoing Catholics went for Bush, noticeably though not dramatically, according to several surveys (see sidebar 2). This, however, isn’t hermetic proof that religious faith is shepherding these Catholics into the GOP. Leege points out that in the broad middle class, higher income is usually associated with higher rates of churchgoing, and so strictly on that basis, it is not surprising that weekly communicants might be more likely than other Catholics to vote Republican. In addition, he notes that when it comes to the Catholic vote, the steadiest gains for Republicans have been among younger Catholics, who are less churchgoing than older ones.


SIDEBAR 2: Leaning Republican?
Are faithful Catholics flocking into the Republican fold? Unquestionably, say the party’s proselytizers, though the evidence they offer is in fact questionable.

It is true that Catholics who said they attend Mass once a week went for George W. Bush, by a 53-44 margin, according to exit polls, but those who preferred Democrat Al Gore hardly constituted an apostate bloc. Those who reported attending church three times a month opted for Gore by precisely the same ratio that the self-identified weekly worshipers turned out for Bush, according to the exit surveys by Voter News Service (which are not infallible).

Furthermore, while the most frequent Catholic worshipers voted for Bush, they did so far less conspicuously than did other religious Americans. For example, among those who say they attend religious services more than once a week, Protestants gave Bush 74 percent of their vote, compared with 52 percent among the better-than-weekly Catholic communicants, again according to exit surveys.

Lastly, it is far from clear that most religiously active Catholics who went Republican were intending to vote with their faith. As political scientist David Leege points out (see main article), in the broad middle class higher rates of churchgoing usually go hand in hand with higher income. Many of those better-than-average Massgoers may have been voting with their deeper-than-average pocketbooks. W.B.


Put another way, Wagner argues that religiously active Catholics are ripe for Bush’s Catholic strategy, which emphasizes moral restoration. Meanwhile, the CARA findings provide hints that Catholics are open to the other Catholic strategy, the one gleaned from the bishops’ communitarian agenda. In that spirit, Washington Post columnist and Brookings Institution scholar E. J. Dionne believes Catholics can act as a "ginger group, a kind of leaven" in each party, as he said at the Public Square consultation in June 2000. That is to say, Catholics can talk up the limits of free markets among Republicans and the need to temper lifestyle individualism among Democrats. The third possibility, one staked out by Leege, is that neither of these strategies is very appealing to many Catholics.

What, then, of the influence of the bishops, clergy, and Catholic institutions? Are Catholics responding to political cues or social sensibilities deriving from these sources? Catholics are themselves unsure. Among those who draw on their faith "very much" in making political decisions, only about one quarter mentioned the influence of homilies or church leaders, and less than a third pointed to parishes. The largest segment (44 percent) gave a nod to Catholic education, in the data compiled by CARA.

As for homilies, past studies have rated them rickety conveyers of Catholic social attitudes. CARA researchers found that the people they polled thought of social issues as important to the extent that they heard more homilies on such topics, but the association was on the whole a modest one. On this empirical trail we find the usual suspects, those who attend church weekly or more often: these Catholics were the ones most influenced by sermons touching on the poor and social justice. The more frequently they heard such homilies (in their recollection), the more likely they were to see government programs to help the needy as very important. That would certainly pass as a religious influence on social-justice thinking.

Creatively ambiguous

By and large, research for the Public Square project shows that Catholics do have some distinctive ideological traits. Those traits may be strongest in the case of the most active Catholics, who tend to be picky about the conservative causes they support, at least in comparison to committed Protestants, who make fewer distinctions in that regard. Many other, less committed Catholics also like to think of themselves as drawing to some extent on their faith in making political choices. The focus groups indicate further that parishioners are able to see, when given a chance for reflection, that there is a connection between what they believe personally and collectively as Catholics, and the ways in which they live as citizens and voters. They come to recognize a social Catholicism as something that affects their lives in the public square.

The most important caveat to all this might be culled from Leege’s research into developments along gender and generational lines. Catholic men and women in their twenties and thirties tend to have thinner ties to the institutional church than other Catholics, and some studies intimate that young men and women are moving politically apart from each other and the church. Leege has found that young adult Catholic men are increasingly attracted to the Republican Party out of devotion to rugged conservative economics, while young adult Catholic women are trending Democratic, lured partly by moral-cultural liberalism ("choice" in reproductive and lifestyle matters) as well as the old lunch-bucket liberalism. Individualist creeds are fueling these developments, more noticeably among men than women.

One is tempted to say that if this trend sharpens in certain directions, the picture painted here may change radically, as far as a broad engagement of American Catholic identity with public life is concerned. In the aggregate, Catholics, especially males, would come across as less communitarian than libertarian in their sociopolitical priorities. They would come off sounding less like Pope John Paul II and the bishops, and more like Alan Greenspan.

This is a tangled "if." For now, the Public Square studies offer evidence that faith is steering many Catholics to a creatively ambiguous place, in but not of the political-ideological worlds. As Democrats or Republicans, Catholics may well be prodding the parties to curb their respective dogmas of exaggerated individualism. If that is the drift, it is a distinct contribution.

Published in the 2002-09-13 issue: 

William Bole is a journalist and co-author, with Bob Abernethy, of The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World.

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