By Deal W. Hudson
Nanci Pelosi calls herself a conservative Catholic. Sure, she may be in favor of abortion, women priests, and homosexual marriages, but according to the House minority leader, that has no bearing on her life as a Catholic.
How does she define “conservative Catholic”? In a January interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Pelosi explains, “I was raised… in a very strict upbringing in a Catholic home where we respected people, were observant, [and where] the fundamental belief was that God gave us all a free will and we were accountable for that, each of us.”
Pelosi’s brand of Catholicism—one concerned with culture, roots, and a vague notion of “respect”—is fairly common in the ranks of Catholic politicians. Believing their faith to be merely a cultural heritage rather than a living guide, they are happy to call themselves Catholic at election time and then, once in office, behave in conspicuously un-Catholic ways.
Unfortunately, this is not a problem reserved for campaigning politicians. Catholics in all walks of life, prelate and layman alike, manage to rationalize the disjunction between the demands of their faith and the reality of their voting habits. In an attempt to shore up the distance between faith and practice, the Vatican published its Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life earlier this year. Put simply, the document points out that “a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals,” specifically including such divisive issues as abortion, euthanasia, and homosexual unions.
Whether they are simply unaware of this fact or choose to ignore it, studies have shown that Catholic voting trends on these issues tend to be no different from those of the general public. Such studies have led many pundits to disregard the possibility of a unified Catholic vote to which a politician could appeal with any sort of regularity. Catholics may account for a quarter of the nation’s population and a third of its voters, but these numbers alone aren’t enough to effect any sort of positive change.
However, what the pundits fail to recognize—but most any Catholic could tell you—is that there’s a significant difference between the habits of a practicing Catholic and one who, like Pelosi, keeps the title as a cultural reference only. The number of such “inactive” Catholics is relatively high, and their voting practices will not differ substantially from the population at large. Group all these Catholics together in an opinion poll and the results will be inconclusive at best, with no clear voice prevailing.
This realization was the driving force behind a survey conducted by Crisis in 1998. The poll asked self-identified Catholics questions on issues of politics, faith, and morals, and responses were broken down according to how often that person attended Mass in a standard month. The results were telling: The more often a person attended Mass, the more likely his answers were in line with Church teaching. After clearing away the various views of inactive Catholics, what was left was a relatively uniform group of Catholic opinions. With a solid core of committed Catholics, the survey proved that active Catholics were indeed a well-defined constituency. Based on an analysis of their past voting trends, these Catholics were found to be moving out of the Democratic Party, where they had long been entrenched, and instead becoming the swing voters in any given election.
As a follow-up to the 1998 survey, Crisis conducted another survey in November 2002 structured in a similar fashion with many of the same questions regarding political and moral issues (for the full results of the survey, visit our Web site at http://www.crisismagazine.com). This second survey established once again that when it comes to voting and public opinion, the distinction between an active and an inactive Catholic is crucial. Even then, however, Catholics still have a long way to go in acting consistently on the teachings of the Faith.
No matter how else they may disagree, Catholics of all stripes identify the decline of individual morality in America as a serious problem. Seventy-three percent of all Catholics and 79 percent of active Catholics acknowledge the reality of this crisis, while similar numbers attribute the problem to the negative influence of popular culture. It can hardly be surprising that there should be such consensus, especially given recent revelations about the sex-abuse scandal in the Church. If such an erosion of personal morals could be found among leaders of the Church—the very institution responsible for guiding the laity in matters of morality—then it’s no wonder that Catholics have little faith in society at large.
But while both active and inactive Catholics can agree on the existence of a moral crisis, the two groups have little in common when it comes to political legislation regarding moral issues. Take the question of same-sex marriage: Inactive Catholics are generally opposed to laws that would grant married status to homosexual couples (66 percent), while active Catholics would oppose such a motion much more frequently (75 percent). The same holds true for abortion:
Only 36 percent of inactive Catholics would favor “enacting legal restrictions on abortion in order to reduce the number of abortions being performed,” compared with 55 percent of active Catholics. In the case of human embryo cloning, not even a majority of inactive Catholics would outlaw it: 55 percent would allow cloning for medical research, while 58 percent of active Catholics would outlaw cloning in all cases.
One may ask how inactive Catholics could be so out of step with Church teaching. The more pressing question, however, is why aren’t active Catholics more in step with that teaching? Though the numbers may be higher than a similar response from the general population, the fact that only 55 percent of regular church-goers would favor restrictions on abortion is baffling. Indeed, it seems to fly in the face of everything one would expect from committed Catholics. How could it be possible?
It’s likely that had the question been worded differently to emphasize the morality of the issue rather than the legislative procedures surrounding it, active Catholics might have stood more firmly behind the Church’s teaching on such issues. A small comfort, however, when one considers the implications of holding such beliefs without the commitment to act on them. As a result, many Catholics have fallen into a sort of Cuomo Catholicism, one that is active in private worship but not in public practice.
This sad conclusion is consistent with the reaction of some Catholics to political and moral questions of a lesser magnitude that were also in the survey. Seventy-six percent of active Catholics are in favor of school vouchers, for example, and 68 percent would oppose forcing Catholic hospitals to provide contraceptives and abortions to its patients. Just as these Catholics seem hesitant to force their beliefs on society, so too would they resent the advances of society on their own institutions and beliefs. The “live and let live” approach sits well with such Catholics.
But the Vatican says that isn’t enough. The doctrinal note maintains that “there cannot be two parallel lives in [Catholics’] existence; on the one hand, the so-called ‘spiritual life,’ with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called ‘secular’ life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social responsibilities, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture.” The dignity of life is not the private opinion of select Catholics but a truth that transcends human institutions. “Democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles,” the note states, “which are the underpinning of life in society.”
While it’s ultimately the responsibility of the laity to make the connection between beliefs and voting habits, blame for letting such behavior pass without comment has often been laid at the feet of the bishops. Members of the clergy are called to task for being conspicuously silent on the standard hot-button issues of abortion, euthanasia, and their respective counterparts. After reports of sexual abuse surfaced, however, similar silence was seen not only as irresponsible but morally reprehensible. The lack of action by certain bishops is jeopardizing the authority of all bishops.
Should they think otherwise, the bishops need only read the results of the survey. Only a slim majority of active Catholics-52 percent—is supportive of the manner in which the bishops have responded to the abuse crisis; inactive Catholics are much more critical, with only 35 percent being satisfied by the bishops’ response. There is no group firmly in the bishops’ corner; even large donors and those who attend Mass more than five times a month have a high rate of dissatisfaction. Given that much of their support—monetary or otherwise—generally comes from these groups, all bishops will likely feel a strain in clergy-laity relations as a result.
The approval ratings for bishops may gradually recover over time. A more disturbing and, perhaps, more lasting trend is that a large percentage of Catholics have less faith in the moral teachings of the Church as a result of the scandal. Sixty-six percent of active Catholics claim their faith is unshaken, but the fact that even 29 percent would now doubt those teachings is a serious issue (5 percent remained unsure). And unfortunately, those in the best position to reassure the doubters are part of the cause for doubt.
Bishops can do a number of things to stave off further disappointment and disaster. For one, they must remain diligent in their work to repair past cases of abuse. But the laity also needs proof that everything possible is being done to prevent these crimes in the future. A full 65 percent of all Catholics believe the abuse is still occurring today, so an appeal to forgiveness for past mistakes will not be enough to allay those fears. Visible, public steps must be taken at this point: Whether going into seminaries or going out to comfort the abused, members of the flock need to feel that their shepherd is leading the fight in this scandal, not being dragged along unwillingly.
Once again, the Vatican has clear directives for those in power: “A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good. Nor can a Catholic think of delegating his Christian responsibility to others; rather, the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives him this task, so that the truth about man and the world might be proclaimed and put into action.” The bishops must shoulder this responsibility if the laity will ever be encouraged to follow.
With such emphasis placed on the laity’s involvement in the political sphere, it becomes important for politicians—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—to understand where the support of active Catholic voters is likely to be found. The political press core identified the 1998 poll as providing a valuable tool to then-Governor George W. Bush in his campaign for the White House. President Bush was able to appeal to specific concerns and interests of active Catholics, attracting support with his platform of “compassionate conservatism.”
The work paid off: Bush was elected and is currently enjoying fairly regular support from Catholics. Seventy-two percent of active Catholics approve of the job Bush is doing as president (well above the usual numbers for general public opinion), and 57 percent feel that he’s supportive of Catholic values. One could say that Bush has won the respect of active-Catholic voters, but there are still a lot of voters who need to be convinced of his dedication. It’s one thing to note that 22 percent of active Catholics don’t think he’s supportive of their values; the fact that 22 percent aren’t sure one way or the other shows that Bush still has a lot of room to persuade them.
Part of the reason for this ambiguity among Catholics may be the result of the president’s stand on the war in Iraq. In a departure from the usual trend, support is greater among inactive Catholics on the issue. Only 52 percent of active Catholics favored intervening in Iraq. Most likely, the words of the bishops condemning the idea of war had a great impact on active Catholics—a reality that could be problematic for a president who may be largely remembered for his stand against Saddam Hussein.
How, then, does one win back those active Catholics who did not support the president’s stance on the conflict? This subsection tends to be more disapproving of Bush’s job as president, with only 50 percent supporting him, and is more skeptical of his support for Catholic values (32 percent). There’s room for improvement, however: 27 percent of these Catholics are unsure of his commitment—a window of opportunity for the president to convince them otherwise.
Most active Catholics who opposed Bush on Iraq identify themselves as Democrats; they were more apt to vote for Al Gore in the last election than the general population of Catholics but consider themselves more moderate than anything else. They had the same ambiguity regarding the question of abortion legislation, and yet—curiously enough—would more readily identify themselves as pro-life.
Bush can appeal to these voters by raising the bar. These Catholics are attracted to the ideas of compassionate conservatism: work permits for immigrants, protection of the unborn, tuition vouchers for schoolchildren. They want government out of Catholic institutions and evidence that the president is fighting the general moral decay they see in society. The answer is not to vacillate on these issues in the hopes of attracting greater numbers but to demonstrate that he will be a champion for life and those policies he already supports. Bush cannot present himself simply as the lesser of two evils but must be seen as a proactive leader who will attain results.
Whatever choices the candidates represent, however, the responsibility ultimately returns to the laity. Without the dedication to vote their Catholic conscience, an army of committed Catholic politicians will be of no use. Catholics—those in public office and those who vote for them—need to be reminded of their duty to the universal truths taught by the Church and upheld by natural law, a responsibility that can never be shirked.
Published in Crisis Magazine, March 1, 2003.