Catholic voters

Catholics and the GOP: an Uneasy Fit — my op-ed from the Los Angeles Times — January 23, 2000.

Catholics make up the largest single religious denomination–65 million–of any kind in this country. They also make up one-third of the electorate in a presidential election, approximately 30 million. Yet in more than 200 years, a Catholic priest has never served as chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In December, an 18-member bipartisan committee verbally expressed a preference for Father Timothy O’Brien, a political science professor at Marquette University, for the job of House chaplain. Yet when Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey, and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt met to decide who to nominate as chaplain, they chose a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Charles Wright, over O’Brien. There were charges of anti-Catholic bigotry, and when Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), a highly respected Catholic, raised the same question, Catholics took notice.

This controversy comes at an awkward moment for the GOP. Leading presidential contender George W. Bush has demonstrated a strong pull on the decisive Catholic swing vote. Our Crisis magazine polling indicates that up to 40% of the Catholic vote–12 million–can shift parties in presidential elections. The Democrats would like nothing better than to undercut Bush’s appeal by adding anti-Catholic prejudice to the list of moral complaints they aim at Republican conservatives.

The full House will vote on Wright later this month, and the Democrats appear ready to contest it. If they raise the issue of anti-Catholicism on the House floor, they will be touching a deep nerve among this nation’s Catholics.

The Democratic Party was the traditional home for most Catholics until the late 1960s when a slow migration into the conservative movement and the Republican Party began. Today, Catholics make up the largest single Republican constituency, about 31% of the party. Yet the size of the remaining swing vote indicates hesitation and discomfort about the fit of Catholics into the GOP. Our research indicates that Catholics who are in basic agreement with the conservative social values of the GOP often are turned off by the harshness of Republican rhetoric, a preoccupation with economic matters and vituperative attacks on government programs aimed at the needy. In short, Catholics remain unconvinced of Republican compassion.

The selection of the House chaplain gave Republicans an opportunity to reach out to Catholics and to refashion the image of a party frequently portrayed as in the clutches of the religious right. Instead, the House leadership provided Democrats their opportunity to begin recapturing a generation of Catholics grown accustomed to voting for the Republican Party. Democrats can paint a picture of a WASPy party hopelessly out of touch with–even intolerant of–this nation’s religious diversity.

Democrats won’t find it hard to persuade such old Catholic left-wingers as Father Andrew Greeley, who recently opined on CBS’ “The Early Show,” that any Catholic who is a Republican is “probably” in a state of mortal sin. When host Bryant Gumbel expressed disbelief, Greeley explained: “Republicans tend to be the party of the affluent, the self-righteous, the haters and racists.” Extreme as it may be, this attitude pervades a significant minority of Catholic voters and tinges the fears of the Catholic swing vote.

In a January 3 letter to William A. Donohue, president of the 350,000-member Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Armey explained that his decision to vote for Wright over O’Brien was because of “Wright’s interpersonal skills and pastoral experiences” versus O’Brien’s 22 years as a professor of political science. As Armey told me, he never focused on the denominational ties of the three candidates but on their qualifications to be a pastor to House members.

The political turmoil and Catholic backlash following the selection of Wright came as a surprise to the House leadership. It shouldn’t have. The GOP has gradually become the home of more Catholic voters whose social conservatism is closely intertwined with their Catholic identity. The voter concerns that bring Catholics closer to the GOP are directly connected to issues informed by their Catholic faith. This includes not only the defense of life but also the general social decay caused by the decline in morality.

The blunder of the GOP leadership was not the result of anti-Catholic prejudice, but of lack of awareness of where Catholic voters are moving and why. Armey’s deliberate inattention to the religious affiliation of the three candidates tells the story. The GOP doesn’t need to examine its conscience, but rather to start doing its homework on Catholic America.

The Power of a Bold Bishop

Deal W. Hudson
December 1, 2008

An article published yesterday in the Scranton Times announced, “Bishop takes his place on the national stage with his staunch anti-abortion stance.” Bishop Joseph F. Martino wasn’t the only bishop who spoke boldly during the presidential campaign, but he was noticed, in part, because Scranton is Vice-President Elect Joe Biden’s hometown.

Martino was also noticed because he quite literally crashed a seminar on “Faithful Citizenship” being held against his wishes at St. John’s Catholic Church. Objecting to the spin being put on the bishops’ conference document, Martino told those attending the seminar, “No social issue has caused the deaths of 50 million people,” adding, “This is madness, people.”

The Scranton Times rightly observes that Bishop Martino has not become a national figure merely because of his prominence during the election. But the article fails to note a very important and pertinent fact: Catholics in Pennsylvania did not vote for Barack Obama as they did nationally: Self-identified Catholics in Pennsylvania voted 52 percent to 48 percent for McCain.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported this fact but made no attempt to discover the reasons for the anomaly. Pro-life activist Brian Gail from Philadelphia has no doubts as to the cause; he credits Scranton’s bishop for this result: “One man did this, and did it all but single-handedly. His name is Bishop Joe Martino.”

Other Catholics involved in the campaign agree with Gail and view the numbers in Pennsylvania as something to build upon. Bud Hansen Jr. from Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, was co-chair of Catholics for McCain. “I am happy to say that our efforts were not in vain. The results tell us that we can re-build the Catholic vote in our state, starting from the grassroots. There is no question that there are very major problems that we are facing at this time, including the economy, immigration, healthcare, and especially national security, but all these issues can be dealt with at the same time that we are protecting life.”

Also not mentioned in the Scranton Times profile was the most important thing the bishop said the night he walked in on the “Faithful Citizenship” seminar: “No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese,” he was quoted as saying in the Wayne County Independent. “The USCCB doesn’t speak for me.”

Nothing stirs the pot like a bishop declaring his independence from the bishops’ conference. Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, told the Scranton Times “that people perceive him to be a spokesman” for the U.S. bishops, when “the views he has voiced do not represent the U.S. bishops as a whole.”

But the bishops are clearly divided over “Faithful Citizenship” – there is no unified understanding of its interpretation. Furthermore, Father Reese does not mention the 100 bishops who did speak out in the last six weeks of the campaign.

The Scranton Times article concludes that Bishop Martino is now “disliked” in his diocese, quoting William Parente, a political science professor at the University of Scranton. Parente suggests, “The solution to the problem is for the papal nuncio to promote Bishop Martino to a commission in the Vatican where he can start fresh, and we can appoint one of the local clergies who would be more popular as the new bishop.”

Bishop Martino may not be popular among the Catholic Left, but he has become a hero to Catholics all across the nation, and that is what has some people (perhaps Parente?) worried. No doubt Bishop Martino is unconcerned about a loss of popularity among some of his flock.

That the majority of Pennsylvania Catholics bucked the national trend and voted against Obama is a fact that requires further investigation. Such study will very likely reveal a lesson in leadership – one that will be of particular interest to all the bishops as we approach the consideration of the Freedom of Choice Act.

Preparing Catholics for the 2016 Election

In May 2016, I gave a speech to a group of Catholic activists in Cincinnati, Ohio, gathered together by Priests for Life, on how Catholics could make THE difference in the upcoming presidential election. I specifically outlined the ways the institutional Church would try to oppose Catholic efforts on behalf of the pro-life cause.  What I predicted did, indeed, happen, and in quite dramatic fashion.  Fortunately, Catholic voters overcame clerical resistance and voted 52% to 45% for the Trump/Pence ticket.

Catholic Opinion by the Numbers: A Revealing New Poll

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.

The Laity

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.”

The Bishops

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.

The President

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.

Dominant-Issue Voters

By Deal W. Hudson

Several Catholic leaders have recently commented that Catholics should not be “single issue” voters, meaning that they shouldn’t vote exclusively on the abortion issue. I agree. But it’s not necessary to be a single-issue voter to give the life issues the priority they deserve. Catholics should be “dominant issue” voters.

The Catholic Church proposes a vertical—not horizontal list of moral and social issues for political consideration. The life issues—including abortion, euthanasia, fetal stem-cell research, and cloning—are at the top of that hierarchy. These issues should be considered dominant in determining how to vote for two simple reasons: First, the protection of life—the right to life—is a moral principle that sits at the foundation of morality itself. And it’s one of the three foundational rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. There could be no right to liberty or happiness unless there were a living person in the first place.

Second, the Catholic injunction to oppose abortion is unqualified: Individuals are not required, or allowed, to make prudential judgments of the principle to a specific case. Appeals to private “conscience” cannot override this infallible teaching. In the Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Public Life, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger writes:

In this context, it must be noted also 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. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good.

Opposition to abortion, therefore, binds every Catholic on pain of mortal sin; it admits of no exceptions. There is no question, then, that as the dominant issue, a politician’s position on abortion qualifies him or her for the Catholic vote. From the perspective of the Church, not all the policy positions taken by candidates are of equal importance. Catholics, by understanding themselves as dominant-issue voters, can preserve the hierarchy of values at the core of Church teaching while not ignoring the legitimate spectrum of issues important to political consideration.

Furthermore, by understanding the dominance of life issues, Catholics will overcome their confusion about the difference between moral principle and prudential judgment. Unlike the admonition against abortion, most of the general principles proposed in Church teaching can be implemented in a variety of ways; it’s simply a mistake to assume—as the left often does—that one kind of implementation is more “Catholic” than another.

(The bishops’ conference issues dozens of policy recommendations every congressional session on issues ranging from broadband legislation to minimum wage and partial-birth abortion. Unfortunately, the average Catholic doesn’t discriminate between simple policy recommendations made by the conference and doctrinal statements and often wrongly assumes that they have equal authority.)

One final advantage to the dominant-issue approach is that it can help close the unnecessary divide between pro-life Catholics and “social justice” Catholics. There’s a clear continuity between providing someone with food and shelter and the willingness to defend his life when it’s threatened. The Church often employs the phrase “social justice” when addressing “the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1928).

The demands of social justice, then, begin with the right to life and end with the right to be protected from euthanasia or the temptation of assisted suicide. It’s a mistake to detach the idea of social justice from the protection of vulnerable life: The source of moral obligation to protect the unborn and to feed the hungry is one and the same—the inherent dignity of the human person.

Published in Crisis Magazine, June 1, 2002

Don’t Call Me a Conservative Catholic Anymore!

By Deal W. Hudson

Labels in politics and religion serve a purpose: There are discernible groups and coalitions within and between the worlds of the Church and government. Words used as labels serve the purpose of enabling us to distinguish between one group and the other.

But I don’t want to be called a “Conservative Catholic” anymore. In the last few months, I’ve read two headlines beginning with the phrase “Conservative Catholic” which contained comments that have effectively made the label, if not meaningless, represent a group of Catholics who are now spreading the virus of an identity crisis.

First, there was a former editor of First Things who broke with Church teaching on homosexuality because of lessons learned from a gay friend who pressured him on the subject.

Then, on Tuesday, there came a story in the Washington Post quoting “Conservative Catholics” who have become critical of Pope Francis. The Holy Father is charged with not being “accurate” in some of his recent interviews with and comments to the media.

Having read and pondered these “controversial” statements, I’ve defended them — which is what “Conservative Catholics” used to do — and I’m prepared to explain all of them.

Take one example: Pope Francis made the comment that every person seeks the Good as he or she “conceives” of it. St. Thomas Aquinas said precisely the same thing.

The will is naturally led by the vision of the Good — meaning what appears desirable — towards mental and physical action. That vision of the Good may be wrong, or incomplete, as Pope Francis knows, but that is how the human person operates.

By pointing out that all persons seek the Good as they see it, he is providing all Catholics with the secret of effective evangelism: Start with how people “see things” and work on converting that, and you will reveal the wisdom and beauty of the Church.

Pope Francis is a Jesuit. That makes him a highly educated and intelligent theologian who knows about one thousand times more about the subjects of the Church, God, faith, and salvation than any of the media.

What’s remarkable about this Jesuit Pope, the very first, is that he speaks and acts in the spirit of true evangelism. He’s not an enthusiast, a cheerleader, or a screamer. Pope Francis is the embodiment of the New Evangelization that has never gotten off the ground.

Instead of spending our days policing, and fretting over, his statements, I suggest we sit at his feet and learn from him.

Published at Catholic Online, October 17, 2013