The Politically Divided Catholic Church


The death of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has seemingly upended the 2020 presidential election. For much of this election cycle the focus of the candidates and voters seems to have been on the coronavirus pandemic and the effect that it had on the economy. Justice Ginsburg’s death and the looming fight over her replacement has introduced other elements into the campaign. Topics like abortion, social justice, The Affordable Care Act, civil rights, and the makeup of the Supreme Court itself are now fair game for the candidates.

Paul Fabrizio

It is a reality in American politics that when social issues like abortion are discussed, the attitudes and voting habits of Catholics are frequently mentioned. Through the efforts of U.S. bishops and laypeople, the Catholic Church has been at the forefront of the push to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion across the U.S. since 1973. Catholic voting patterns have been much discussed in every subsequent election. The 2020 elections include a Catholic, Joe Biden, as a presidential contender running against the incumbent President Donald Trump. If Biden wins, he will be only the second Catholic elected to the highest office, following John F. Kennedy.

The Pew Research Center recently stepped into this arena with a news release entitled “8 Facts About Catholics and Politics in the U.S.” Using their well-regarded public opinion surveys, the Pew studies noted that Catholics are divided politically with 48 percent describing themselves as leaning or identifying themselves as Republican and 47 percent as leaning or identifying as Democratic. More Catholics voted for President Trump than for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but more Catholics supported Barack Obama over John McCain in 2008. Catholic voters also supported George w. Bush over fellow Catholic John Kerry in 2004.

Their research also pointed to a difference between Hispanic and White Catholics with 68 percent of Hispanic Catholics identifying with or leaning towards the Democratic Party and 57 percent of White Catholics leaning or identifying with the GOP. Pew notes that two-thirds of registered Catholic voters are White and a quarter are Hispanic. In the current race, a Pew survey from late July and early August found that 59 percent of White Catholics would vote for Trump and 65 percent of Hispanic Catholics would vote for Joe Biden.

The Pew Research Center studies also puncture a myth about Catholics that they always follow their own Church’s teachings. On issues like abortion and immigration, the Church teaches opposition to both abortion and to building a wall to stop immigration. Catholic Republicans are with the Church’s beliefs on abortion but not immigration. Catholic Democrats are with the Church’s teaching on immigration but not on abortion.

A majority of White and Hispanic Catholics believe that a president does not have to share their religious faith but should be living an “ethical and moral” life. This is an attitude that is shared by other religious groups as well. More than 60 percent of Catholics say that churches and other places where people worship should stay out of politics, and more than three-quarters of Catholics say that churches should not endorse political candidates.

Based on this research, a presidential candidate looking at the Catholic Church as a potential source of votes would see the prospect as mixed. With one out of five voters in the U.S identifying as Catholic, the idea of getting most Catholics to support one candidate is tempting. Since 2004, there has been one Catholic candidate at the presidential or vice presidential slot in at least one political party in every election cycle. John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Tim Kaine all had been on the Democratic ticket and Paul Ryan in 2012 was on the Republican side. The lesson from the Pew Research, however, seems to suggest a different strategy: target specific populations within the Church rather than the Church as a whole. A Democrat would look to Hispanic voters while a Republican would seek White voters.  

Pew research from earlier elections has added to the complexity of the Catholic vote. It turns out that Church attendance matters. The more likely a Catholic is to attend Mass frequently, the more likely they are to support the GOP candidate. An interpretation of this points to opposition to abortion being most strong among the most observant Catholics and therefore they would be most likely to support the pro-life candidate.

The 2020 election has been marked with sharp partisan differences among Catholic voters. After the Democratic National Convention in August, a parish priest in Wisconsin posted a YouTube video. In it he said that one could not be a Catholic and a Democrat, as the Democrat’s party platform stands against Catholic teachings on abortion and other issues. While the priest’s own bishop, William Callahan, of La Crosse began a “fraternal correction” of the priest for causing scandal, another bishop, Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, endorsed the priest’s video. He tweeted “My shame is that it has taken me so long….HEED THIS MESSAGE.” Then on September 15, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey spoke at a panel discussion from Boston College. Calling voting a “sacred act,” he said, “I think that a person in good conscience could vote for Mr. Biden. I, frankly, in my own way of thinking have a more difficult time with the other option.”

In essence, the conflicting and irreconcilable statements by these bishops sum up the Catholic voters place in the current election. There are sharp partisan and cultural differences that exist in society and spill over to the Catholic Church. Those differences are found in Catholic hierarchical disunity and  in lay people’s voting behavior. A people supposedly united by a common faith are divided by partisan politics.

Dr. Paul Fabrizio is Professor of Political Science at McMurry University.

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