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What's wrong with Catholic voters? What's wrong with Catholics?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles ) | Nov 05, 2008

Yesterday, according to the exit polls, between 53 and 54% of American Catholic voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama, despite the Democratic candidate's enthusiastic support for unrestricted legal abortion.

Nationwide, Protestant voters supported John McCain, by a solid 54- 45% margin. But the Catholic vote broke for Obama. Why?

Earlier this week the US Conference of Catholic Bishops released a helpful listing of the 50 American states, with the proportion of population in each state. In 7 states, Catholics make up more than 30% of the population. Obama captured all 7 of those states on Election Day. In 8 states, Catholics account for less than 5% of the population. Seven of those states swung for McCain, and the 8th, North Carolina, is still listed as "too close to call" as I write this analysis.

To be sure, America's Catholic population is heavily concentrated in states that have a liberal political tilt. But is that a coincidence? Are those states hotbeds of liberalism despite the heavy Catholic presence, or because of it?

Yes, Catholics have traditionally leaned toward the Democratic Party for historical reasons. But why have Catholic voters remained doggedly loyal to a party that has come, in the early 21st century, to be wholly allied with the "culture of death" on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research?

The support that Obama won among Catholic voters is noteworthy because in the last presidential contest, in 2004, President Bush won 52% of the Catholic vote while his opponent John Kerry-- himself a Catholic!-- managed only 46%. Catholic support for the Democratic candidate rose markedly in this campaign, even though the Democratic contender was the most militantly pro-abortion candidate ever to win a major party's presidential nomination.

This trend is all the more remarkable because over the course of the past several weeks, dozens of American bishops issued strong public statements reminding their people of their moral obligation to vote in defense of human life. Those statements varied in candor and in quality, but their overall impact was remarkable. The 2008 campaign produced a seismic change in the attitude of the American hierarchy; the bishops as a group were far more outspoken, far more explicit, than in any previous election.

And still most Catholics voted for Obama. Again: why?

Before answering that question, let me cite one more vitally important piece of polling information: Among Catholic voters who attend Mass weekly, McCain won majority support: 54- 45%. Among those who do not attend weekly Mass, the margin for Obama was an overwhelming 61- 37%. Thus Obama drew his support from inactive Catholics. And unfortunately, most American Catholics are inactive.

In an interview recorded just before Election Day, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver explained that he had decided to take a prominent public stand on the obligations of Catholic voters because the "quieter approach to these things has not been effective." How right he was! He and many other prelates deserve the gratitude of loyal Catholics for their willingness to take a more energetic approach. This year, at last, the American bishops were clear and forthright in their teaching. Yet on Election Day it became evident that millions of American Catholics weren't listening.

Should we be surprised if Catholics ignore directives from the hierarchy? Should we be surprised that Catholics who do not attend Mass regularly-- thereby violating a precept of the Church-- ignore Church teachings on other issues as well? No, this result was predictable.

An entire generation of American Catholics has grown accustomed to dissent from Church teaching, and grown accustomed to seeing their bishops tolerate that dissent. In the 35 years since Roe v. Wade, Catholics have watched their Church leaders handle pro-abortion Catholic politicians with kid gloves, treating their moral treason as a minor annoyance rather than a public scandal. Yes, the bishops routinely denounced abortion; but at the same time they treated the public supporters of taxpayer-funded abortion with jovial deference. Puzzled lay Catholics concluded that the bishops didn't really take the issue too seriously, and the laity in turn stopped taking their bishops seriously. A few dozen statements from brave orthodox bishops in the autumn of 2008-- however clear, however compelling-- were not enough to undo a generation of damage.

Abortion is not an isolated issue. Lackadaisical American Catholics are not ignoring Church leadering on this issue alone, but on the entire range of Catholic teaching. Most Catholics skip Sunday Mass regularly. Most Catholics rarely if ever go to Confession. Most Catholics use contraceptives. Most Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence. Most Catholics no longer accept Church authority on any issue. Why should we be surprised, then, if on Election Day most Catholics ignore Church teachings on their moral obligation to vote in defense of human life?

For most of my life I have lived in Massachusetts, a state whose political culture was once thoroughly dominated by active Catholics. In my book The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture I explain how that Catholic culture deteriorated, as the faithful drifted away from the Church, until today the political scene in Massachusetts is dominated not by Catholics but by ex-Catholics, thoroughly hostile to the teachings of the Church.

Are Catholics in other states following the same trend? Will the next presidential election see even strong support for the "culture of death" among voters who identify themselves-- inaccurately-- as believing Catholics? Regrettably, I see the same forces that corrupted Catholicism in my native state now active all across the nation.

To repair the damage, we must recognize that the problem is not restricted to abortion, nor to defense-of-life issues. Indeed it is not, strictly speaking, a political problem. To restore the integrity of the Catholic vote, we must first restore the integrity of the Catholic faith, and rebuild the foundations of a Catholic culture.

That will be my goal-- my crusade-- in coming years. I hope and pray you'll join me.

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