The Myth of the Conservative Catholic: Are church-going Catholics really conservative?
By Patricia Miller
The lynchpin of the Bush administration’s so-called Catholic strategy is the belief that there exists a significant bloc of conservative, church-going—or “committed,” to use the GOP shorthand—Catholics who are ripe for the GOP’s picking. Bush’s Catholic outreach was reportedly sparked by conservative Catholic pollster Steve Wagner’s work in Crisismagazine. Wagner postulates that “religiously active voters have been gradually migrating to the Republican Party, leaving the Democrats as the party of the religiously indifferent as well as the politically liberal.”  According to Wagner, Catholics who attend Mass weekly are concerned about the moral decay of America, are supportive of the “traditional” family and are anti-abortion. Presumably they also support other GOP priorities such as lower taxes, “smaller” government and an increase in military spending.
The GOP’s attraction to this constituency is obvious: if these right-leaning Catholics exist in significant numbers, they could be folded into the party’s conservative Christian base and the resulting realignment would ensure Republican electoral victory. But is the GOP chasing a mirage? Undoubtedly there are conservatives within the Catholic faith who would not be uncomfortable with the political priorities of the Christian Right. And Catholics have shown a tendency to be swing voters since Nixon was elected. But a detailed analysis of Catholics’ attitudes and values indicates that the percentage of truly conservative Catholics is relatively small and unlikely to increase.
Republicans have been quick to point out that Bush prevailed among Catholics who go to Mass every week and link this to Bush’s positions on abortion, lower taxes and the moral direction of the country. Bush’s chief political strategist Karl Rove, who is in charge of the White House’s Catholic outreach effort, told U.S. News & World Report, “Catholics are socially and politically conservative.” Andrew Card, another White House official closely involved in the outreach effort, told the same publication that Catholics’ “core values are consistent with and reflected by the values of the president.” But church-going Catholics are a more heterogeneous and socially liberal population than Republican strategists acknowledge. And while it’s convenient to divide Catholics into conservative weekly Mass goers and the liberals who sleep in on Sunday mornings, the reality is more complex.
What is a Committed Catholic?
To the Bush administration and many political strategists, a “committed” or “religiously active” Catholic is synonymous with a person who attends Mass every week. Wagner not only identifies Mass attendance as the central factor separating liberal and conservative Catholics, but treats it as an “either/or”—either you go to Mass or you don’t. But as many Catholics know, this division is simplistic. Catholics can more accurately be divided into three categories: those who usually attend Mass every week, those who attend Mass less frequently than every week, and those who rarely or never attend Mass.
A survey of 1,000 likely Catholic voters conducted by Belden, Russonello and Stewart for Catholics for a Free Choice just before the 2000 presidential election found that 35% said they attended Mass weekly and an equal number (36%) said they attended Mass, but less frequently than once a week (anywhere from once or twice a month to a few times a year). Less than a third of respondents (28%) said they seldom or never went to Mass—meaning that seven out of 10 Catholics attend Mass with varying degrees of regularity. This is a very different ball game than the “all or nothing” scenario assumed by Republican strategists.
To the Bush administration and many political strategists, a “committed” or “religiously active” Catholic is synonymous with a person who attends Mass every week.
Younger Catholics appear to be especially likely to disregard the old “all or nothing” model when it comes to Mass attendance. Catholics age 18-35 are the most likely to attend Mass less frequently than once a week, and are the least likely to attend Mass every week, according to the Belden, Russonello and Stewart poll. Catholics over the age of 55 are the most likely to attend Mass every week. Catholics age 36-54 are the most likely to rarely or never attend Mass, but almost as likely to attend Mass less frequently than once a week. In fact, Catholics are increasingly likely to believe that you can be a good Catholic without going to church every Sunday. According to a National Catholic Reporter poll, over three-quarters of Catholics (77%) believe you can be a good Catholic without attending Mass every Sunday—up from 70% in 1987. 
While Mass attendance can be an indicator of religious commitment, it is not the only indicator. According to a report by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, 29% of Catholics say they usually attend Mass weekly, yet 37% of Catholics describe their attachment to the church as “strong.” In the just-published book American Catholics: Gender, Generation and Commitment, noted Catholic sociologist William D’Antonio and his colleagues have developed a more nuanced measurement of religious commitment. The data in American Catholics come from three national surveys of American Catholics conducted by the Gallup Organization over a span of 12 years—making it uniquely useful in tracking changes in Catholic attitudes since 1987. 
This index of commitment to the Catholic church factors in three variables: Mass attendance, response to the statement “I would never leave the church” on a seven-point scale, and response to the question of how important the church is to one’s life. The addition of these second two variables is critical, says D’Antonio, because “people who just go to Mass every week are not as likely to be supportive of Vatican policies” as those who score highly on all three variables. This undercuts a major assumption of the Bush strategy, which lumps all Catholics who attend Mass weekly into the mold of the Vatican-obedient, and therefore conservative, Catholic.
Highly committed Catholics, according to D’Antonio, are those Catholics who not only attend Mass every week, but on a seven-point scale rate the statement “I would never leave the church” a “1” or a “2.” They also rate the church as the most important or one of the most important influences on their life. Moderately committed Catholics attend church at least monthly, rank the statement “I would never leave the church” in the middle of the seven-point scale (3, 4 or 5), and rate the church as important as other things in their life. Catholics with a low level of commitment rarely or never attend Mass, rank the statement “I would never leave the church” as a “6” or “7,” and say the church is not an important influence in their life.
According to D’Antonio, less than one-quarter (23%) of American Catholics were “highly committed” to the church in 1999—down four points since 1987. “This is an indication of a slowly decreasing percentage of highly committed Catholics,” he notes. By far the largest percentage of Catholics—60%—are moderately committed to the church, while 17% score low in commitment. At the same time, he notes, Mass attendance among all Catholics has dropped: 44% of Catholics said they went to Mass weekly in 1987, but only 37% did so in 1999.
According to the Belden, Russonello and Stewart poll, Mass attendance does not correlate with party affiliation as clearly as the GOP would like. Less than half (46%) of Catholics who attend Mass every week identify as Republicans, while nearly the same percentage say they are Democrats (42%) and only 12% are independent—suggesting that there is not much room for GOP recruitment here. And 37% of Catholics who attend Mass less frequently than once a week are Republicans, while 43% are Democrats and 20% are independent. Only a little over half (54%) of those who seldom or never attend Mass are Democrats—Republicans make up one-third (33%) of this population and independents 13%. Clearly the largest pool of swing voters is not to be found among Catholics who are in the pews every Sunday, but among those who are in the pews some weeks but not others. In fact, among the voters in the Belden, Russonello and Stewart survey who identified them-selves as independent, a whopping 48% said they went to church, but less frequently than once a week.
“Bread and Butter” Issues
An analysis of the Belden, Russonello and Stewart poll numbers also disputes the notion that Catholics are conservative on key social issues like abortion, gun control, strengthening the military and cutting taxes, and are therefore aligned with the political priorities of the Bush administration. The pre-election poll found that the issues that most concerned Catholics were “bread and butter” issues of personal economic security like protecting Social Security and Medicare and improving the healthcare system and public education.
For instance, the Belden, Russonello and Stewart poll found when asked to rate priorities for the next president on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being the high-est priority, none of the Catholics at any level of Mass attendance rated strengthening military defenses—a key GOP goal—particularly high. But it was ranked a “7” by more Catholics who attend Mass less than once a week (26%), than by weekly Mass goers (24%) or those who rarely attend (21%).
Bush’s signature issue of cutting taxes didn’t resonate strongly among Catholics at any level of Mass attendance, including weekly Mass goers. It was the top priority for only 27% of weekly and less frequent Mass goers and 30% of those who rarely attended.
“Promoting moral values” was slightly more important for weekly Mass goers, with 40% ranking it a “7,” but 30% of less frequent attenders also rated this a top priority, as did 21% of those who rarely attend Mass. All three groups ranked reducing poverty about equally—it was a high priority for 23% of weekly Mass goers, 25% of less frequent attendees and 23% of those who seldom or never go.
The traditionally liberal value of protecting Social Security and Medicare was the highest priority across the board—for 43% of Catholics who attend Mass every week, 45% who attend less frequently and 51% of those who rarely attend. Even on the uber-liberal issue of improving the healthcare system, 39% of Catholics who attend Mass once a week rated this as the highest priority, as did 47% of those who go less frequently and 48% of those who rarely attend.
When broken out by Mass attendance, those who attend once a week and those who rarely or never attend both ranked preserving Social Security and Medicare as their highest priority, followed by improving the healthcare system. Fixing healthcare was the highest priority for those who attend less frequently than once a week, followed by preserving Social Security and Medicare. Weekly Mass goers did say that promoting moral values was their third highest priority, followed by improving public education, while those who attend less frequently and seldom said that public education was a higher priority and gave moral values an overall lower ranking.
Catholics who attend church once a week were more likely to disagree with the GOP on the issue of the death penalty than other Catholics—67% of weekly Mass goers said they support the death penalty, versus support from 87% of Catholics who attend Mass less than once a week and 87% of those who rarely attend. Catholics who rarely attend Mass and those who go every week are about as likely to sup-port legislation that would completely ban handguns—42% and 40% respectively, while 34% of those who attend less frequently support such legislation.
Abortion and Mass Attendance
The Republican Party, and President Bush in particular, have been broadcasting their anti-choice views in an attempt to court Catholics in the mistaken assumption that Catholics who go to church every week agree with the official church teaching on the immorality of abortion in all circumstances. However, the Belden, Russonello and Stewart poll, as well as D’Antonio’s work, shows that many Catholics who go to church every week are prochoice and are increasingly likely to ignore the hierarchy and make up their own minds about abortion. In fact, nearly half (43%) of Catholics who attend church weekly said that they agree that abortion should be legal, and fully 75% of those who attend Mass somewhat said they agree that abortion should be legal, according to the Belden, Russonello and Stewart poll.
[M]any Catholics who go to church every week are prochoice and are increasingly likely to ignore the hierarchy and make up their own minds about abortion.
Similarly, more than half (57%) of Catholics who attend church weekly and over three-quarters (77%) of those who attend somewhat believe that Catholics do not have a religious obligation to vote for candidates who oppose legal abortion. The poll also found that only 23% of Catholics who attend church every week believe that abortion can never be a morally acceptable option.
Even highly committed Catholics are less conservative on the abortion issue than they used to be, notes Bill D’Antonio. In 1987, 53% of highly committed Catholics thought that church leaders should be the locus of moral authority on abortion, while in 1999 this dropped to 44%. “For the first time on the abortion issue, even among the highly committed Catholics, less than half are looking to church leaders,” says D’Antonio. The same trend holds for highly committed Catholics’ view of homosexuality, he notes, with only 44% saying they looked to church lead-ers on the issue in 1999 versus 52% in 1987.
In another sign of the potential difficulty the Republican Party could have in recruiting Catholics due to discord in fundamental values, D’Antonio notes that while following the hierarchy’s teaching on abortion is not a core belief for most Catholics, the preferential option for the poor remains a powerful belief. “While two out of three highly committed Catholics believe you can be a good Catholic without obeying the hierarchy’s position on abortion, half said you couldn’t be a good Catholic if you didn’t donate time or money to the poor,” he said of the 1999 findings.
This is in line with the Belden, Russonello and Stewart poll, which found that only 11% of those who attend Mass every week said the views of the US Catholic bishops are very important when they are casting their vote—which points to an increasing divergence of the Catholic laity from the official teaching of the church.
In a paradox that poses a unique challenge for the Republican Party, women tend to be more highly committed to the church than men, but also more in disagreement with the church hierarchy, notes D’Antonio. Twenty-seven percent of women are highly committed to the church, according to the 1999 Gallup data, while only 19% of the men—less than one in five—are highly committed. “I am sure that highly committed Catholics and women are the two targets of the Bush administration,” says D’Antonio, but he notes that among the most highly committed Catholic women, only 40% or less look to church leaders on sexuality-related issues such as abortion, homosexuality and contraception. This is “significantly different from the men,” he says, where over 50% are likely to look to church authority. “Bush should be targeting Catholic men, but he’s probably got as many of these as he is going to get,” notes D’Antonio.
At the same time, the numbers of those who are most committed to the church and its official teaching are a declining. “It is generally the pre-Vatican II Catholics who are the most highly committed, but pre-Vatican II Catholics are an ever-shrinking portion of all Catholics,” he says. This means that the Catholic population the GOP needs to court if it stands a chance of attracting a significant influx of new Republican voters is the younger, independent Catholic who attends church less frequently than once a week. But this population poses sharp problems for the Republican Party. As the CFFC polling illustrates, it is in this population that the “wedge issues” that have splintered the Catholic church have the most resonance—particularly the abortion issue, on which the GOP is sharply out of step with the majority Catholic opinion.
Tellingly, despite an unprecedented outreach effort to three million Catholics in key states by the Republican Nation Committee’s Catholic Task Force, Al Gore won Michigan and Pennsylvania, two of the most critical Catholic states, as well as the overall Catholic vote.
It is clear why many Catholics have not made the GOP their home. They disagree with the Republican Party on key issues like tax cuts, abortion rights, gun control, military spending and the role of government. If the past is any guide, Catholics will most likely continue to be an important bloc of swing voters that neither party can take for granted.
Patricia Miller is editor of Conscience and director of writing and research at Catholics for a Free Choice.
- Steve Wagner, “Will America Bury the Hatchet?” Crisis, January 2001.
- Kenneth Walsh, “Coveting the ’Catholic Vote’,” U.S. News & World Report, May 28, 2001.
- William D’Antonio, “Trends in U.S. Roman Catholic Attitudes, Beliefs, Behavior,” National Catholic Reporter, Oct. 29, 1999.
- “American Catholics are Becoming Less Involved in the Church,” National Opinion Research Center, Jan. 22, 1999.
- William V. Antonio, James D. Davidson, Dean R. Hoge, Katherine Meyer, American Catholics: Gender, Generation, and Commitment, Alta Mira Press, Lanham, MD, 2001.