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Catholic Voters Resist Bishops’ Direction: Poll Challenges Conventional Wisdom that Church Teachings Determine Catholic Vote

April 19, 2004

WASHINGTON, DC—As Election 2004 heat up, increasing attention has been paid to Senator John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, and his practice of Catholicism. Catholics for a Free Choice is reissuing the 2000 poll: Winning the Catholic Vote: Attitudes of Catholic Voters on Politics and the Church.

This poll refutes a general misconception about what some have called the biggest swing vote in American politics—Catholic voters. While the remains a general perception that Catholics vote primarily on social issues such as abortion and are strongly influenced by the positions of the church hierarchy, the numbers do not support this theory.

A national poll of 1,003 Catholic likely voters by Belden Russonello & Stewart (a public opinion research firm) commissioned by Catholics for a Free Choice found that voters are most concerned about bread-and-butter issues of personal economic security rather than hot-button social issues.

It also revealed that the overwhelming majority of Catholic voters are not influenced by the views of the Catholic bishops.

“The Catholic church has very little influence on the voting behavior of the vast majority of Catholic voters. In fact, 75 percent said the views of the bishops were unimportant. On a range of issues, Catholic voters are more likely to stand with other Americans than with the Catholic bishops and the Vatican,” said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

This poll demonstrates that not only do Catholics resist the instruction of bishops when approaching the voting booth, they staunchly disagree with the bishops’ incursions into politics. A full 70% believe Catholic bishops SHOULD NOT use the political arena advance their moral opinions and 59% believe the bishops SHOULD NOT make public statements regarding candidates for office.

Other key findings of Winning the Catholic Vote:

  • Seventy percent of Catholic voters don’t believe that Catholics have a religious obligation to vote for candidates who oppose legal abortion.
  • Majorities of Catholic voters support the death penalty (80 percent) and the practice of allowing doctors to assist in the suicide of terminally ill patients (56 percent).
  • Catholic voters also challenge assumptions regarding vouchers. Their support (57 percent) is only slighter higher than the nation as a whole.
  • Almost three-quarters (73%) agreed that the country should use “more of the budget surplus to preserve Social Security and Medicare rather than for a tax cut.”
  • Fewer than one-third (31%) thought the next president’s top priority should be “promoting moral values in the country.”
  • The majority (58%) of Catholic voters call themselves prochoice, and 62% believe “it should be legal for a woman to have an abortion.”
  • Catholics make up 23 percent of the population. According to the 2003 Catholic Almanac, the Catholic population mirrors or exceeds that in swing states such as Michigan (22%), Pennsylvania 30% and Wisconsin (31%).

The Belden Russonello & Stewart (BRS) national survey of Catholics, conducted for Catholics for a Free Choice, interviewed 1,003 self-described Catholics who were likely to vote in the 2000 presidential election. The interviews took place from October 10 to 15, 2000, using the Knowledge Networks Web-enabled panel. This sample is derived from a random digit dial (RDD) telephone methodology that represents all U.S. households with telephones. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence for the entire sample.

—Statement ends—