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Five Myths about the Catholic Vote in Election 2010

October 27, 2010

As the election nears, many news outlets are repeating misinformation about what Catholics believe and what they can and should do when it comes to voting.

  • Conservative groups have targeted a largely Catholic group of antichoice Democrats who voted in favor of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, falsely claiming that the bill permits federal funding of abortion.
  • A Catholic Tea Party has been mooted, and conservative Catholic bloggers who represent a tiny minority of Catholics are manufacturing controversies in order to get in the news. To overcome their lack of influence and numbers, they have decided to condemn bishops, politicians and their fellow lay Catholics in equal measure.
  • In Massachusetts, the bishops conference issued an election statement elevating certain issues as being of paramount importance for Catholics. According to their statement, “the sanctity of life [and] the family based on marriage between a man and a woman” come before “religious freedom and the well-being of the poor” in importance.

The reality is that Catholic teachings and the views of Catholics are not closely aligned with the political priorities of the bishops, nor are they close to the views of the bishops’ conservative allies in the blogosphere.

MYTH ONE: Catholics are more conservative than the rest of the electorate
REALITY: Catholics’ opinions largely mirror those of the rest of the electorate

  • Sexually active Catholic women older than 18 are just as likely (98%) to have used some form of contraception banned by the Vatican as women in the general population (99%). (National Survey of Family Growth, 2008)
  • Catholics (69%) are as likely as people with different religious beliefs to support medical research using embryonic stem cells left over from in-vitro fertilization procedures: Protestants (74%), other Christians (66%) and the overall population (72%) have broadly similar views. (Harris Interactive, 2010)

On these and other issues, we see that Catholics make up their minds independent of the bishops or the loud noises from the blogosphere.

MYTH TWO: All Catholics oppose abortion
REALITY: Catholics are prochoice

  • When Catholic voters considered healthcare reform in 2009, and were asked about access to abortion, they supported health insurance coverage for abortion in many circumstances: when a pregnancy poses a threat to the life of a woman (84%); when a pregnancy is due to rape or incest (76%); when a pregnancy poses long-term health risks for a woman (73%); when test results show a fetus has a severe, abnormal condition (66%); and whenever a women and her doctor decide it is appropriate (50%). (Belden Russonello & Stewart, 2009)
  • Only 14% of Catholics in the US agree with the Vatican’s position that abortion should be illegal (Belden Russonello & Stewart, 2009) and a poll released by the bishops themselves in late 2008 showed just 11 percent of US adults support the bishops’ preferred option: a complete ban on abortion.

The reality is that like people of other faiths and no faith, a large majority of Catholics can see circumstances in which abortion is an acceptable or even necessary moral choice.

MYTH THREE: Catholic teachings on reproductive health issues are rigid and unchanging
REALITY: Catholic teachings on abortion and family planning are more nuanced than the bishops claim

  • Although the Catholic hierarchy says that the prohibition on abortion is both “unchanged” and “unchangeable,” this does not comport with the actual history of abortion teaching. At the outset, the church hierarchy only opposed abortion because it suggested illicit sexual activity. Their current position evolved in later years.
  • Church teachings on moral decision-making and abortion are complex. In Catholic theology there is room for the acceptance of policies that favor access to the full range of reproductive health options, including contraception and abortion.

The reality is that Catholics can, in good conscience, support access to abortion and other reproductive health services and affirm that they can be a moral choice.

MYTH FOUR: Catholics do what their bishops tell them to
REALITY: Catholics do not want to hear from their bishops about politics

  • Only eight percent of Catholics believe that the views of the US bishops are “very important” in deciding for whom to vote. Seventy-three percent of Catholics believe they do not have a religious obligation to vote on issues the way their bishop recommends and 69% of Catholic voters do not believe they have a religious obligation to vote against candidates who support legal abortion. (Belden Russonello & Stewart, 2008)

These numbers are crystal clear. Catholics are perfectly capable of making up their own minds about whom to vote for and can and do, in good conscience, cast votes that their bishops might oppose.

MYTH FIVE: Catholics are obsessed about abortion
REALITY: Abortion is not the only issue that concerns Catholics

  • An overwhelming majority of Catholics (92%) rate the economy as very important; almost as many (91%) say jobs are their top issue in the coming election. These numbers are nearly identical among all major religious groups and the overall population (90% for the economy and 88% for jobs).
  • Social issues, such as abortion, are much farther down the list with fewer than half of Catholics and Americans (both 43%) rating abortion as “very important” during this election cycle. (Pew 2010 Annual Religion and Public Life Survey)

The reality is that at the heart of church teachings on moral matters is a deep regard for an individual’s conscience. The Catechism states that “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.” Richard McBrien, in his essential study Catholicism, explains that even in cases of a conflict with the moral teachings of the church, Catholics “not only may but must follow the dictates of conscience rather than the teachings of the Church.” The bishops and their conservative allies simply don’t get it.