Blaming the Bishops

April 5, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

People who write op-eds sometimes attribute their own opinions and ideas not to themselves but to “the public” or “America.” “The public seems to be angry about values,” wrote David Brooks in 2010, though as I pointed out in this post, surveys at the time showed that values ranked low among the issues the public was concerned about. In January, 2016, during primary season, Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat was projecting his own feeling about “decadence” onto supporters of Trump and Bernie Sanders (here) .

Thomas Groome, who came to the US from Ireland in 1972, has a similar intuition about US Catholics and why they are no longer the loyal Democrats they once were. In a Times op-ed (here) he writes:

This was due at least in part to the shift by many American Catholic bishops from emphasizing social issues (peace, the economy) to engaging in the culture wars (abortion, gay marriage). Along the way, many Catholics came to view the Democrats as unconditionally supporting abortion.

The logic of the argument is this:
  • When bishops emphasized Church’s position favoring change on social issues, Catholics sided with Democrats because the Democrats too emphasized social issues.
  • When bishops emphasized the Church’s position against abortion, Catholics sided with Republicans because the Republicans opposed abortion.
Obviously, Groome doesn’t like the bishops’ shift in focus.  But has it really driven Catholics to abandon the Democrats? Protestants, too (White Protestants, that is), have become less Democratic, and surely they are not paying much attention to Catholic bishops.

Some of the letters that the Times printed letters in response to Groome’s op-ed agreed that the Democrats’ support of abortion rights was losing them the Catholic vote. (“I’m an Irish-Italian Catholic who would normally vote Democratic, but the incessant and strident pro-abortion stance of the Democratic Party sickens me and perhaps others in the country.”)
This argument assumes that anti-abortion sentiment is more widespread among Catholics, regardless of whether the bishops were responsible for it. But the GSS and other surveys show little difference between Protestants and Catholics on this issue. 

Perhaps there is a difference in salience, with more Catholics, like the letter writere, making abortion their primary political concern. Unfortunately, the GSS hasn’t asked about that in thirty years, and I know of no other survey that allows for Protestant-Catholic comparisons on this question. What the mid-80s GSS found was that Catholics were indeed more likely to assign a great deal of importance to abortion. However, those Catholics were still a 20% minority. For the large majority of Catholics and Protestants, abortion was less important.

Besides, even if the views of the bishops were being relayed by parish priests, there were fewer Catholics in the pews to hear the message. Catholics have become less religious. The percent who say they never go to mass has increased while those who attend regularly has declined.

A better explanation seems to be that what the bishops say matters far less than do demographic trends. On things like income, education, urban/suburban/small town, etc. White Catholics resemble White Protestants. In presidential elections, Protestant-Catholic differences in voting have usually been only two or three percentage points. In the two most recent elections, the Republican candidate did better among White Catholics than among White Protestants (59-57% for Romney,  60-58% for Trump).

What’s significant is not that church doctrine these days has so little sway in the political views of US Catholics. We are long past the time when anyone thought that Catholic politicians would be “taking orders from the Pope.”  So it’s not surprising that Catholic voters are not taking orders from the bishops. More interesting is that religious identity has become so divorced from political identity. In 1960, Kennedy got 78% of the Catholic vote. Forty-four years later, Catholics preferred the WASP George W. Bush over Catholic John Kerry 52-47. (And if you factor out Hispanics, among White Catholics, Kerry lost by an even larger margin – 56-43.)

From Kennedy 78% to Kerry 43% is a big drop. But it’s unlikely that the bishops or even abortion had much to do with it. 

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