Catholic Voters and the Papal Visit

The current New York Times series on Pope Benedict XVI provides excellent insight into the dynamics behind the pope’s visit. The April 13 article portrays the complexity of this Pope’s views on social issues; today’s article (April 14) considers the struggles of lay Catholics as their parishes face closures. But for those interested in religion […]

The current New York Times series on Pope Benedict XVI provides excellent insight into the dynamics behind the pope’s visit. The April 13 article portrays the complexity of this Pope’s views on social issues; today’s article (April 14) considers the struggles of lay Catholics as their parishes face closures. But for those interested in religion and politics, the most important insight comes from the data regarding American Catholic views on abortion, the death penalty, desire for “big government,” same-sex marriage, government-backed healthcare, and immigration. Across the board, American Catholics in general hold attitudes more liberal (though sometimes probably within the sampling errors, which are not given) than the U.S. population as a whole.
This belies the stereotype of American Catholics as generally conservative. Hispanic Catholics do more closely reflect conservative commitments; but overall the only issues on which Catholic attitudes seem strongly to reflect the magisterium’s teachings are on government services, government-backed healthcare, and immigration — where those teachings are decidedly more liberal. This kind of thing drives some conservative Catholic leaders crazy — in the belief that lay Catholics are simply not listening. Surely that’s true on some issues, but the data also suggest a very different answer: There can be little doubt that American Catholics know what their leaders teach on at least some of those issues. They have listened, maybe even agree with some of the principles at stake, but have come to believe that the complexities faced in people’s lives make for complex answers. Or perhaps the grip of popular culture holds American Catholics more firmly than does the Church.
In either case, if Pope Benedict and American Catholic leaders hope to effectively shape Catholic views on social issues, they will have to more powerfully inspire laypeople’s moral imaginations and engage their ethical reasoning; there is little evidence that commanding agreement on these issues is having much effect. There is some evidence that Benedict recognizes this and will adopt a pastoral tone during his visit, but that is worth watching for. More fundamental over the long term is the experience of everyday Catholics in their home parishes — do the community’s love, the prayer and music of the liturgy, and the spiritual witness of their priests take hold of their spirits? That will shape Catholic social views more profoundly over the long term, because it will fire their moral imaginations.