The Catholic Thing
Elections and the Changing Catholic Demographic Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Thursday, 22 March 2012

For most of our nation’s history, the American Catholic voter has been an important contributor to the electoral process. This has been confirmed in every presidential election cycle by analysts who discuss the impact of the Catholic vote and debate whether rank-and-file Catholics – who have voted for the winning candidate in nine of the last ten elections – will once again be a decisive voting bloc.

Most pundits fail to understand, however, that it’s essential to be very careful in analyzing Catholic voting data. Surveys can be skewed, for instance, because they include nominal or “cafeteria” Catholics who do not practice the faith. While generic Catholics make up 25 percent of the national vote, the most influential subset is practicing Catholics – 9 percent of the voting public. 

Their votes have greater impact because they are concentrated in the key swing states (i.e., Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan) that determine presidential elections. In closely contested races in these states, practicing Catholics can provide the margin of victory for a candidate who subscribes to their social views.

And woe to candidates who take these Catholic voters for granted or annoy them. In 2008, for example, church-going, blue-collar Catholics in America’s rust belt, who were unhappy with McCain and could not in good conscience vote for Obama, stayed home. This year, Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic, has not done well with his co-religionists in battleground primary states (on Tuesday in Illinois, Romney took 48 percent of Catholics, Santorum only 32 percent). 

It appears that, in his quest for Evangelical Christian votes, Santorum lost the support of practicing Catholics who may have agreed with his positions but were turned off by his shrill rhetoric:

Michigan – Catholics favored Romney over Santorum by 7 percentage points
Florida – Catholics favored Romney over Santorum by 46 percentage points
Ohio – Catholics favored Romney over Santorum by 13 percentage points
Catholic primary voters also favored Romney over Santorum in South Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and most recently in Illinois.

During the past fifty years, the make-up of America’s Catholic population has significantly changed and this has impacted Catholic voting patterns. In the 1960s and 1970s, old-line Catholics were perplexed and shocked by the social upheavals within their religious and political institutions. Vatican II, the pill, Vietnam, Watergate, and the women’s liberation movement severely disrupted their religious life.

As a result of this confusion, between 1957 and 1973, while the number of self-identified white Catholics did not drop, their average weekly Church attendance fell from 74 percent to 55 percent. For white Catholics under thirty, the decline was even greater; down to 35 percent from 73 percent. Today about 60 percent of all white Catholics raised in America are no longer practicing. Half of them have left the Church, the other half are nominal or cafeteria Catholics.

The Catholic choice?

The fact is, all American Christians have become less observant:

Adult Christians Who Attended Church Weekly

The number of baptized Christians who have abandoned their religion by the time they had reached adulthood has also spiraled up in each successive generation:

Entering Adulthood
No Religion

There is some good news: a majority of baptized Christian Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 now oppose abortion:

18-29 Year Olds
Approved of

One ray of hope for the Catholic Church in America is the growing number of Latinos. Today, 35 percent of Catholics are Latino. While the old dioceses of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis are closing churches and parochial schools, newer ones in the South and Southwest are growing by leaps and bounds to serve Latino flocks. In the Atlanta Diocese for instance, a new parish or school is opening every few months. 

Percentage of U. S. Latino Catholics by Age
18-34 Year Olds
35-49 Year Olds
50-64 Year Olds
65 Plus

Seven out of ten young Catholics who attend Church regularly are Latino. A vast majority of Latinos hold that Catholicism “is their inheritance” and it is “their roots.”

Latino vs. White Catholics
Religion is extremely important
Religion is very important
Religion is important for identity

What are politicians to make of these changes in the Catholic population? Parties and pollsters alike have recognized that Catholics, as Catholics, are no longer a cohesive political force and approach them as several separate groups with different political hot buttons.

Political analyst John Morgan, contends there are now five groups of Catholic voters:

  • Urban, ethnic blue-collar types found in the Northeast and Midwest. They are typically Democratic but socially conservative.
  • Suburban Catholics who for the most part are third-generation Irish and Italian. They are found in Long Island and outside of Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee and St. Louis. They are more attached to the Republican Party.
  • Midwest German and Polish Catholics who are very conservative but not wedded to the Republic Party. They serve as swing voters in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, and Missouri.
  • Hispanics, who are basically Democratic. In Morgan’s judgment, for Republicans to attract Hispanic votes, they should appeal to their more socially conservative side.
  • Cafeteria Catholics who, for the most part, have fallen away from the Church.

Despite the geographical and ethnic changes in the Church in America, expect the faithful to continue to have a major impact at polling booths. 

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (14)Add Comment
written by Jacob, March 22, 2012
We're you turned off by his "shrill rhetoric" Mr. Marlin?

I suppose you're a JFK Catholic though and you're above all that abortion and condom stuff right? I expect this kind of stuff on National review where a bunch of RINOs have taken over Bill Buckley's legacy, but I'm literally not going to have anywhere to go anymore if even you guys turn into enlightened RINOs who tell us how only Catholics who keep their mouths shut about their beliefs can be a part of public life.

A well respected Catholic scholar and his wife brought me to the faith. You can imagine my shock when they eagerly advocated for Barack Obama. Then they refused to talk to me any longer because I called them out on it and apparently they thought it was a one way faith relationship.

You my friend are in the spirit of a Cafeteria Catholic. You want to be wise and mysterious Catholic statesman but all you do is betray your own church to look sophisticated for people who will always despise you.
Enjoy preaching the faith of only talking about Jesus if it doesn't offend the protectors of the culture of death (sorry though bud, I'm gonna stick with the Pope on this one and keep sharing my beliefs no matter who it offends)!!!
written by Brad Miner, March 22, 2012
To Jacob: George Marlin is no RINO. Indeed, there's nothing to suggest it in his column. I think you ought to consider more carefully whether you are commenting about the column at hand or simply venting your personal frustrations. In any event, you could not be more wrong about Mr. Marlin.
written by jsmitty, March 22, 2012
I think the "Catholic vote" has become largely a creation of analysts and social scientists. Catholics have supported the winner in the last several elections by about the same margin as the electorate as a whole. So where is the "Catholic vote?" Why are we even talking about it as a distinctive entity?

Also, I think the political differences between practicing Catholics and self identified Catholics are greatly overstated..and I think recent Pew surveys support this as well as tons of anecdata. There are plenty of Catholics who attend Mass weekly with liberal attitudes on gay marriage and birth control and sometimes even abortion just as there are still many purely cultural Catholics who are socially conservative, but only show up to Church for funerals, weddings and maybe Christmas.

Do you doubt me?? Show up at your average suburban parish on Sunday and see how many Obama bumper stickers there are. By contrast, go to a parish in a small town in a more conservative area and you will see exactly the opposite. Catholics are conservative in conservative areas and less so in less conservative areas.

The real issue here it seems to me is that practicing one's faith really seems not to have that much influence on the way one views the world. Catholics have just been absorbed into the larger society!
written by Manfred, March 22, 2012
Tomorrow, Friday, March 23rd, there are going to be Catholic-sponsored rallies across the Country in support of the First Amendment Right of Freedom of Religion. This might be a good time for Catholics, and others, who visit this site to turn orthodoxy into orthopraxis. Various websites have the particulars for each state.
written by Robert Royal, March 22, 2012
Let me add to Brad Miner's post that it is not the business of The Catholic Thing to be a RINO or not. Our concern is to be Catholic or not. Part of being Catholic involves recognizing the truth, wherever it lies. And George Marlin knows many truths -- some unwelcome -- about the so-called Catholic vote. Read his book. And be careful of confusing a description of what is the case at the moment with advocacy.
written by Dave, March 22, 2012
I second all that Brad Miner and Robert Royal have written. Mr. Marlin's column is descriptive. My one reservation about it is the hope it pins on Latino Catholics. There is mounting evidence that they defect from the Church in fairly high numbers, to join evangelical sects, or that they, too, are cultural Catholics, relying on the Church for sacraments of initiation, matrimony, and departure, but not necessarily in line with all the teachings of the Church.

As for Mr. Santorum, as I have commented earlier, his tendency to "wing it" under the notion that this is what is sincere makes him look ill-prepared for a serious candidacy against President Obama, let alone ready to run the Federal Government. We are to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves -- the wisdom is important. He has advanced several important truths, ideas, and propositions in this campaign, but often does so in a manner that is risible. It's no wonder so many Catholics refuse to endorse his candidacy.

Finally, the state of catechesis is so deplorable I doubt you can find more than a handful in any congregation who understands why the Church teaches what she does: and so they are rejecting not the Catholic Faith but a stalking horse thereof. This state of affairs must be laid squarely at the feet of the bishops, who still, remarkably, are not speaking publicly on the immorality of artificial forms of birth control in whatever guise and still speak only of "conscience." One wonders, now that HHS has published a 32-page addendum designed to assuage Catholic voters, whether that document includes conscience protections for individual believers, not just institutions, and whether the bishops will press on and militate for the rights of the individual as well as of the institutions.

In any event, George Soros has already told us there is no real difference between Obama and Romney. We're in a real tough spot.
written by Chris in Maryland, March 22, 2012
Jacob - you have misunderstood this article.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., March 22, 2012
Out here in Novus Ordo Land there are many Cafeteria Catholics (pcik and shooise the doctrines you like) who would never think of themselves as fallen away Catholics. Such people teach CCD and serve as Eucharistic ministers, and even if they have been told that voting for candidates BECAUSE they favor abortion and homosexual marriage is a grave sin they do not believe it, having been told that Vatican II abolished Chruch authority. Add to this the numbers of those who are pro-life but are tacitly encouraged to back pro-aborts on the grounds that opening our national borders is more important than protecting innocent human life. What are Catholics supposed to think when even cardinals will not refuse Communion to outspoken pro-aborts? If I have offended anyone by my refence to Novus Ordo Land, let me remind you that few if any heretics are in the pews at Tradtional Masses.
written by Tony Esolen, March 22, 2012
I'm in an urban parish in the bluest state in the union, Rhode Island. It's an old Italian parish, with a terrific pastor who regularly preaches about the evil of abortion, and the silly contradictions of the secular world. There are no Obama bumper stickers in our parking lot. In my experience, people who aren't hardened by the stupidities of higher education (!) are amenable to being taught the faith, wherever they may be. It requires a frank and appealing teacher.
written by Achilles, March 22, 2012
Thomas Coleman,
I always enjoy your comments. While I am certainly not offended, I am perplexed. I am a new Catholic and I am enormously drawn to the EF Latin Mass. However, I have spent my short time as a member of the Body of Christ in the Novus Ordo Mass. It was promulgated by Vatican II. Admittedly, the original English translation was very poor, the new one is good, but would you really go so far as to say it promotes heresy? I wouldn’t, but I am a neophyte. It sends shivers down my spine to hear otherwise fine Catholics bad mouth the Novus Ordo when perhaps it is NOT the root of the problem. If it is the root, I am just a confused soul, if it isn’t, then all the “not heretics” in the pews at the traditional mass that choose to speak so poorly of the Novus Ordo are bold to say the least and perhaps verging on disrespectful if not disobedient. Surely we will be forgiven if our humble obedience to Mother Church has by some trick of the great deceiver been misplaced, but it occurs to me that to err on the side of obedience to Holy Mother Church with a stance of humble submission might be more profitable than willful defiance against the Novus Ordo. It also occurs to me that to judge the Novus Ordo by all the cafeteria Catholics is judging by appearances and not right judgment.

I would appreciate any clarification of my errors in thinking, please pray for me, Achilles
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., March 23, 2012
Dear Achilles: I would never denigrate the Norvuss Ordo as it was promulgated and intended to be clebrated. If it were always celebrated as we see on EWTN and accompanied by homilies such as those we hear from Fr. Mitch and others we would not be be in the fix that we are in. You are fortunate if you have not seen the chaos that I witness and descirbed earlier in which we hear the words of the Mass improvised and homilies full of error. All across the the US and Europe there are adult Catholics who who do not even know what the Chruch teaches. Last Sunday when I expressed surpise that students in a Confirmation class had never even heard of Purgatory and then opined that they should certainly know of it before their first confessions a pious lady told me that when she prepares children for First Reconcilliation she "doesn't go there." I cannot help but associate this chaos with the sounds of "folk masses"--liturgical music derived from an idiom--erzats folk music-- invented for the very purpose spreading Communism. I am not writing about poor peasants but about Catholic college educated men and women who innocently embrace relativism. No, it is not just the liberties taken with the Litrugy that are at the root of the problem, of course. But I believe that liturgical chaos leads to doctrinal chaos, and that then leads to moral chaos. So you are right. I should not have suggested that one could judge the Novus Ordo--as properly celebrated--with Cafeteria Catholicism. So let me find some other symbol for this chaos in which Catholics have never heard of Purgatory and so do not pray for the souls there. How about Guitar Mass Land? Or simply Liturical and Doctrinal Chaos Land? Someone has to admit that the Church is on fire, and if my unkind turn of phrase deteres anyone from picking up a bucket I'd better find a better way to characterize the fire. But grab some hoses and buckets, everyone! Time's a'wastin'!
written by Achilles, March 23, 2012
Thank you Thomas. I appreciate your clarification.
No, sadly, I have seen far too much of eveything you decry. I attribute it all to the excellent and terrible work of Satan and his efficient use of the failed enlightenment experiment, moral relativism, and the trick of light that has fooled so many into mistaking these dark times for pogress.
I am deeply saddened by all that is going on and I think your use of the word fire gets at the terror of it all and at the rapidity with which the poison is spreading.
Thanks again Thomas.
written by Jack Amadan, March 23, 2012
This is a good start at understanding what happened to the ethnic Catholics in America but for the big picture one needs to read the real history of the Sixties in "Slaughter of the Cites"

written by Stilbellieve, March 28, 2012
The archdiocese of Chicago confirmed recently that the teachings of the Church concerning the 5th Commandment are still the same as they were in the 1958 publication of, "Life in Christ - Instructions in the Catholic Faith." This teaching says that "religious and racial prejudice" are "sins against the fifth commandment." They are sins "against justice as well as charity." Then it says, "This is particularly true in the case of JOINING an organization which promotes segregation or ANY OTHER DENIAL OF HUMAN RIGHTS." (my emphasis)

Guess what. That Catholic teaching which the archdiocese of Chicago confirms is still the teaching of the Church makes being a Democrat a sin against the 5th Commandment. Catholics who register to vote as a Democrat have "joined" an "organization" that denies the "human right" of life to the unborn children. What do you think about that?

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