Does a Catholic Vote Matter?

‘No Monolithic Catholic Position’ Can be Determined


Published: November 15, 2007

FORDHAM—Since 1932, the majority of Catholic votes have gone to the winner in the presidential elections, indicating the strength of the Catholic viewpoint. Catholics have traditionally aligned themselves with the Democratic Party, but many have recently backed Republicans on values issues such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage, according to an article published by the Inter Press Service (IPS).

While pundits often claim that Catholics vote as a block, the Rev. Robert R. Grimes, S.J., dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC), disagrees.  “I don’t believe there is a Catholic vote,” Grimes said. “I don’t believe there’s been a Catholic vote for a few years now.” Grimes said that he believes “pollsters will poll Catholics and find that there’s no monolithic Catholic position. [Then] when they do election polls, they group Catholics as a category.”

The Rev. Damian O’Connell, S.J., assistant director of Campus Ministry at FCLC, said, “I do not expect there to be a Catholic vote.” However, “Catholics should understand that the Catholic perspective is a valuable and necessary contribution to discussions on the issues of the day,” O’Connell said.

Thomas De Luca, associate chair of political science at FCLC, agreed. “I don’t think there is a set of issues for Catholic voters… For the most part, Catholic voters will vote based upon their economic position and their social and political values,” he said.

De Luca said that although the major issues in 2008 depend “to some degree on who the nominees are,” he said he expects “the economy, health care, the ‘war on terrorism,’ the Iraq war, Iran,” and immigration to be the most prevalent issues in the upcoming election.

It has been suggested that immigration is a major issue within the Catholic community because many American Catholics are immigrants and are expected to be sympathetic to immigrant issues. “Immigration will certainly be a powerful issue overall,” De Luca said. “However, it would be a mistake to simply think that prior waves of Catholic immigrants will automatically be sympathetic to recent immigration and particularly to undocumented immigrants. That will depend on the individual’s ideology, sympathy and memory of her/his own family’s process of immigration.”

Immigration issues have traditionally been controversial, particularly for Catholics. “When we consider the many complex issues of today’s immigration, let’s never forget the trials Catholic immigrants from Europe experienced as ‘micks,’ ‘krauts,’ ‘polacks’ and ‘wops’—legal and illegal—on the way to becoming Americans,” said Stephen Schneck, chairman of the politics department at The Catholic University of America, at a conference on Oct. 30, as reported by Catholic Online, Catholic news source.

“One enormously helpful educational service that the candidates could play, but probably won’t, is to recall the way in which prior generations of Catholic immigrants…were received, including racist beliefs and pseudo-science about their genetic inferiority, and the way in which they were destroying the ‘American’ culture,” De Luca said.  “It would be very important to remind all Americans about the way in which the door was slammed shut on immigrants from southern and eastern Europe after World War I.”

In 2004, the Republican Party wooed Catholic voters by grouping them with evangelical Christians and promoting issues such as opposition to gay marriage and abortion. According to a 2004 article published by the Catholic News Service, 22 percent of voters chose “moral values” as the most significant issue in the 2004 election, followed by the economy with 22 percent and terrorism with 19 percent.

“The institutional Church is portrayed as very conservative,” Grimes said. However, Grimes mentioned that the Catholic Church strongly supports welfare programs and opposes the death penalty. He also mentioned that the Church was one of very few groups who supported New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer’s immigrant licensing plan. “Do these sound like conservative positions?”

Grimes said members of the press often use certain issues as “litmus tests” to analyze elections. “Now [the litmus test] is abortion, gay rights, probably the war [in Iraq] as well,” he said, though he said that those issues often discount many of the positions within the Catholic Church. “[The] primary issues that Catholics should think about in terms of a vote are essential issues,” such as “the dignity of the human person” and “concern for wider society.”

Democratic candidates responded to the republican courtship of Catholics in the 2006 midterm elections by taking a values-based approach to issues such as poverty, health care, the environment and immigration. The approach was effective, with 55 percent of Catholics voting for Democrats. The Democrats took control of both the House and the Senate.

“The foundation for Catholic thinking about politics, government and policy is the idea of the common good,” Schneck said.

Grimes agreed, saying, “What distinguishes Catholic teaching is it is precisely the ‘common good.’” Grimes said, “Catholicism is at its root a communal religion,” and expressed the idea that “we’re all in this together.”

“If there’s something wrong with ‘us,’ we have to say something,” Grimes said.

“If you’re not ok, I’m not ok, and we have to do something about it.”