A Catholic vote or Catholics voting? The recent election sheds fresh light on that question.
On Nov. 2 about 54 percent of the Catholics who voted, give or take a percentage point or two, voted Republican. In the two previous elections, Catholics as a group had tilted to the Democrats. This has been the pattern for years, with Catholics mirroring the electorate at large in their back and forth swings between the two parties.
Yes, certain Catholic subgroups — notably, weekly churchgoers and Hispanics — are consistent in their voting, though in quite different directions. The rest are not.
If, then, there ever was such a thing as a Catholic vote, there evidently isn’t one now. As Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things correctly remarks, American Catholics as a group have “ceased to be any kind of a distinct voting bloc” — provided by that one means an identifiable body of voters who consistently vote along lines defined by specific values and commitments.
In the present lull between election seasons — destined, certainly, to be all too brief — it’s worth reflecting on these matters before the campaign of 2012 goes into hysteria mode.
Fifty or 60 years ago, it was relatively easy to talk about the responsibilities of Catholic voters. All that really needed saying was something like this: “When it comes to participation in politics, Catholics should observe the teaching of the Church and the principles of natural law where these are clear and well defined, but in regard to everything else — and that includes a great deal — Catholics are free to use their consciences and make up their minds for themselves.”
But that was before the authority of the Church was undermined by, as Bottum puts it, “the priest scandal and the constant attack from the nation’s press” and before the moral consensus sustained by natural law largely broke down in American society.
In his eloquent defense of natural law, "We Hold These Truths," published in 1960, Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., conceded that even then natural law thinking had for a long time been abandoned in key sectors of American academic and intellectual life, and the consensus sustaining politics and society in general was in danger of collapse.
Father Murray was right. And over the past half-century the nation has continued to experience that collapse and its consequences. Now America is a country of well over 300 million people loosely organized into frequently competing interest groups that lack a shared moral compass to shape their decisions and actions in common.
All this impacts as much on Catholics as it does on any others. It’s visible in the fact that Catholics taken as a body are about as inclined (or disinclined) as other Americans to support candidates for office who back legalized abortion, liberalized "gay rights" laws including same-sex marriage, and other items on the agenda of libertarian individualism that has taken the place of the natural law consensus in significant sectors of today’s America.
There are no quick and easy remedies for this state of affairs. From the standpoint of the Church it constitutes what, in religious terms, is frequently described as a serious catechetical problem. That is to say, it’s a matter of education. But to say that simply points to another problem: How many Catholics who need instruction are in fact listening these days?
Meanwhile, hold on to your hats — 2012 is just around the corner, and it’s anybody’s guess which way Catholic voters will swing that year and, more important perhaps, what will move them.
Russell Shaw is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.