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Some Catholics oppose Santorum! Imagine that!

Yes, it's Catholic voter time again. But before we get into that, raise your cyber-hands if you think one of the most important stories in the year -- think religious liberty, think higher education, think politics -- is the growing evidence of deep, bitter rifts inside American Catholicism linked to (a) basic matters of doctrine and (b) the degree to which people practice the faith (the old reality of the "pew gap" statistics) in sacraments and worship?

With that in mind, consider this rather strange headline from CNN (hat tip to my former student Chris Moody of Yahoo! News) on a rather predictable story:

Loudly Catholic Santorum loses Ohio Catholics

(CNN) -- Rick Santorum, a conservative Catholic who is outspoken about faith-based issues, lost Catholic voters by a wide margin in Ohio on Tuesday, potentially a key factor that allowed Mitt Romney to squeak out the narrowest of victories overall in the state.

According to CNN's exit polls, Romney took 43% of Ohio Catholics on Super Tuesday, compared to 31% for Rick Santorum, and Romney beat Santorum overall by 38% to 37%.

I assume that "loudly" refers to the fact that Santorum has been so vocal about his Catholic beliefs that some journalists have insisted on calling him an "evangelical." This also implies that the opposite of a "loud" Catholic is a "quiet" Catholic and that this is the kind of Catholic who is a hit with the mythical "Catholic voter" bloc. Loud Catholics are scary.

This brings us back to that "Catholic voter" typology that I developed years ago after talking to a veteran Catholic priest here in Washington, D.C. However, let me note that I have tweaked this to reflect some valid points linked to a recent post on a related topic (click here for a refresher). The "ex-Catholic" reference has been changed to affect a reality that, frankly, I should have thought of long ago.

The four basic "Catholic voter" camps:

* Ex-Catholics. While most ex-Catholics are solid for the Democrats, the large percentage that has left to join conservative Protestant churches (including some Latinos) may lean to GOP.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter -- check out that classic Atlantic Monthly tribes of American religion piece -- depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* "Sweats the details” Roman Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but this is a very, very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

Now, who thinks that it is highly likely that Santorum is doing just fine with the fourth camp, but that many if not all folks from the liberal side of camp one and most from camp two are lining up to vote against him? In other words, the most controversial fact about Santorum to many Catholics is that he is an enthusiastic advocate of Catholic moral teachings. In other words, Catholicism is a very controversial topic among Catholics in North America.

But here is the big idea, once again: It adds very little to news coverage to talk about a "Catholic vote" without adding layers of information about these radically different forms of Catholic voters. There is no one "Catholic vote."

Nevertheless, one of the main New York Times stories from Ohio served up the "Catholic vote" myth, as usual.

Oh, by the way, make sure you check out the classic photo on the top of the report, the one with the elderly nun clutching her rosary at a Santorum rally. I would have thought that Santorum would be a hit with young Catholic nuns, these days, as opposed to the older generation. Then again, this sister is dressed in a habit. She is one of THOSE nuns.

The "challenge" reference in the first sentence below refers to winning the votes of blue-collar workers:

Mr. Santorum’s challenge was slightly different. He did not have to expand that base, per se, because many blue-collar voters in Ohio were already part of his natural constituency, made up of anti-abortion activists, evangelicals, some Tea Party supporters and people who called themselves very conservative.

Stephanie McGee, 23, a nurse who voted at the Holy Family Church here in Steubenville, said that she favored Mr. Santorum because “he believes in traditional family values and is not afraid to stand up for them.” ...

Michigan polls had also showed an interesting turn of events in Mr. Romney’s favor with Catholics, an important subset of voters. In Michigan, they favored Mr. Romney, who is Mormon, over Mr. Santorum, who is Catholic, by seven percentage points. Exit polls in Ohio showed that Catholics here favored Mr. Romney as well.

Obviously, McGee is one kind of Catholic voter and, if you happen to know the Steubenville area, it isn't hard to picture her being a very traditional Catholic believer. But she is only one Catholic voter. The polls show that, whether journalists want to write about that reality or not.

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