Those consistently complex "Catholic voters"

51772329If you read the comments threads on the Divine Mrs. MZ's recent post on Notre Dame, President Barack Obama and the U.S. Catholic bishops (or some of them, at least), you can see that we are veering back into familiar territory. I am referring to the tendency among many mainstream journalists to make references to trends among "Catholic voters," "American Catholics" and other broadly defined terms that reveal next to nothing in terms of usable information. The truth, of course, is that it is becoming harder and harder to argue that American Catholics are part of one church, with one approach to doctrine, morality or church life.

At the Washington Post, Michelle Boorstein managed to pack some of this complexity into a way-to-short update under the headline, "Notre Dame's Obama Award OK with Most Catholics." The word "most" is crucial, of course. Here's the lede:

There is a vocal and influential constituency of American Catholics who disapprove of the University of Notre Dame's decision to invite President Obama to speak at the Catholic university and receive an honorary degree in mid-May. But almost twice as many Catholics approve of the invite -- not a total shock since the majority of American Catholic voters cast ballots for the president.

Catholics upset with Notre Dame for giving Obama (a supporter of abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research) what many see as American Catholicism's highest award have been slamming Notre Dame since the honor was announced.

So who are these angry Catholics? The road, as usual, leads to the omnipresent pollsters at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. And once again, the most significant statistic can be found further into the report, way past the headline grabbing fact that 50 percent "of Catholics" (whatever) back Notre Dame's decision to violate a U.S. Catholic Bishops policy (full text here) by giving Obama an honorary doctorate, while 22 percent "say they disaprove."

But here is the key statistic, if you want to understand the complexity that many reporters are missing -- especially in newsrooms without experienced religion-beat professionals.

... (A)uthors of the poll note that there is a gap in the Notre Dame controversy that persists in so many arenas -- between more and less observant Catholics. Among white, non-Hispanic Catholics who attend church weekly or more often, approval of the decision plummets to 37 percent. Forty-five percent said the decision was wrong. Among those who attend "less often," 56 percent support the invite while 23 percent oppose it.

Pew's poll also shows that weekly attending white Catholics are now noticeably more negative toward Obama's performance compared with earlier this year. In fact, a plurality of this group (45%) now disapproves of the job Obama is doing, more than double the figure in February (20%).

Here is the actual language from the poll's executive summary:

... (A) new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life also finds a deep division on this issue between the most-observant Catholics and those who are less observant, as defined by frequency of worship service attendance. These findings are consistent with Catholic's overall views of Obama: a majority voted for him in the 2008 presidential election and express approval of his performance in office thus far. The new findings are also consistent with Catholics' views on abortion and embryonic stem cell research, with pluralities in the poll expressing support for each. But a division between the most-observant Catholics and less-observant Catholics also is apparent on these issues.

Did you catch that? The disagreement over Notre Dame and Obama is essentially the same as the disagreement among clashing American Catholic camps over the issue of the moral and legal status of abortion itself. In fact, 61 percent of the "attend less often" Catholics believe that abortion rights should be protected in all or most cases, as opposed to 30 percent (still an interesting number) among the "attend weekly" Catholics.

Clearly, there needs to be another line drawn inside the "attend weekly" flock if we are interested in finding what unites the Catholics -- the pro-catechism Catholics? -- who back the U.S. bishops' statement opposing the granting of honors to those who actively oppose Catholic teachings. We need to know more about the Catholics who are mad at Notre Dame.

Thus, let me once again share the four-pronged typology that a veteran priest here in Washington, D.C., gave me a few years ago. There are, he said, four kinds of Catholics in this country and, thus, four "Catholic votes" on almost any issue. Any news report that lumps these groups together isn't worth very much.

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. Cultural conservatives have no chance.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be one of those all-important "undecided voters" depending on what's 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.

* The "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 a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

So, who is cheering for Notre Dame? Who is booing?

I confess (key word) that I think the pros at the Pew Forum needed to ask one more question. The weekly Mass question is crucial, but what about that other controversial sacrament? What about people who do and don't go to confession?

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