Straying Flock: Overwhelming Majority Of Catholics Ignore Voting Instructions From Bishops

A survey of 1,000 self-identified Catholic voters found that overwhelming majorities feel no obligation to vote the way the bishops tell them to.

Last night the nation witnessed a debate between two Catholic politicians: Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.).

You could say these two represent divergent wings of America’s Catholic population. Ryan is a traditionalist who focuses on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Biden hews to the church’s social justice message, which is more progressive in tone.

But what about the church’s membership? Where does it stand? A new poll indicates no small measure of disconnect between the Catholic flock and the church’s hierarchy, which these days tends to elevate the social issues over social justice. In fact, one could argue that the hierarchy is out of touch with its flock on many issues.

A survey of 1,000 self-identified Catholic voters found that overwhelming majorities feel no obligation to vote the way the bishops tell them to (83 percent) and think Catholic politicians are free to ignore voting instructions from the bishops (76 percent).  

It’s no surprise, then, that Catholic voters are not overly interested in many of the issues that the bishops are emphasizing this election season. More than three-quarters (79 percent) of Catholics said in the survey, which was conducted on behalf of Catholics for Choice, that they want the next president to make job creation his top priority. Just 28 percent of Catholic voters said abortion should be the number-one priority of the next president, and only 16 percent said same-sex marriage should be the top issue.

In addition, most Catholics don’t want to see abortion criminalized nor do they want priests to deny communion to Catholics who support legal abortion.

Catholics do not listen to their bishops when making electoral decisions,” said John Russonello, partner at Belden Russonello Strategists, which conducted the poll. “In fact, they reject the bishops’ political views and make up their own minds about whom to vote for and what issues they care about.”

As never before, the bishops have tried to sway the outcome of a presidential election and also influence legislation concerning reproductive healthcare options, marriage equality and reproductive freedom. The bishops launched “Fortnight for Freedom,” a prelate-led project supposedly intended to rally parishioners against an alleged assault on religious freedom led by President Barack Obama. Some Catholic churches have even endorsed Mitt Romney or opposed Obama. This survey suggests that these heavy-handed tactics have been for naught.

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said the results of the survey show the bishops’ attempts to control elections and determine the fate of legislation have failed.

“As we prepare to vote in this election, we have witnessed a concerted effort by the U.S. bishops to convince Catholics that some issues are more important than others,” O’Brien said in a statement.

“This poll,” O’Brien continued, “shows that the bishops’ efforts have been a spectacular failure. Catholics reject this type of politicking from the pulpit and refuse to be cowed by their religious leaders.” 

The bishops should stick to spiritual guidance and stay out of politics because that’s what most Catholics want. People don’t attend church because they want to be told how to vote, and if the bishops aren’t careful, people won’t attend church at all.