Everyone agrees that the "Catholic vote" is important: it was 24 percent of votes cast in recent presidential elections and presumably determined the winners of key states. Candidates court it and pundits analyze it. But no one seems to know what (or who) it actually is.
Or even if it exists. MSNBC.com labelled the "Catholic vote" a myth after Gallup found 90 percent of Catholics split evenly between Obama and Romney. But other media, viewing a tilt toward Romney from Pew research, considered the "undecided" 10 percent, and predicted that one way or another Catholics will determine the 2012 presidency.
Then, the U.S. bishops issued a statement opposing Obamacare's mandate that employers cover birth control. Their statement decrying an infringement upon religious freedom is distributed at Sunday Masses throughout America, and it's interpreted as implying that Obama must go. So columnists like Michael Novak predict that (his fellow) Catholics will swing the election to Romney.
That forecast overlooks the elephant in the right-to-living room: Catholics use contraception. Many Catholics feel that wrapping religious freedom around birth control is akin to wrapping abolishment of the death penalty around mass murderer James Holmes. Neither "right to life" case is likely to evoke the sympathy of that large "undecided" segment.
Catholics who see this brouhaha as less about religious freedom than about birth control know that ship sailed a half century ago. You don't need polls to determine how observant Catholics view birth control: the evidence is visible in the pews.
When the pill was introduced in the early 1960s, parishes had large families (like the Romneys, actually); even 10-kid families were common. Catholic women saw their decision about the pill as a moral one. Their choice to take it was made in what the Catechism refers to as "the internal forum" -- consulting their own conscience and allowing it supremacy. Parish families evolved to the same size as other American families. Even our priests get it: we haven't heard a homily advocating the church's ban on birth control for decades.
Something else happened in that '60s era. Responding to Vatican II, American nuns shed their medieval habits and went out to serve the marginalized: immigrants, AIDS patients, poor families, battered women. Consequently, our nuns champion opportunity and empowerment, rather than birth control.
The current Vatican is now charging America's nuns with a "feminist agenda" of social justice work that ignores "right-to-life" and "traditional family" opposition to birth control, abortion and gay marriage. This investigation of nuns has resulted in Catholics criticizing their hierarchy, all the way to Rome. Reactions to our global and diocesan leadership show that what separates us in the voting booth is also what divides us in the pews: whether we prioritize our church's sexuality/gender teachings or its social justice doctrines. Beyond this ideological divide, though, the shrinkage of Catholic families is silent testimony that a vast majority of Catholics in the pews use contraception.
Another indication of this general acceptance is the high-profile Catholics who publicly support birth control today. Melinda (Mrs. Bill) Gates, a Catholic, has announced that she will make birth control her signature issue in the Gates Foundation's mission to alleviate world hunger and preventable disease. Convening a global summit in June, she pledged to raise $4 billion to make contraceptives available to 120 million women in the poorest countries. Public officials like Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Director Kathleen Sebelius are among other Catholics who endorse birth control, as a right and as a moral option.
Whether the Obamacare dispute will matter in November is another question. The weak economy might trump all concerns, at least for heavily blue-collar Catholics in key states. If class matters, does ethnicity matter? Pollsters describe "Catholic voter" interviewees as
non-Hispanic Catholics who say they attend mass weekly. (Hispanic voters are researched as an ethnic category.) Yet a "Catholic vote" minus Latinos removes one third of America's Catholics.
And even without these Hispanics (who voted heavily Democratic in recent elections), a new Pew poll shows that "Catholic voters" now favor Obama 51 percent, to Romney, at 42 percent. With 7 percent presumably now undecided and a margin of error of 4.6 percent, uncertainty and volatility seem the only sure bets.
Meanwhile, here's what we do know about the "Catholic vote": that interpretations of polls (including this one) depend upon the segment of Catholicism analyzed, how sizable it is in key states. and what issues might be decisive in November. And that neither candidate should consider the "Catholic vote" a slam-dunk. Whatever it is.
Carol DeChant's recent book is 'Great American Catholic Eulogies' (ACTA Publications).