06/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Conservative Catholics Have Always Been in Play

Douglas Belkin's story in Thursday's Wall Street Journal proclaims that "Conservative Catholics May Be in Play" in November's presidential election. For a mainstream media that long ago bought into the far right's wistful notion that churchgoing Catholics subscribe first and foremost to a narrow conservative agenda, this may seem like a shocker headline. But for those of us who work in the Catholic trenches, it's nothing short of old news. Republicans and Democrats alike take note: Catholics - conservative or otherwise - have always been in play.

In 2004, even as smug Republicans bragged about the coalescence of a new base of "values voters," the numbers were telling a different story. In a poll conducted by Zogby International, the Catholic peace group Pax Christi USA, and others in November 2004, 62% of Catholic respondents named either poverty or greed and materialism as the greatest moral crises facing the United States. Only 31% chose abortion or same-sex marriage. Moreover, the Iraq War topped the list of moral concerns that most affected voters' decisions at the booth. A 2006 poll commissioned by Faith in Public Life and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good found similar results.

In all fairness to Belkin, the statistics cited here don't take into consideration the respondents' church attendance or political leanings. But they do paint a very different picture of the Catholic electorate than the conventional wisdom might lead us to believe: however concerned about issues like abortion and same-sex marriage Catholic voters may be, these matters are part of a larger package of moral concerns that bear directly on the common good.

Contrary to popular belief, Bush didn't win Catholics in 2004 because of his positions on life and marriage. He won because of the Kerry campaign's inability to articulate a coherent message to Catholic swing voters, and because of an astoundingly sophisticated media and grassroots operation on the part of the Republican Party and allied "Catholic" organizations. As the party worked the phones and the doors, Catholic League president Donohue peppered Kerry with holier-than-thou invective (a cursory look at the Catholic League's 2004 press release headlines dispels any lingering doubt that the organization has become a front for the GOP), and an obscure group called Catholic Answers somehow found the money to distribute millions voting guides and full page USA Today ads advancing the manufactured theological notion that five "non-negotiable issues" trumped all the others at the polls.

The issues? Abortion, same-sex marriage, stem cell research, human cloning, and euthanasia. Never mind war, poverty, the death penalty, or that whole loving your neighbor thing. Of course, none of these groups have any formal authority to speak on behalf of the Church institution - which, by the way, refused to endorse the right's message. But - with the help of a small handful of renegade or perhaps unsuspecting bishops - these partisan operatives nonetheless managed to fool a sizable bloc of Catholics into thinking that a vote for Kerry meant certain eternal damnation.

Belkin is right in his assertion that things are different now. Both Clinton and Obama have invested heavily in effective strategies to reach Catholics and other people of faith. And the argument that faithful Catholics could in good conscience only back Bush now seems a bit silly given the widespread belief that his presidency was nothing short of a catastrophic moral failure.

This latter fact confirms what many Catholics already understood: that anyone who knows their Gospel knows that the "every man for himself" agenda at the core of the neoconservative plan is generally irreconcilable with an authentic Christian worldview - even for "conservative" or churchgoing Catholics. It's because of this that the Catholic vote is - as it always been - entirely up for grabs.