Barack Obama lost the Catholic vote in Pennsylvania to Hillary Clinton by an enormous margin of 68%-31%, but his inability to attract Catholics has dogged him in earlier contests too. The "Catholic vote" overlaps with other demographics: blue collar, older, ethnic, white, all of which have garnered more press attention. But, is there something distinctive about Catholics that make them unlikely to vote for Obama? Catholic participation in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s was uneven. Archbishop (later Cardinal) Patrick O’Boyle of Washington desegregated the Catholic schools before Brown v. Board of Education, set up programs to introduce blacks into the construction trades, and gave the invocation at the March on Washington, standing alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he shared his dream with America. O’Boyle was not alone. A young priest got his start in Mississippi working with the civil rights movement. His name was Bernard Law. Other dioceses were less enthusiastic. In Philadelphia, Archbishop Krol (also later a Cardinal) presided over one of the strongest Catholic cultures in America. Ninety percent of Catholic children attended parochial schools in the early 1960s but devotional groups were still separated by gender and progressive groups like the Catholic Worker movement were not found in Philly. Krol urged the Interracial Council in his city to avoid any and all confrontation. In Los Angeles, Cardinal McIntyre’s inaction on racial matters provoked his clergy to appeal directly to Rome. The principal reason for Catholic hostility to blacks, however, lay not in history but in ethnicity and the way that a certain tribalism has characterized American Catholicism. In Windham, Connecticut, an old mill town near where I grew up, there are two large churches across the street from each other: St. Joseph’s was built by the Irish and St. Mary’s was built by the French Canadians. St. Mary’s still has a Mass in French every Sunday. The Poles went to St. Joseph’s, as did the Latinos, until a third Catholic Church, Sagrada Corazon, was built in the 1970s for the growing Hispanic population. An hour’s drive, in Middletown, Connecticut, the Irish built St. John’s and the Italians built St. Sebastian’s. In Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, PA, it was the Germans who came with the Irish. How does this racial-ethnic component affect Barack’s appeal? "Race is intertwined with a broader notion that he is not one of us," said Andrew Kohut in this morning’s Times. Kohut is the director of the Pew Research Center, which conducted a survey of voter attitudes, particularly among Democrats who don’t like Mr. Obama. "They react negatively to people who are seen as different." With parish closings, flight to the suburbs, the diminishing of traditions brought from Europe, the Catholic clergy have had to face ethnic tensions within the Church. Today, the clergy must have the courage to mount their pulpits and talk about racism in the church. There may be a variety of reasons why Barack Obama is not doing well among Catholics, including the fact that his campaign has done such a bad job reaching out to Catholics. Pastors have little interest in politics, but they must feed their sheep, and in America today, some parishioners need to be fed the Church’s teachings on racial justice. The message is simple: if you call God "Father" then you must call every man "brother" no matter if he is French Canadian or black or Polish or Latino. Michael Sean Winters
Are Catholics Racist?