When and Where Bishops Can Sway the Laity

Thomas Reese, SJ and Peter Steinels both conclude that in the aftermath of Tuesday’s elections results, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ political prestige suffered greatly, not least because the very pro-choice Barack Obama won a majority among Catholic voters. Fr. Reese said the bishops’ “episcopal authority took a major hit,” while Steinfels declared the bishops to be one of the night’s “big losers.” Without getting into the merits of whether the bishops should prioritize certain issues, I think their conclusion is overstated.

For one thing, Fr. Reese and Steinfels imply that abortion was the lone issue this election on which the bishops sought to influence the votes of the laity. In fact, the legalization of homosexual marriage was another issue this fall, and the bishops’ influence seems to have been felt at the polls.


A good example was Proposition 8 in California, a constitutional measure that sought to overturn the state Supreme Court’s decision in favor of same-sex marriage. Mark DiCamillo, the director of the Field Poll, the state’s most respected poll, noted that Catholics voted heavily for Prop. 8 not only in terms of percentage but also in numbers:

When comparing the findings from The Field Poll’s final pre-election survey of likely voters (n-966) to the Edison Media Research exit poll in California, the biggest differences relate to the turnout and preferences of frequent church-goers and Catholics. The Field Poll, completed one week before the election, had Catholics voting at about their registered voter population size (24% of the electorate) with voting preferences similar to those of the overall electorate, with 44% on the Yes side. However the network exit poll shows that they accounted for 30% of the CA electorate and had 64% of them voting Yes. Regular churchgoers showed a similar movement toward the Yes side. The pre-election Field Poll showed 72% of these voters voting Yes, while the exit poll showed that 84% of them voted Yes.

The same kind of phenomenon occurred when the first same-sex marriage ban was voted in California in the March 2000 election (Prop. 22), although because of the size of its victory( 61% Yes vs. 39% No) it didn’t matter much back then. In that year The Field Poll’s final pre-election poll, also completed about one week prior to the election, had 50% of Catholics on the Yes side, and accounting for 24% of the vote. Yet, the network exit poll conducted that year by Voter News Service showed them to account for 26% of the electorate with 62% voting Yes.

My take is that polling on issues like same-sex marriage that have a direct bearing on religious doctrine can be affected in a big way in the final weekend by last minute appeals by the clergy and religious organizations.

How much the bishops influenced the outcome is difficult to say. For all of the talk about the Bradley effect, there also seems to be what might be called a Gay-Marriage effect – a reluctance by voters to tell pollsters that they oppose same-sex marriage. So it is fair to conclude that some Catholics were unwilling to state their preference for traditional marriage but vote for it in the ballot booth. And I cannot determine whether any of the state’s bishops’ mandated that statements in favor of Prop. 8 be read at Mass the weekend before the election; for what it is worth, my parents heard a sermon against gay marriage at their parish in the Bay Area. Yet Catholic bishops did more than the minimum in favor of Prop 8: issue statements and put out position papers. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops donated $200,000 to the major group in favor of Prop. 8. The state’s bishops also made a competent video in support of the measure, which I can no longer find on YouTube.

For another thing, Fr. Reese and Steinfels’ conclusion that the bishops didn’t influence the presidential vote is surely too sweeping. It is true enough that a majority of Catholic voters went for Barack Obama, an unwavering supporter of abortion rights; and that dozens of bishops implied that Catholics should do no such thing. But this dynamic seems to have been exclusive to the big cities and suburbs, a large majority of the electorate admittedly. It does not seem to have applied to small towns and rural areas, including those in the North. Mark Silk’s state-by-state breakdown of the Catholic vote seems to support this conclusion.

Westmoreland County in western Pennsylvania is another good example. Besides a 2-to-1 registration favor of Democrats, the county had except for 1972 voted for a Democratic presidential nominee from the New Deal until 1996. But that changed. As I wrote in Why the Democrats are Blue, the dioceses’ bishops in the past eight years have been vocal in their criticism of pro-choice Democratic presidential nominees. If the county’s Democratic chairwoman is to be believed, their words affected the county’s Catholics. The county voted for George W. Bush twice and heavily for John McCain (57-41) on Tuesday.

Still, Fr. Reese and Steinfels are surely correct to conclude that as a rule, the bishops cannot expect the laity to follow in lockstep with their political wishes. I plan to write about that topic at another date. But for now, let’s have a more balanced assessment of the bishops’ political strengths and weaknesses.

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10 years 4 months ago
In giving so much material support for the passage of Prop 8 without giving pause to reflect on the astonishing elevation of the right to marrry as a basic human right amd subject to the close scrunity level of protection of the equal protection clause, the catholic leadership has participatied in a divisive undermining of the authority of the Court and in imposing as a tyranny of the majority that eviserates the equal protection clause for all Californians. It will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court will allow the yes on 8 majority to vote away their rights, which of course is not possible. Pope Benedict said “The union of love, based on matrimony between a man and a woman, which makes up the family, represents a good for all society that can not be substituted by, confused with, or compared to other types of unions,” The pope also spoke of the inalienable rights of the traditional family, “founded on matrimony between a man and a woman, to be the natural cradle of human life”. What was so interesting in the California Supreme Court’s reasoning is its defense of the familial aspect of same sex marriages. If the Pope and the US Conference of Bishops want to conflate Catholic theology and secular law, they would be wise to read the Court’s concern for the families of same sex unions. The cradle for adopted, neglected or abandonned children,is found in all unions, including same sex and is more in keeping with sacramental theology where all, through Christ, become the adopted children of God. Ironic that a secular Court has so much to teach the Church in this regard.
10 years 4 months ago
The Church needs to accept the fact that this is the 21st Century, not the Dark Ages, and most Catholics no longerblindly accept the directives of the clergy. Catholics in America are rapidly becoming "American Catholics", abandoning Rome as the theocratic center of the Church. As Americans become more and more educated, the authority of the clergy will continue to be ignored by all but the most zealous Catholics. Until the clergy purges itself of the hypocricy that rots its moral code, it will continue to diminish in prestige, membership and moral authority.
10 years 4 months ago
Maybe. Same-sex unions are not a life issue, and the bishops didn't get quite as much airplay on it. Americans remain somewhat squeamish about what homosexuals do, and that has been so for decades. I wonder how much "fatigue" is in play when the same message gets hammered by the same (it seems) bishops year after year. I read that Prop 8 proponents may have erred by keeping homosexuals out of their pre-election publicity. The post-election publicity is sure turning out badly for them. My guess would be the bishops' influence on same-sex unions is neutral.
10 years 4 months ago
The US Catholic Bishops lost credibility under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. In an effort to gain popularity with the liberal media, Bernardin proposed the most absurd things like saying the US should unilaterally disarm from nuclear weapons. Bernardin was rewarded for his efforts on behalf of liberal Democrats when Bill Clinton rewarded him with the Presidential Medal of Honor immediately after Clinton vetoed the bill which would have outlawed partial birth abortions. Clinton vetoed the bill before his re-election bid and then dragged out old faithful Joe--who would do anything to be loved by the liberal press--to give him credence with Catholic voters. Bernardin got what he wanted the praise of liberals and the Bishops lost all credibility.
10 years 4 months ago
I'm struck by the following observation: "For all of the talk about the Bradley effect, there also seems to be what might be called a Gay-Marriage effect – a reluctance by voters to tell pollsters that they oppose same-sex marriage. So it is fair to conclude that some Catholics were unwilling to state their preference for traditional marriage but vote for it in the ballot booth." If the reluctance of voters to state that they would not vote for an African-American candidate can be attributed to shame about racism in the case of the Bradely effect, to what should the reluctance be attributed in the case of the Gay-Marriage effect?
10 years 4 months ago
I am a church-going Catholic living in San Francisco, and I found it abhorrent that the Archbishop of San Francisco would support such a hateful ammendment to the California constitution. I am proud to know that the pastor at my parish also refused to read the Archbishop's statement on Prop 8 during mass. I hope in the future Catholics will use their own moral compass to realize that state discrimination on the basis of sexual preference is not only wrong, but opens the door for other kinds of discrimination on the basis of religion, race, etc.
10 years 4 months ago
The main victims of the Church's political positions are actually its conservative Catholics, some of whom get all hot and bothered - sometimes to the point of sin - at current events - particularly in the areas of abortion and marriage. On abortion, the link between a candidates position and actual policy is tenuous at best since the pro-life movement really does not offer anything in the way of serious options. Yet my father was so concerned, as fathers always are, for my immortal soul because I was a Clinton supporter. This concern came out in the form of anger and I hold the Bishops responsible for whipping it up. He certainly would not have been at all accepting of my brother's sexuality, which my brother wisely kept from him.
10 years 4 months ago
Let me amplify Michael Bindner's comment on bishops whipping up anger among conservative Catholics. Let’s look at the human impact on everyday Catholics. Consider these incidents in 2004, in Raymond Burke’s former diocese in Wisconsin. An eighth-grader at a Catholic school in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., was told by a school secretary on election day, “So you’re a baby-killer, eh?” A math teacher said that “as Catholics, you’re supposed to vote for Michels,” the candidate challenging Sen. Russ Feingold. (The student’s father was a Democratic activist, and his aunt was a Democratic state legislator.) In Thorp, Wis., a parishioner had written a letter to the community weekly stating that voters should consider an array of moral issues. At Masses some days later, a local pro-life newsletter was handed out inside the church, including a letter rebuking the parishioner. The tone for civil discourse is set at the top. If bishops are making hysterical pronouncements in St. Louis, Kansas City, Scranton (and who knows how many other places), can we be surprised when laity take their cues?
10 years 4 months ago
The basic argument of Seamus, Andrew, and Michael Bindner is that opposition to gay marriage is unjust discrimination and that marriage is a human right. The logical conclusion to this is profound: EVERYBODY has the right to marry whomever, whenever, and however. First cousins can marry first cousins; men can have multiple wives simultaneously; children can marry children. Do they really believe this?
10 years 4 months ago
The Church's position on gay marriage proportedly is designed to honor families. This is wrongheaded, since families have children and some of these children are gay and lesbian. The Church owes it to those of us who have gay and lesbian siblings to celebrate their unions as the joining of two families. The alternative is the absurd notion that the parents and siblings of gay adults should have more to say about their loved one than their partner. This flies in the face of what our Lord says about marriage (That when someone gets married they abandon their families and cling to their spouse). Celebrating gay marriage honors the meaning behind the Lord's words. Protesting based on the gender terms is the type of proof texting one expects from the Protestants.
10 years 4 months ago
Mark, first cousins can marry with a dispensation. Closer relatives having sex is incest and so marriage does not apply. Additionally, nuclear family members (parents, children, siblings) are already of ONE FLESH before the law - meaning that they have the right to dispose of the property of the loved one, including their corporeal property (decisions regarding life support, resuccitation, etc.). Marriage severs that priority in favor of the spouse. Celebrating gay marriage in the Church would allow the Church to witness as a community the joining of the two families and the blessing of the separation of the flesh (the son in effect leaves his parents and siblings and cleaves to his husband or the woman her wife). As I have stated, Gay Marriage is not about the couple, it should be both legally recognized and sacramentally blessed for the FAMILIES who are having to deal with a change in the relationship with one of their members. As the family member of a gay brother who got married in California under the wire, I feel cheated that we could not put on a church wedding for him and for his husband - although the officiant at his wedding was wearing a Roman collar - so I consider him sacramentally married anyway.


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