It must be hard for Catholics coming of age today to believe that once upon a time the idea of one of their own being elected president seemed almost impossible.
While no Catholic has been elected since John F. Kennedy, a barrier was broken in 1960 that has since allowed Catholics to pursue the highest office in the land. This spring saw many evangelical Christians — a group once highly suspicious of Kennedy — vote in large numbers for Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Catholic, and Newt Gingrich, a Catholic convert. Now we have two Catholics running for vice president.
Catholic representation in the halls of power is about more than just the White House. Where there used to be one Catholic seat on the Supreme Court, now there are six. Catholics make up about 28 percent of Congress.
Whether Catholics vote as a bloc is the subject of some debate. What is true is that those who identify themselves as Catholics tend to pick the winner. In 2008, 54 percent of Catholics, according to exit polls, voted for Barack Obama. Four years before, they chose George W. Bush.
Some observers, such as Deal Hudson, draw a distinction between Catholics who regularly attend Mass and those who self-identify as Catholic to pollsters. According to Hudson, those who may go to Mass more regularly were the mirror image of the 2008 exit polling, with 54 percent going for John McCain.
How significant this distinction is can be argued. Since a minority of self-identified Catholics go to Mass weekly, it may mean that efforts by the bishops to weigh in on issues from the pulpit are reaching only a minority of Catholics, while the larger number of their self-identified but less-committed co-religionists tend to be influenced by other trends.
In the 2012 election cycle, expected to focus on jobs and the economy, social issues such as contraception, abortion and gay marriage have received wide coverage. Some of this was inevitable when, on the eve of the primaries, the Department of Health and Human Services announced regulations that would force Catholic institutions such as universities, hospitals and nonprofit companies like Our Sunday Visitor to provide insurance coverage for contraception, abortifacients and sterilization.
Much of the legal debate has hinged on the religious liberty argument: Can the government define what qualifies as a sufficiently Catholic institution based on such criteria as the number of non-Catholics they employ or serve? In the secular media, however, the conflict has morphed into a broader debate about contraception and abortion. Along with efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and pass personhood amendments for the unborn child, as well as the (justified) furor over comments about “legitimate rape,” the last six months have revealed that social issues continue to be very important.
Anecdotally, I know from friends and extended family that Catholics seem — like the nation — to be strongly divided as we head into the home stretch of this election-year marathon. Beyond pocketbook and life issues, concerns for the poor, the uninsured and the aged remain powerful priorities for many.
What I do not know is whether the religious liberty issue is going to tilt the divided Catholic vote. The reaction I have heard most often is bemusement at why the administration would pick this battle in an election year, since the HHS regulations seem a direct challenge to the Church. Whether it will be seen as such by most Catholics is one question going into the fall campaigns. For both the Obama and Mitt Romney camps, whether it will change anyone’s vote is the more important one.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.