Throughout what has seemed to be an endless election year, pundits and talking heads have often discussed “the Catholic vote,” debating among themselves if American Catholics would support President Barack Obama or Gov. Mitt Romney. The answer is that some Catholics will vote for one, and some Catholics will vote for the other.
Catholics do not vote as a bloc. They have not voted as a bloc for many years. But there was a time when the Catholic voting bloc was a political powerhouse.
In spring 1935, the state of Massachusetts was facing a cash-flow crisis. The Great Depression was still raging, and no one in the State House wanted to vote to raise taxes. Gov. James Michael Curley — an Irish Catholic — offered a solution: institute a state lottery. It was such a simple, painless way out of a fiscal mess that virtually all of the state legislators declared themselves to be in favor of the lottery. The bill appeared to be on its way to an easy victory.
Then, on May 20, the archbishop of Boston, Cardinal William O’Connell, issued a public statement: “I am opposed to a state lottery.”
He went on to explain that on its surface the lottery may have seemed to be innocent, but it was in fact “out-and-out gambling,” and that it would bring “corruption and demoralization” into Massachusetts. Twenty-four hours later, state legislators were tripping over one another to explain to their constituents that when they had thrown their support behind the lottery, they had not given the issue sufficient consideration. Now, having had time to study the proposal, they believed that the lottery was a bad idea that should be abandoned.
Today, of course, Catholic bishops often instruct their flocks on moral issues, yet more often than not Catholic politicians take no notice.
That was not the case in Massachusetts in 1935. At that time, 80 percent of the state’s Catholics attended Sunday Mass every week; most of them sent their children to parochial schools; and many of them participated in Catholic social and religious organizations, such as the Holy Name Society or the Altar Rosary Society. They identified themselves as Catholics, and they recognized their bishops as their leaders.
If the Massachusetts legislators had defied Cardinal O’Connell and passed the lottery bill, most, if not all, would have lost the support of their Catholic constituents and, subsequently, would have lost their seats in the State House.
Please notice that Cardinal O’Connell did not tell the legislators how to vote, nor did he tell the Catholic faithful of Massachusetts how to vote in the next election if the lottery bill passed. He said he was opposed to the lottery. That was all. But that would have been enough to galvanize the Catholic vote in Massachusetts in the next election, and the Massachusetts legislators knew it.
That is an example of a Catholic bloc. Nothing even close to it exists in America today.
Thomas J. Craughwell is author of “Stealing Lincoln’s Body” (Harvard University Press, $17) and “Patron Saints” (OSV, $14.95).