Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–Pretty much ignored in the coverage of the Republican sweep of Congress was an important milestone: More Catholic women than ever in history were their party’s nominees for governor. Two were successful: Jennifer Granholm in Michigan and Kathleen Sebelius in Kansas.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in Maryland and Shannon O’Brien in Massachusetts carried the Democratic banner, but both lost in their bids for the state’s top job. (U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, also a Catholic, faces a December runoff election in her bid to hold onto her seat.)

The growing success of Catholic women in politics underlines the findings of a new report on Catholic voters, called “Beyond the Spin,” produced for the group Catholics for a Free Choice. It shows that the Catholic vote is not the conservative monolith that many believe it is.

Once upon a time, Americans feared Catholic politicians because they just might have a tunnel to the Vatican. The first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, once joked that when Al Smith, the first Catholic candidate for president, lost to Herbert Hoover, Smith sent a cable to the pope: Unpack.

Today, however, Catholics are seen as a rich political prize. “Beyond the Spin” notes that “Cultivating the Catholic vote has become the cornerstone of President Bush’s political strategy for both this year’s Senate and House races and for his own re-election effort in 2004. Since the 2000 election, the GOP has tried to attract more churchgoing Catholic voters by stressing moral and religious themes and ‘compassionate conservatism.’ We may not know just how and why Catholics voted in this year’s mid-term election, because of the election-night collapse of the Voters News Service, which was supposed to gather such demographic data.

Catholics Vote in Surprising Ways on Abortion and Stem-Cell Research

But Catholics–and especially women–do not fall into the neat categories you would imagine if the only voices you hear are those of the hierarchy or their spokesman.

The new study, issued by a pro-choice Catholic group, analyzed national surveys and polling, political reporting, and social research on Catholic voters. It found that America’s 63 million Catholics are a true swing vote, with 40 percent of Catholics falling in that voter category. Catholics are both Republicans and Democrats whose support cannot be “won” by either party on issues that are distinctively Catholic. “A majority of Catholics are not influenced by the political recommendations of their priests, their bishops or even the Pope,” notes the report.

Catholic women, in particular, vote more like other American women than like members of a “conservative” religious group. For example: 90 percent of Catholic women want access to birth-control pills, 77 percent want access to sterilization procedures and 76 percent want access to emergency contraception for victims of rape, regardless of the religious affiliation of the institution. Additionally, 61 percent of Catholics support stem-cell research, compared with 50 percent of born-again Christians and 49 percent of Republicans. Perhaps most surprising, 58 percent of Catholic voters are more likely than Republicans or born-again Christians to call themselves pro-choice, and 66 percent of Catholic voters believe abortion should be legal. Only a third of Catholic voters surveyed disagree with legal abortion.

If the results are accurate, they could mean that the Bush administration may find poor fishing among Catholic men and women on a whole range of initiatives aimed at giving legal rights to the fetus, blocking stem-cell research, substituting “abstinence-only” sex education programs for comprehensive ones, or rolling back Roe v. Wade.

Bush Administration Misjudges Catholic Voters; Democrats Ignore Them

The administration, however, believes that Catholics are attracted by “culture war” issues such as the “moral decay” of the United States, traditional family values and opposing abortion. Karl Rove, a Bush political strategist who is in charge of outreach to Catholics, told US News and World Report, “Catholics are socially and politically conservative.”

But independence has been a hallmark of U.S. Catholics for quite a while. My dad, a regular churchgoer, refused to listen to the clergy on birth control and was a committed New Deal liberal. He simply tuned out contrary political messages from the pulpit, as most Catholics do today. John F. Kennedy, speaking in front of Protestant clergy in l960, declared firmly, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute–where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be a Catholic–how to act.”

Attempts by clergy to pressure Catholic politicians have backfired. A bishop in Erie, Pa. forced a local Catholic College to withhold an honorary degree from Gov. Tom Ridge because he was pro-choice. It didn’t seem to hurt his popularity. And Catholic women politicians often ignore clerical pronouncements to be firmly pro-choice, including Michigan’s Granholm, Massachusetts’ O’Brien and Maryland’s Kennedy Townsend. In fact, the clergy sex-abuse scandal has greatly reduced the power of bishops and other clerical authorities in the eyes of most Catholics. Putting a cover-up ahead of kids did not play well.

But the report chides Democrats for not reaching out to liberal Catholics, in the way that Republicans have done to conservative Catholics, a number of whom (mostly male) have been appointed to jobs in the Bush administration. Democrats have not been actively targeting Catholic voters, which they need to do. As Catholics have risen to middle-class status, they don’t necessarily respond to the old lunch bucket Democratic issues they once did.

On the other hand, neither do they line up behind policies of the right, as Karl Rove hopes. Catholic women, in particular, seem well positioned to respond to the constellation of issues that many “soccer moms” are identified with, and that includes the right to choose and comprehensive sex education for their daughters.

Democrats neglect them at their peril.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.

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