October 22nd, 2012
05:44 PM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN) – As important as the Catholic vote is in the 2012 election, a new survey finds that the group is far from monolithic and is not largely focused on the issues that get a lot of attention from church leaders – abortion and gay marriage.
Among the Catholics surveyed by the Public Religious Research Institute, 60% believe the Church should focus more on social justice issues and their obligation to the poor, even if it means focusing less on social issues like abortion and right to life.
Thirty-one percent say the opposite – they favor social issues over social justice issues.
Even among Catholics who attend church weekly or more, 51% say the Church should stress social justice issues over strictly social issues. Thirty-six percent said the opposite.
“The survey confirms that there is no such thing as ‘the Catholic vote’,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the polling group. “There are a number of critical divisions among Catholics, including an important divide between ‘social justice’ and ‘right to life’ Catholics.”
When looking at the 2012 elections, these Catholic divisions continue to be apparent.
Among those Catholics who support more “social justice” teachings, 60% support Obama while 37% support Romney. Likewise, 67% of “right to life” Catholics support Romney while 27% support the president.
Overall, Catholics slightly favor Romney over Obama, with 49% supporting the Republican challenger and 47% supporting the president.
Catholics top issues are also largely in line with Americans as a whole: 61% of Americans say the economy is the top issue in this election, followed by health care, national security, abortion and immigration. “There are few differences by religious affiliation in terms of voters’ issue priorities,” reads the report.
Catholicism has been a topic of political conversation lately, primarily because both Vice President Joe Biden and GOP vice presidential contender Rep. Paul Ryan are members of the faith. Two weeks ago, Biden and Ryan debated on the national stage – the first time two Catholics had ever debated each other in a presidential election.
The divide between social justice Catholics and social issues Catholics became further evident during the debate, when moderator Martha Raddatz asked a question about how their shared faith plays into the candidates different views on abortion.
“I don't see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do,” Ryan said. “I believe that life begins at conception.”
“I've been a practicing Catholic my whole life. And it has particularly informed my social doctrine. Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who can't take care of themselves, people who need help,” Biden said. “Life begins at conception. That's the church's judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews.”
But even as two Catholics vie for political power on the national stage, the number of Catholics, the survey finds, is shrinking.
Although nearly one-third of Americans were raised Catholic, 22% currently identify with Catholicism. As has been shown in previous surveys, the number of former Catholics remains substantial at 12%.
The religiously unaffiliated seems to be the benefactors of this decline – their numbers continue to rise, especially compared to the small number of Americans who were raised religiously unaffiliated. Seven percent of survey respondents were raised in an unaffiliated family, but today 19% identify as religiously unaffiliated.
Their reasons for the religious departures are varied.
Twenty-three percent cited rejection of their childhood faith, 16% cited overall antipathy toward organized religion and 11% cited negative personal experiences with religion as their reasons for leaving.
Five percent of overall respondents cited the Catholic Church’s child sex abuse scandal – the entirety of that group was made up of former Catholics.
The PRRI survey was done in partnership with the Brookings Institution and was made up of 3,003 adults, contacted by phone, in the United States. The survey was conducted between September 13, 2012 and September 30, 2012 and has a margin of error of 2%.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.