Survey: Catholics divided on political issues, as adherent numbers decline
The divide between social justice Catholics and social issues Catholics became most evident during this years debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan.
October 22nd, 2012
05:44 PM ET

Survey: Catholics divided on political issues, as adherent numbers decline

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%.

- Dan Merica

Filed under: 2012 Election • Abortion • Barack Obama • Catholic Church • Mitt Romney • Politics • Polls

soundoff (451 Responses)
  1. haidiochai


    January 4, 2013 at 8:53 am |
  2. zippy


    January 4, 2013 at 8:30 am |
  3. Dan K

    I did not vote for Obama because I believe what the church tells me about abortion and other sin. Oh just foe you Catholics who voted for Obama and don't know the bible Jesus said to his Church and diciples " What you hold bound on earth I will hold bound in heaven" If Jesus's church calls abortion murder Jesus does. If Jesus's church calls gay marriage wrong Jesus does.

    November 14, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Please specify all substantive action taken by pro-life candidates to bring about the end of Roe v Wade. Speeches don't count.

      November 14, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • mama k

      "Jesus said to his Church and diciples " What you hold bound on earth I will hold bound in heaven" If Jesus's church calls abortion murder Jesus does. If Jesus's church calls gay marriage wrong Jesus does."

      Lol. Of course this is just another case where you think your church has it right, and all other Christians who don't hold the same view are wrong. We don't even have to go outside of Christianity to see the conflict. This has been the nature of Christianity from the beginning – taking any side of any argument and being able to argue it from their conflicted Bible – I book based on rehashed folklore. It is no wonder that we see Christians telling each other they are not Christians – more so than to non-Christians.

      Thankfully for current citizens of the U.S., our key founders also had arguing Christians to deal with – but they had the insight to realize that our government would be successful only if religion was not involved in its primary, legislative duties.
      James Madison, the chief architect of the U.S. Constitution and its 1st Amendment reflected on the initial success of the new government in his letter to Robert Walsh on Mar 2, 1819:

      It was the Universal opinion of the Century preceding the last, that Civil Govt could not stand without the prop of a Religious establishment, & that the Xn religion itself, would perish if not supported by a legal provision for its Clergy. The experience of Virginia conspicuously corroborates the disproof of both opinions. The Civil Govt, tho' bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability and performs its functions with complete success, Whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State.

      November 14, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  4. Dan K

    Well Catholics who voted for Obama I hope you go to confession because good luck telling God at judgement you never supported abortion,gay marriage or euthenaisa because when you voted for Barack Obama you certainly supported those things. Don't play games with God and tell God seperation of church and state. If you catholics voted for Obama you need to go to confession.

    November 14, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  5. LizardMom

    First of all, My Fellow Catholics, unless your doctoral work was in molecular, cellular, and developmental neurobiology, please don’t presume to tell me when “life” begins. And Dear Sweet Mother of Jesus, call yourself what you really are: Pro-Egg,” and not at all “Pro-Life.” If you really were Pro-Life, you would be voting to maintain Roe v Wade and keep abortion safe & legal in this country. “Every year, about 19-20 million abortions are done by individuals without the requisite skills, or in environments below minimum medical standards, or both. Nearly all unsafe abortions (97%) are in developing countries. An estimated 68,000 women die as a result, and millions more have complications, many permanent. Important causes of death include haemorrhage, infection, and poisoning.” Unsafe abortion: the preventable pandemic. Grimes DA, Benson J, Singh S, Romero M, Ganatra B, Okonofua FE, Shah IH. Lancet. 2006 Nov 25;368(9550):1908-19.
    I have been a registered nurse for over 37 years, and I remember caring for young women who had been on the receiving end of an illegal abortion before it was legal in this country. After this young woman hemorrhaged to death, please tell me you believe that is what God really wanted; that is what she deserved for not holding your opinion of when life begins. ”Judge not, lest ye be judged”
    I will continue to practice my faith, attend Mass, work at homeless shelters, administer Holy Communion to those who aren’t able to leave their homes; I will NOT support the pro-egg stance of the Holy Roman Church, however. I am pro-life.

    November 8, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  6. Lauty

    It's about time!Along these lines, get a load of this, from yesterday's show ... er, I mean, fuearnl for Jack Layton:'Passing strange: The "Christian"minister, aka ring master, the Rev. Dr. Brent Hawkes announced at the beginning of theshow that he was wearing his academic gown (red, but faded to analmost becoming shade of orange), not his religious vestmentsout of deference to, and so as not to offend, other traditions. Thismea culpa had the effect of splashing cold water all over Christians– and, I might add, showing dishonour to the God we worship:Christianity, despite the "equality" spouted by the NDP andits followers, may be offensive to others, so best to hide it,to not let it see the light of day. Why didn't Brent Hawkes just laydown and ask everyone to walk all over him? 'Such a consideratefellow; such a lameduck Christian. 'No mention of Jesus atall. (The Native participant had no foibles about wearing his tradition's garb and brandishing his tradition's symbols, replete with white eagle feather, which he presented to Olivia.)Then, to add insult to injury, Nycloe Termel, read from Philippians, leaving out any mention of Jesus Christ, which was the main point of Philippians 2: Therefore God exalted him [JesusChrist] to the highest place and gave him the name that is aboveevery name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongueacknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God theFather.It was a shameless display of offense to Christians and Christianity so as not to, apparently, offend anyone else. The NDP's protestations of equality, openness, and tolerance are utterly empty. Some religions and faiths are more equal than others.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:13 am |
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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.