It used to be that a political candidate's well-timed photo-op with a Roman Catholic priest or bishop could help attract the attention of the nation's Catholics voters. "It's almost impossible to find ways to appeal to Catholic voters without going to the church hierarchy," said Laura Olson, a political science professor at Clemson University. "It's the easiest way to say you are pro-Catholic." But in the wake of the sex-abuse scandals, politicians have become leery of rubbing elbows with church leaders.
During the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush and Al Gore both pursued the Catholic vote. Since then, President Bush has reached out to Catholic leaders such as he formulated policies on abortion, stem cell research and faith-based initiatives. Because of the scandal, however, Olson said keeping a distance from controversial church leaders might be the safe move for candidates. In such instances, Catholic lay organizations could become the best way for candidates to reach voters. Olson said meeting with lay groups is a way a candidate can say, " 'I care and stand for folks,' without having to shake hands with Cardinal Law."
The Catholic vote is elusive but important quarry. Catholics make up nearly a quarter of the population, but their vote is split among parties and issues. That very diversity makes them attractive swing votes. How are candidates in your state courting Catholic voters? To whom are they turning to reach that vote? Lay leaders and organizations have taken on more prominent roles in the church since the scandals; does that influence extend to politics? As November elections approach, do Catholic voters seem any less inclined to support issues pushed by the church hierarchy?
Why it matters
Roman Catholics are the largest religious group in the nation and are spread throughout the country. A large and growing number of those Catholics are Hispanics, who are soon expected to be the largest minority in the nation. In addition, Hispanic immigrants are settling beyond traditional bases such as Texas, California, Florida and New York. As a result, the Catholic vote is likely to become more critical in communities across the nation.
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• Dr. Jay P.Dolan is professor of history at Notre Dame. He has studied the effect of theCatholic Church on American society. Contact 574-631-6647, jay.p.dolan.@nd.edu.
Click the map for interview sources
in your state and region
• Laura R. Olson is political science professor at Clemson University. Sheis the co-editor of the book Christian Clergy in American Politics. Contact864-656-1457, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• William D'Antonio is professor at Catholic University of America in Washington,D.C. He follows the Catholic Church's role in U.S. politics. Contact 202-319-5911, email@example.com.
• Frances Kissling is president of Catholics for Free Choice. She took partin a Harvard conference called "Sex, Scandal, and Power: Is this the Endof the Catholic Church's Political Influence?" in May. Contact 202-986-6093.
• Raymond Flynn is chairman of the Catholic Alliance, which was formed bythe Christian Coalition before being spun off as an independent entity. He alsois a former mayor of Boston and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. Contact202-544-9600, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Timothy Byrnes is a professor of political science at Colgate Universityin Hamilton, N.Y. and author of Catholic Bishops in American Politics. Contact315-228-7509, email@example.com.
• Bishop Wilton Gregory, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Oct. 6 that he hoped that the church's sex abuse scandals would not lessen its role in shaping public policy. Read the Associated Press story in the Boston Globe.
• Roman Catholics are the largest Christian group in the United States, at about 25 percent of the population. The Roman Catholic population is concentrated in the West, Southwest, the Texas Rio Grand Valley, parts of the Midwest and the Northeast.
• A survey taken in September 2000 found that "Slightly half of Catholics say they would want a priest to urge parishioners to support or oppose a specific law or to contact their elected officials. Only one in ten Catholics would want a priest to urge parishioners to support or oppose a specific political party or candidate."
• A June 5 Associated Press story on the growing role for lay groups in the Catholic Church.
• ABC News polls "Who goes to Church?" and "Not doing enough (about child sex abuse)?"
• The Catholic Alliance was formed by the Christian Coalition before it was spun off as an independent entity. The group is conservative. Its website offers information on how the group, made up mostly of lay people, is trying to influence the national agenda.
• U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offers information on how the Church hierarchy is working to influence the national agenda.
• An April 15, 2002, Journal News article on the Catholic Church's loss of political clout in the New York Legislature.
• A February 2002 Boston Phoenix article on Boston Cardinal Bernard Law's eroding political power in Massachusetts.
• A July 6, 2002, Washington Post article on the Catholic Church's diminishing political power in the Northeast.
• An April 13, 2001 New Republic article on how President Bush has courted the Catholic vote.
• A June 29, 2001 editorial in The Tidings, a newspaper of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, about President Bush's efforts to develop a strategy to corner the Catholic vote.
• A July 9 Washington Post article on President Bush's failure to accept an invitation by Boston Cardinal Bernard Law to appear at this summer's annual meeting of Catholic Charities USA.
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