Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


The Contribution of Religious Sisters to Parochial Schools in the United States

This post is authored by CARA researchers Michal Kramarek and Fr. Thomas Gaunt, SJ (also CARA's Executive Director). It provides a brief look at the contribution of religious sisters to the parochial schools in the United States. The bibliographic information for the references included in the text can be found here

Written discourse about Catholic parochial schools in the United States has been in decline since 1970’s. In fact, after enjoying over a century of higher attention, the frequency with which the topic appears in American publications in recent years is reverting to levels prior to the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore of 1884 (as shown in the chart below).

While the motto of “Every Catholic child in a Catholic school” attributed to the Council was never fulfilled (Hunt and Kunkel 1988, 286), the accomplishments of those who often committed their entire lives to its pursuit are nonetheless remarkable. The scale of those accomplishments can be illustrated by the sheer size of the parochial school system in its heyday, in the 1960’s:
  • In 1960, there were 68 Catholic schools for every 100 Catholic parishes (Kenedy 1961).
  • In 1963-1964, there was an all-time high of 13,205 Catholic elementary and secondary schools (Snyder 1993, 49).
  • In 1965-1966, there was an all-time high of 5.6 million baby boomers in Catholic elementary and secondary schools which constituted 87 percent of nonpublic school enrollment (Hunt and Kunkel 1988, 277) and 12 percent of the entire Catholic population (Kenedy 1966).
  • In the 1960s, “[t]here was hardly a town of more than 30,000 inhabitants in the United States lacking a parochial school” (Stewart 1994, 428).
Those remarkable accomplishments bring about the issue of how it was all possible. After all, the financial cost of such an undertaking must have been considerable. Or, was it? The answer to this question depends on the point of reference. For example, Burns (1912, 290-293) estimated the overall cost of education in Catholic parish schools nationwide (including cost of maintenance, salaries, supplies, apparatus, heat and light, repairs, interest and insurance), in 1909, at $9,898,008 ($268 million in 2017 dollars). By comparison, he estimated the cost of the equivalent education in public schools to be over three times higher, at $30,511,010.

The rise and decline of Catholic parochial schools appears to be partially a function of changes in the relative cost of operating those schools. The changes in relative cost were, in turn, primarily driven by the immense sacrificial service contributed by religious sisters (e.g., Burns 1912, 284; Stewart 1994, 327). In strictly financial terms, this sacrificial service can be measured as the difference between the amount of salary received by lay teachers in public schools and the amount of salary-equivalent/stipend received by religious sisters in parochial schools (i.e., the salary forgone, for a lack of better term) multiplied by the number of religious sisters in teaching positions.

In regard to the first factor, the salary forgone, the table below summarizes available historical estimates for the stipend of religious sisters in teaching positions. In available years, this stipend was roughly one quarter of the salary of lay teachers in public schools. A caveat should be added that this comparison, while illustrative, is severely limited, because it does not account for many differences between the two groups (e.g., value of room and board, educational requirements, average amount of teaching experience, additional sources of income, retirement funding, or cost of living).

It is also important to point out that the sacrifice of the sisters is larger than the ratio might be implying, because a salary’s utility does not change linearly (i.e., reducing the disposable income does not reduce the quality of life as much as reducing the income needed to cover basic expenses). Sisters monetary compensation shown in the table below is so low by today’s standards it is hard to imagine to us today. Notably, it was also hard to imagine in the past. For example, Oates (1985, 184) described a situation where “[e]ven though salaries paid religious brothers were approximately twice those provided sisters for the same work the men found them insufficient.” Stewart (1994, 322, 408) described sisters’ frugality as “extreme” and their wages to be “meager,” and only allowing for “bare subsistence.”

In regard to the second factor lowering the cost of parochial schools, the chart below shows the number of religious sisters in teaching positions. Notably, the highest number of religious sisters in teaching positions was recorded in 1965 when the parochial system was about to reach its all-time high (as described above). However, the number of religious sisters as a percentage of all teachers in parochial schools was already in decline, which might be an indication that the salary cost increase outpaced the system growth. This might have exacerbated the decline beyond what was the result of decreasing number of religious sisters in the following decades.

A caveat should be added here that other reasons also played a role in the decline of the parochial school system. Those reasons include, for example, public school systems catching up with the rapid population growth, the migration of Catholic population from cities to suburbs, and from Northeast to West (thus away from places where parochial schools were established).

So, how much of the difference did the religious sisters make? What was their contribution as measured by, so to speak, the amount of forgone salary? In 1965, when the Catholic education system was at its largest, an estimated 103,314 religious sisters held teaching positions (Stewart 1994, 419). In this period, religious sisters received approximately one third of the salaries made by lay teachers in Catholic schools (Hesburgh, Hochwalt, and Shuster 1966) and salaries of lay teachers in Catholic schools were 5 percent to 10 percent lower than salaries of lay teachers in public schools (Koob and Shaw 1970). The annual amount of salary paid to lay teachers in public schools was $6,935 (Snyder 1993, 46-48). Based on those numbers, the sacrificial service of religious sisters teaching in Catholic schools in 1965 alone allowed the Catholic schools to save an estimated $0.5 billion ($3.8 billion in 2017 dollars) relative to public schools.

It is important to point out that those large aggregate amounts are only possible due to daily sacrifices of religious sisters that accrued over a lifetime of teaching work. “[The] phenomenal expansion [of the parochial schools] would have been impossible without sacrificial giving by laity and commitment by the rapidly increasing numbers of sisters who taught without remuneration beyond bare subsistence” (Stewart 1994, 322).

While the attention of those leading the discourse about the needs of the Catholic community in the United States shifts to other, important topics, we may be well advised to remember the extraordinary financial contribution that tens of thousands of sisters made to the Catholic Church each year for decades- as much as $3.8 billion in a single year.

Top image source: Sister Joellen Kohlmann teaching religion at Guardian Angels Central Catholic High School from “Nuns getting harder to find in Catholic schools.” Please read this story for more context to the research presented in this post. Photographer and author of that story: Jerry Guenther, Norfolk Daily News.


Pain Never Disappears from Unhealed Wounds

As a survey researcher who has studied Catholic reactions to news of allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors since 2002, I have noticed that there is a detail about the crisis that seems to get distorted at times. In 2012, the last time we asked Catholics about the crisis in a national poll, 21% of adult Catholics could correctly identify that the abuse cases were more common before 1985 than since. The fact that any abuse occurred at all, regardless of when, is horrifying to me and the victims deserve justice and anything that could help them with the damages that resulted from these criminal acts. Yet, this detail is important in understanding the causes of the scandal, what legal actions are possible, and the steps that can be taken to prevent any future abuse.

The authors of the Pennsylvania grand jury report were careful to note that, “We know that the bulk of the discussion in this report concerns events that occurred before the early 2000’s” (p. 6). At the same time they correctly note that abuse “has not yet disappeared” and there are a couple of more recent allegations detailed in their findings. As they note, “Many of the priests who we profile here are dead” (p. 12). Dates for birth, year of ordination, and death are not available for all the accused in the report (some are seminarians or brothers and were never ordained). Forty-four percent of the accused in the report are known to be dead (five were born in the 19th century). Their average age at death was 73. Among the accused who are still alive or presumed alive, the average age today is 71. Priests accused of abuse in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, on average, were born in 1933 and ordained as priests in 1961. Outside of Pennsylvania, allegations of abuse have also been levied recently against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. He was similarly born in 1930 and ordained a priest in 1958. 

There is something to this generational pattern and this finding was first uncovered in the scientific study of the abuse crisis in 2004 by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. They noted in 2004, “The majority of men in this study were born between 1920 and 1950 and were ordained in their mid- to late-twenties.” The most common decade of birth for alleged abusers was the 1930s and the most common decade of ordination was the 1960s. This profile has not changed in allegations that emerged in the 14 years that have followed—including the recent grand jury report. No new wave of abuse has emerged in the United States.

The clergy sex abuse scandal unfolding in the news today is the same public scandal that erupted with national media reports in 2002 (beginning in Boston). It is likely, but no one can be sure, that the cases in the grand jury report have already been present in existing allegation totals (reports to the John Jay researchers are cited as a source for information about allegations in the grand jury report). Just as then, the abuse in the headlines most often occurred in the 1960s through the 1980s.

What is revealed new in the grand jury report is a level of detail that previous investigations have not often included. The authors report on a “playbook” that Church leaders allegedly used to handle allegations of clergy sex abuse in the state prior to 2002. “It seemed as if there was a script. Through the end of the 20th century, the dioceses developed consistent strategies for hiding child sex abuse” (p. 297). This strategy included the use of euphemisms in documentation that minimized abuse as conduct that was “inappropriate” or related to “boundary issues.” The dioceses’ investigations appeared to be deficient or biased, according to the grand jury. Many accused priests were sent for treatment in a clinical approach to the abuse rather than what should have occurred—criminal reporting. Once these treatments were considered complete, abusers were often returned to ministry in new assignments. The allegations were rarely, if ever, disclosed publicly. Victims rarely received the care they needed, let alone justice. The grand jury concludes that, “The repeating pattern of the bishops’ behavior left us with no doubt that, even decades ago, the church understood that the problem was prevalent” (p. 300). Further, “The bishops weren’t just aware of what was going on; they were immersed in it. And they went to great lengths to keep it secret. The secrecy helped spread the disease” (p. 300).

This strategy is not entirely dissimilar to the responses of other institutions when faced with any accusations of sexual abuse of minors whether it has been scouting groups, public schools, prep schools, universities, or in youth athletics. These types of institutions seem to attract sexual abusers of minors who seek positions of trust and respect with access to young people. The the John Jay researchers noted in 2011, “Sexual victimization of children is a serious and pervasive issue in society. It is present in families, and it is not uncommon in institutions where adults form mentoring and nurturing relationships with adolescents, including schools and religious, sports, and social organizations” (p.5).

The Church failed in responding to accusations of abuse and more often chose to cover up the criminal activity than disclose and report it. The Church in some cases sought non-disclosure agreements in civil settlements with victims—a practice that the grand jury believes should be abolished. What was often different in the Church than elsewhere, especially prior to 2000, was the clinical response to abuse—sending abusers for treatment and allowing them to return to ministry after this was completed. These were grave errors in judgment. This allowed abusers the potential to return to work and continue to abuse. It also ignored the legal obligation to seek justice for crimes committed.

That playbook, to the degree it was used broadly, appears to have changed in 2002. The report authors note, “On the whole, the 2002 [Dallas] Charter did move things in the right direction” and that “external forces have also generated much of the change” (p. 302). They note concern that the Church’s 2002 Dallas Charter still leaves too much of the decision making to diocesan bishops. The external changes brought by mandated abuse reporter laws, longer statutes of limitations, and increased public awareness have created a new reality. They write, “Today we sense some progress is made” (p. 303) often by actors external to the Church rather than from within it.  

Have new allegations of abuse declined as a result? The John Jay researchers aggregated the number of allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors from 1950 to 2002. Their study included allegations made by 10,667 individuals. CARA has collected the numbers of new allegations of sexual abuse by clergy since 2004. CARA’s studies, through 2017, include 8,694 allegations. The distribution of cases reported to CARA are nearly identical to the distribution of cases, over time, in John Jay’s results. We know the year that each alleged abuse began for 8,206 cases. For 488, this is not known. The figure below shows the cases where we can place these in time.

New abuse allegations have not disappeared. In the last three years, 22 allegations of abuse occurring during 2015-2017 have been made. This is an average of about seven per year nationwide in the Church. That is far too many. Nothing is acceptable other than zero. At the same time, to put those reports in some context, 42 teachers in the state of Pennsylvania, where the grand jury reported from, lost their licenses to educate for sexual misconduct in 2017. As recently as 2015, 65 teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) were in “teacher jail” for accusations of sexual abuse or harassment in that county alone. The current wave of “educator sexual misconduct” has yet to receive the same aggregation and attention that clergy sexual abuse has by the media (although The Washington Post has rung a warning bell and Carol Shakeshaft has written extensively on it in academic work). As the John Jay researchers note, “No other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and, as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church” (p. 5).

“It is happening in other institutions” is by no means any sort of excuse and that is not what is intended by referring to these realities. Instead, these other cases provide a context, which becomes important when someone who reads news of abuse occurring decades ago in churches in Pennsylvania decides to attack a priest today in Indiana or when a parent feels their children will be less safe in a Catholic school than a public school. It also points to the dangers of thinking that incidents of sexual abuse are unique to Catholic institutions.

As the grand jury report authors note, the Church has changed in the last 15 years. But you cannot “fix” the past nor can it be erased. This won’t all fade away. It’s nothing that can ever be outrun. You have to deal with it. The Church did not sufficiently do so in 2002 and the years that followed. Creating new policies to prevent future abuse are not a sufficient response to the legacy of what happened. Now, in 2018, it is time to lift the veil of any secrecy that remains. If not, the same cases will emerge again and again as if these were a wound that scabs but never heals. Every time that scab is removed it will bleed again and again. As painful as it is now, it is the time to deal with this great injury the Church brought upon itself. If anything, the re-emergence of these cases again and again should reveal that this wound has potentially deadly consequences if it is not dealt with completely once and for all.

Update 8/29: Some reactions to this post have asked about the impact of known delays in reporting by victims. There has been no substantial shifting forward in time of the alleged abuse trend between 2002 and 2017. The accusations continue to fit the historical pattern. We’d expect the trend to move forward in the last 15 years if reporting delays were evident but this has not been the case. No new wave of allegations similar to the past has occurred to date. It is also likely that most, if not all, the Pennsylvania cases are already in existing reported accusation totals.

Update 8/30: We continue to hear feedback about the delays in reporting related to the age of the victim. The data regarding accusations in the Catholic Church specifically appear to be much more event-driven than age-driven. Rather than victims reaching a certain age and coming forward, it has more often been the case that abuse being in the news that has led victims to come forward in large numbers. The figure below is from the John Jay research (p. 9) and shows when allegations were reported up to 2002. One can see the spike in the 1990s after a series of cases in the news and again in a larger magnitude in 2002 in the wake of news of abuse cases in Boston. Since 2004, new allegations have averaged 618 per year (438 in 2017). Regardless of when reports are made, the accusations often fit the existing pattern described above for when the abuse occurred. Four allegations of abuse occurring in 2017 were made in 2017.


Is Partisanship Trumping Faith?

The electoral system in the United States (first-past-the-post with single member districts) generates a two party system. Sociologically speaking, this is not a great outcome. It leads to resilient party bonds almost like a form of tribal membership. In dichotomies, people tend to operate with strong in-group, out-group attitudes and behaviors. They favor their in-group, often to irrational extremes, and disfavor the out group strongly. The in-group is believed to be ideal—especially when it is compared to the evil incarnate out-group. In the age of cable news and social media this quasi-tribalism has developed a new wrinkle—fandom. People have begun to operate as if their party affiliation is the core of their personality and worldview.

For Catholics there is an additional hurdle. They are essentially politically “homeless” in this two party system. Both party platforms have major components which conflict with Church teachings and directives. It is argued that Democrats are often out of step in terms of life issues, with the exception of the death penalty, and Republicans are often inconsistent with issues regarding the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable—including the social safety net and the treatment of immigrants and refugees. Again arguably, there are many other inconsistencies. At the same time, each party is consistent with the Church on some issues as well.

Most Catholics in the U.S.—more than 8 in 10—enter the Church as infants. They acquire an awareness of the political system and partisanship in their tween and teen years—often taking cues from parents, other family, and peers. Some never choose to politically affiliate or switch affiliations at some point. So how does one come to be a Catholic Democrat or a Catholic Republican? Well, more often than not, Catholicism takes a back seat to party and people gravitate toward emphasizing the issues in which their party is consistent with the Church when the topic of religion comes up.

The U.S. bishops, in their election document Faithful Citizenship, explain, “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position [emphasis added]. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.” In short, when choosing who to affiliate with or vote for, Catholics should not affiliate with or vote for a party or candidate specifically because they hold a position inconsistent with Church teachings. However, they should vote for a candidate or party because they specifically do offer policies that are consistent with Church teachings. 

In one sense, Catholics have actually become less partisan over time. In 1972, according the General Social Survey (GSS), about seven in ten Catholic adults identified either as a Democrat or as a Republican. This has declined over time and in 2016, only 58% identified with a party (23% don’t identify with a party but “lean” towards one and 19% are independents or support some “third” party). This shift occurred as fewer Catholics affiliated with the Democrats (54% in 1972 to 36% in 2016) and more with the Republicans (15% in 1972 to 22% in 2016).

Thus, today, 42% are “non-identifiers” with either major party. They’ve embraced their political homelessness, for now. Even without a party home one could still believe in an ideology—which is also an important component of American political culture. In 1974, according to the GSS, 24% of adult Catholics identified as a Left or Right “ideologue” (extremely liberal, liberal, conservative, or extremely conservative). In 2016, 32% claimed a liberal or conservative ideology. Most Catholics, 68% are either moderates (42%) or only “slightly” liberal (11%) or “slightly” conservative (15%). Once you combine ideology and partisanship together you get this distribution:

About one in ten Catholics are liberal Democrats (9.8%) and slightly fewer are conservative Republicans (8.2%). Most are unaffiliated and non-ideological (30.5%). The rest are some combination of party affiliation without ideology or ideology without affiliation, and then one last group where party affiliation and ideology are seemingly inconsistent. These Catholics “in the middle” are presumably those most open to policies and candidates that do not meet the rigid partisan and ideological positions of the two major political parties. They may be more able to find a space for their faith in their political discernment and choices.

Altogether 21% of Catholic adults have a partisan affiliation and a conservative or liberal ideology. As shown below, this is the same as adults without any religious affiliation (i.e., Nones) and similar to other non-Christians. However, one in four Christians who are not Catholic have a partisan affiliation and are ideological. Only the religiously unaffiliated are more likely than Catholics to be unaffiliated with a political party and without a conservative or liberal ideology.

Over time, the number of unaffiliated and non-ideological Catholics has grown. In the 1970s, 28% of Catholics were without party or ideology and this remained stable through the 1980s and 1990s. In the 2000s, this group increased its share to 33% of Catholics and has inched up another percentage point in the 2010s. A key difference in terms of religious practice is that those with partisan affiliations and ideologies are more likely than those without these to be in the pews at Mass regularly. About a third of the affiliated and ideological attends Mass weekly (another 24% attends monthly) compared to only 19% of the non-ideological and unaffiliated attending weekly (another 24% attends at least once a month).

Politically, issue-to-issue, there are not large differences between Catholic Republicans, Democrats and those unaffiliated with a party. Yet, there is a high-profile basket of issues—often those most likely to be in the news where sharp divisions, even polarization, emerges. Sometimes Democrats are out of step with the Church and at other times Republicans are.

For example, look below at the distribution of respondents, by party affiliation, for the 2016 American National Election Study (ANES) question about abortion. Yes, Republicans respond differently than Democrats but not to the extremes seen in many other questions. Note that there are many Democrats who do not support abortion as a matter of personal choice (50%) and there are Republicans who do (29%). Many Catholics simply do not take the cues from their political parties on abortion as they do on some other big issues. They also often aren’t agreeable with what the Church teaches.

Data from the GSS, over time, show that Catholics, all U.S. adults, and every other conceivable sub-group that can be measured (including weekly Mass attending Catholics) have a divided opinion on abortion. It all comes down to circumstance more than political party or faith. A majority of Catholics do not support legal abortion for “any reason,” pregnancy without marriage, being unable to afford more children, or just not wanting more children. Majorities support legal abortion if the pregnancy is a result of a rape, that the woman’s health is seriously endangered, or there is a strong chance of birth defect with the child. This divide has been stable over time since the 1970s.

Also in the GSS, strong majorities of Catholics oppose assisted suicide for people who are tired of living and who are ready to die. They’ve consistently opposed this since the late 1970s. At the same time, majorities of Catholics have also supported and continue to support allowing for assisted suicide if a patient has a disease that can not be cured and has a desire to die. (...The only life issue showing significant change over time has been a rising opposition to the death penalty for convicted murders. Currently, 41% of Catholics oppose this compared 27% in 1988).

There is a greater divide among Catholics, by party, on an issue like gun control. Seventy-seven percent of Catholic Democrats support making it more difficult in the future for people to buy a gun. Thirty-seven percent of Republicans agree but a majority would like to keep the rules for gun buying the same (56%). Few, of any affiliation, would like to see it become easier to buy a gun in the future. Just as a note, the USCCB’s Faithful Citizenship cites the importance of “supporting reasonable restrictions on access to assault weapons and handguns.”

There is undivided support among Catholics for increases in federal spending on dealing with crime (The USCCB also notes the importance of “effective responses to violent crime”). Seventy-two percent of Republicans support this as do 69% of Democrats, and 66% of those unaffiliated with a party. About a quarter of each group would like this funding kept the same. Few of any party affiliation would like to see this funding decreased.

What about immigration? Here too Catholics are not always fractured by party as some might assume. As shown below, majorities of Catholic Democrats, Republicans, and those unaffiliated with a political party favor unauthorized immigrants now living in the United States to remain and qualify for U.S. citizenship if they meet certain requirements (i.e., “like paying back taxes and fines, learning English, and passing background checks”). Indeed, one in four Republicans would like to make all unauthorized immigrants felons and then send them back to their country (along with 8% of Democrats and 13% of the politically unaffiliated). Yet, three in four Republicans would seek to allow them to remain under various scenarios. On the part of the USCCB they would like to see “comprehensive immigration reform that offers a path to citizenship, treats immigrant workers fairly, prevents the separation of families, maintains the integrity of our borders, respects the rule of law, and addresses the factors that compel people to leave their own countries.”

Support for the children brought by unauthorized immigrant parents to be allowed to stay is even more widespread. Seventy-three percent of Catholic Republicans support this as do 87% of Democrats and 81% of those without a party affiliation. Yet, there are some immigration questions with less consistency across party identifications. For example, 75% of Republicans oppose allowing Syrian refugees to come to the United States (6% favor this and 19% neither favor nor oppose). Democrats are no mirror image. Despite the Church’s call to support refugees only 33% of Catholic Democrats favor bringing Syrian refugees to the U.S. (32% oppose it and 35% neither support nor oppose this). The USCCB is clear in noting, “The Gospel mandate to ‘welcome the stranger’ requires Catholics to care for and stand with newcomers, authorized and unauthorized, including unaccompanied immigrant children, refugees and asylum-seekers, those unnecessarily detained, and victims of human trafficking.”

There is one immigration issue where political polarization is very clearly evident. Sixty percent of Catholic Republicans favor building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. By comparison, 65% of Democrats oppose this. As shown below, non-partisans have a divided opinion about the wall. Echoing a sentiment he has made numerous times, Pope Francis remarked to a general audience in February 2017 that “In the social and civil context as well, I appeal not to create walls but to build bridges.” The USCCB has advised, “The right and responsibility of nations to control their borders and to maintain the rule of law should be recognized but pursued in a just and humane manner.”

As one might expect there is also a divide on an issue like climate change but upon closer inspection there remains some common ground. This of course is an issue that Pope Francis has focused a lot of his attention on. The USCCB is clear as well, “Our Conference offers a distinctive call to seriously address global climate change.” Fewer than one in five Catholics of any partisan affiliation believe that rising global temperatures occur mostly through natural causes. Where a difference emerges is in just how much the human contribution to climate change is. Democrats are divided on whether it is mostly human activity (44%) or equally human activity and natural causes (40%). Republicans are more likely to believe there is some natural causes contributing along with human activity (60%) rather than humans being mostly responsible (21%). Regardless, whether Democrat or Republican there is common agreement that human activity is contributing to climate change. There is disagreement in how much. Those unaffiliated with a party have views similar to Democrats.

Oddly, perhaps the greatest polarization among Catholics, likely caused by partisanship, is related to issues of wealth and poverty—one area of policy and law that should be clear to any Catholic from the Gospel to the Catechism, to Faithful Citizenship. While previously noting the agreement among Catholics of different party affiliations regarding federal funding for dealing with crime, there is not the same shared point of view for federal funding for aid to the poor. Sixty-two percent of Democrats would like to see this increased compared to only 31% of Republicans and 34% of those unaffiliated with a party. Nearly half of these two latter groups would like this funding to stay at current levels. More than one in five Republicans would like to see this funding decreased (as do 10% of Democrats and 18% of those without a party affiliation).

Divides are also evident in responses to questions about government involvement in reducing income inequalities (note: there is broad and strong agreement among Catholics of all party affiliations for laws requiring employers to pay men and women the same amount for the same work). Democrats strongly favor, at 78%, increasing income taxes on people making over $1 million a year. While a majority of Republicans do as well (54%), many oppose (20%) or neither favor nor oppose (26%) this proposition. Those who are unaffiliated with a party closely mirror Democrats.

Finally on the economic front, a slight majority of Democrats favor the government trying to reduce the difference in incomes between the richest and poorest households (56%). Fewer Republicans (30%) and those unaffiliated with a party (40%) favor this method of reducing inequality. Sizeable numbers of all groups neither favor nor oppose this step and Republicans are most likely to oppose it (46%).

While there is some polarization—largely driven by partisanship—among U.S. Catholics, there is common ground as well. Perhaps more important, a sizeable number of Catholics aren’t rooting for either “team.” Looking back at the figures above, if you focus on the purple bars—representing those unaffiliated with a political party—you’ll notice that these Catholics are the most consistent with the Church’s positions on issues, with one important exception. Republicans are more consistent with the Church’s position on the legality of abortion than any other group. That’s not saying much when the total share of Republicans who are congruent is just 19%. However, 40% of those unaffiliated with a party believe abortion should be legal as a matter of personal choice, which is about as far from the position of the Church as one could get.

On other issues though, the “purple” non-partisan Catholics, as a majority, support: more gun control (57%), that unauthorized immigrants be allowed to remain and qualify for citizenship if requirements are met (63%), that unauthorized immigrant children who have lived in the U.S. for at least 10 years and graduated from high school should be allowed to live and work in the U.S. (81%), that aid to the poor should not be reduced (82%), that employers should be required to pay women the same amount as men for the same work (87%), and increasing taxes on people making over $1 million a year (72%). As a plurality this sub-group opposes building a wall on the border (43%), believes climate change is caused mostly by human activity (41%), and favors the government taking steps to reduce income inequality (40%). Neither Catholic Democrats nor Republicans are this consistent with the positions of the Church.

In recent elections, Catholics are the only major religious group that has switched the party it votes for over time. Protestants vote Republican in each election. Non-Christians and the religiously unaffiliated vote for Democrats each time. According to Exit Polls, in 2000, 2002, 2006, and 2008 Catholics voted in the majority for Democrats. In 2004, 2010, 2014, and 2016 Catholics voted for Republicans (2012 was a 50/50 split). I believe this is related to a metaphorical “drinking problem.” There is realistically only red and blue “Kool-Aid” on the table in our party system. Have Catholics, over time, been mixing these into something purple? Unfortunately, in any given election you have to choose one or the other (I’ll stay “politically sober” and stick with clear water). The key for the Church is to have Catholics choose, using their informed conscience, but to then not buy so strongly into the tribalism and fandom of partisanship as it exists today. Doing so could prevent Catholics from seeking common political ground that is more consistent with their common faith. That ground does exist in many of the figures shown above. Yet the issues where polarization is evident tend to burn more brightly at this time...

This post is a summary of what I presented at “Overcoming Polarization in a Divided Nation Through Catholic Social Thought” on June 4, 2018. This event was organized and hosted by Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. For more about Catholic partisanship and voting check out Catholics and US Politics After the 2016 Elections: Understanding the Swing Vote (Eds. Marie Gayte, Blandine Chelini-Pont, and Mark J. Rozell. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). I wrote the chapter on “Catholics and the 2016 Elections.”

Inkblot image courtesy of Håkan Dahlström.

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