In 2008, Barack Obama captured a solid 54% of the Catholic vote to John McCain’s 45%. Indeed, the vote of Catholics has see-sawed back and forth between Republicans and Democrats since 1984, when Ronald Reagan received 56% of the vote from American Catholics. Prior to the 1980 election where Reagan tallied 48% of the Catholic vote, Democrats routinely received majorities over 60%.
But the Catholic vote has changed over the last decade. Once dominated by white ethnic voters in an arc that covered the Great Lakes from Minnesota to Buffalo, NY, the average Catholic today is likely to be a young Hispanic immigrant. And while still pro-life, many Catholics no longer make abortion their primary concern when voting. Now, it’s so-called “social-justice Catholics” who dominate the clergy and especially the Catholic hierarchy — the bishops and archbishops that run the dioceses.
What does this mean for Paul Ryan, a strong and devout pro-life Catholic? Deal Hudson, former director of Catholic outreach for the Republican National Committee, spots trouble ahead for the GOP ticket among Catholics:
While the choice of Ryan will please the Tea Party as well as fiscal and social conservatives, it creates an opening for the Catholic supporters of Obama: Paul Ryan’s 2012 GOP budget has already been the subject of official criticism by some Catholic bishops for failing to meet certain “moral criteria” and cutting programs that “serve poor and vulnerable people.” The media coverage failed to note that the four letters to Congress in April came from two bishops: Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, each speaking on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in their respective roles.
The first letter arrived April 4 at the House Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies. On April 10, Ryan ably defended himself and his application of Catholic principles in an interview with David Brody.
“Those principles are very, very important,” Ryan said. “And the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life; help people get out of poverty, out into a life of independence.”
Ryan’s words were ignored amid the subsequent denunciations of social-justice Catholics, led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who after underscoring her Italian, Catholic upbringing charged:
“The Ryan budget does not address debt nor fiscal responsibility. What it does is take care of the very wealthy at the risk of the middle class and people who are poor. That is contrary to Catholic teaching.”
In spite of the fact that DeLauro completely ignores the latitude allowed to prudential judgments based upon Catholic principles, her charge will be repeated ad nauseam against the Romney-Ryan ticket over the next 90 days.
After several other letters from liberal bishops taking Ryan to task for his lack of compassion for the poor inherent in his budget proposal, the congressman fired back with a four-page letter of his own to the Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB):
Ryan knew he had more explaining to do, so on April 29 he sent a four-page letter to the president of the USCCB, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, explaining how his budget was guided by the principles of Catholic social teaching. Ryan argued that as a Catholic he was justified in taking into account the bigger picture of the entire economic situation facing the nation. He argued there was a moral obligation “implicit” in Catholic social teaching to address “difficult basic problems before they explode into social crisis.”
There is now a document in the works from the USCCB that would respond to the Ryan budget point by point. Titled “Catholic Reflections on Work, Poverty, and a Broken Economy,” it promises to be quite unsupportive of the kind of reforms Ryan is asking for. And while it won’t come out until after the election, we can be sure that liberal Catholics will charge, as Hudson suggests, that Ryan is in favor of “cutting programs,” “hurting the poor,” and “destroying the safety net” which will reinforce the stereotype of the GOP as uncaring, heartless, and the “party of the rich.”
The Catholic vote is still very important in swing states like Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Will the bishops convince their flocks to turn their backs on fellow Catholic Ryan, despite his pro-life stand? That’s the way the Catholic vote has been trending in recent elections and there appears to be nothing that Ryan can say that will change it.