Bush, Pope to Meet Today at the Vatican
But the Catholic vote is complex enough to defy easy categorization, and parishioners appear far more "cross-pressured" than other voters, said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin. Catholic voters seldom find candidates who reflect the church's conservative positions on such issues as gay marriage and its liberal teachings on social justice. Catholics are more likely to be part of an antiwar constituency than voters of other religions, but they are also more conservative on moral issues.
As a result, the Catholic vote is often broken down into Catholics who attend Mass weekly, a group Bush won decisively in 2000, and those who attend Mass less frequently, a group former vice president Al Gore won easily.
"The Protestant-Catholic split was once very real," said John Kenneth White, a professor of political science at Catholic University. "But the big split now is between those who go to church frequently and those who don't. Regardless of denomination, those in the pews are much more likely to vote Republican."
Both the Kerry and Bush campaigns have plans for outreach to religious voters. On Wednesday, watchdog groups publicized a Bush campaign e-mail seeking to enlist 1,600 "friendly congregations" in Pennsylvania where Bush supporters could "gather on a regular basis." IRS rules forbid tax-exempt religious organizations from endorsing candidates or engaging in partisan politics, but experts said the Bush effort will not run afoul of those rules if it is limited to voter registration and nonpartisan "issue education."
Matthew Dowd, a senior adviser to the Bush-Cheney reelection committee, said the very complexity of the Catholic vote makes him question whether there is any easy way for a politician to appeal to all Catholic voters.
Indeed, Bush and Kerry appear to be aiming their appeals at different parts of the 66 million-member Catholic community, with the president seeking support from conservative Catholics who attend Mass every week and Kerry counting on help from liberal Catholics and immigrants, particularly the country's 22 million Hispanic Catholics.
Several bishops have said politicians who stray from the church's teaching on abortion should be denied Communion, but there appears to be limited support among rank-and-file Catholics for such a penalty. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted May 20 to 23 found that 22 percent of Catholics supported the position of Catholic prelates such as St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Leo Burke, who said he would urge his priests not to give Communion to Kerry.
The poll found that 72 percent of all Catholics, and 58 percent of those who attend Mass weekly, opposed Burke's position. Evangelical Christians were far more supportive of Burke's position than Catholics were, according to the poll.
Ten days from now, the nation's bishops are expected to discuss the Communion issue and hear a progress report by a committee led by Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington at a closed-door meeting in Denver. Based on public statements so far, only a small fraction of the 300 bishops favor denying Communion to politicians who support abortion rights, though many more think such politicians should voluntarily deny themselves Communion.
Catholic leaders want the church to have a strong voice in politics, but some worry that it could be dragged into a partisan battle at a time when American politics are growing increasingly acrimonious.
"We're in a time here in our country where there is more radical annoyance with anyone who doesn't take your side. There's almost a lack of civility . . . that creeps into every institution in society," McCarrick said. "Right now I think the church is okay. But the waters are swirling around us, and they're waters that are filled with distrust and with anger and with annoyance."
In the Post-ABC News poll, Bush received lower ratings from Catholics than from the general public on Iraq, the economy and his overall handling of the presidency. For example, 34 percent of all Catholics interviewed said they approved of Bush's handling of Iraq, compared with 40 percent of all adults. On the economy, 38 percent of Catholics said they trusted Bush more, while 56 percent said they trusted Kerry.
On their choice for president, Kerry led Bush, 53 percent to 41 percent, among all Catholics. But among white Catholics, the two were almost evenly split, a sign of how much the Catholic vote remains up for grabs.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company