Ever since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, American Catholics have been identified in the public mind as the leading opponents of abortion. But as heavily Catholic Ireland prepares for a referendum on abortion policy, data suggests that American Catholics, as distinct from the church hierarchy, are fairly closely aligned with the rest of the country on the issue.
Evangelical Protestants, who overwhelmingly oppose abortion but lack Catholicism’s formal hierarchy, have taken the lead on grassroots activism, while Catholic bishops lead in Washington at the policy level. As individuals, American Catholics tend to follow their own conscience — wherever it may take them.
According to the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of Catholics in the U.S. think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, whereas 44 percent think it should be illegal. The American public in general is only slightly more supportive of access to abortion services: 57 percent think it should be legal in all or most cases, while 40 percent think it should be illegal. In contrast, 70 percent of white evangelical Protestants want abortion to be illegal in all or most cases. Only 55 percent of black Protestants share this view.
Ireland, an overwhelmingly Catholic country to which many American Catholics trace their ancestry, is holding a referendum Friday on whether to repeal the country’s ban on abortion: “Yes” votes go toward lifting the prohibition, and “no” votes go toward keeping it in place. The outcome is likely to be close, but the mere fact of putting the issue on the ballot suggests that the division between lay people and the church hierarchy is not limited to the U.S.
Although evangelicals lead the anti-abortion movement at the ballot box and on the street, the well-organized and powerful Roman Catholic hierarchy still plays a major role on Capitol Hill and behind the scenes.
The Catholics for Choice (CFC) advocacy group presents itself as a counterbalance to the Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on matters concerning sexuality and reproductive health. CFC makes the case for abortion access within the context of Catholic faith.
CFC vice president Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe said the formal hierarchy thinks of itself as the sole arbiter on moral decisions for its community but that the faith’s teachings on conscience mean individuals must be free to follow their own and allow others to do the same.
“The difference is the evangelical parishioners may follow their pastors when they tell them how to vote, but Catholics not only don’t do that, we also fundamentally disagree with our hierarchy who’s wielding this power, why they’re doing it and how they’re doing it,” Ratcliffe told Yahoo News.
Ratcliffe said the USCCB acts as the bishops’ lobbying arm and tries to speak for the whole faith, but, she says, “the Catholic Church actually involves all of us and what we believe.” Even going back to 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, Ratcliffe thinks a good portion of Catholics thought abortion should be legal, understanding it to be a personal, moral decision.
USCCB, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News, has repeatedly rejected CFC’s claim to Catholic identity and argued that it’s an arm of the abortion lobby whose efforts seek to undermine the church’s authority. According to the bishops, CFC rejects and distorts Catholic teaching.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York and chairman of USCCB’s committee on anti-abortion activities, said in a statement, “As the U.S. Catholic bishops have stated for many years, the use of the name ‘Catholic’ as a platform to promote the taking of innocent human life is offensive not only to Catholics, but to all who expect honesty and forthrightness in public discourse.”
The USCCB has set five goals for the current period: evangelizing, family and marriage, human life and dignity (which includes opposing abortion), encouraging vocations to the priesthood and promoting religious freedom.
The Rev. James Martin is an American Jesuit priest who recently wrote a book, “Building a Bridge,” about the importance of compassion for LGBT Catholics within the church. He said the polling data on abortion is surprising because the hierarchy has in no way withdrawn from the abortion debate.
“Among the Catholics who are active in the pro-life movement and have protested and written, I don’t see any pullback on that. But that has always been a particular subset of the Catholic population. Not everyone is as active in the pro-life movement,” Martin told Yahoo News.
Martin described himself as “100 percent pro-life” because he “believes in the dignity of all life, and that’s not only unborn children in the womb but also the lives in LGBT people, so it’s all consistent.”
Pope Francis’s pastoral pronouncements have been celebrated by liberal Catholics. In the past two months Francis has said caring for the poor is as important as opposing abortion and reportedly told a gay man, “God made you like this and he loves you.”
On the LGBT comment, Martin said, “Pope Francis is basically saying what every reputable psychologist, psychiatrist and biologist says, which is that people do not choose their sexual orientation, so it is not only a pastoral statement but it is also a true statement.”
But Ratcliffe said there’s a strong disconnect between Francis’s stated vision for the church’s future and the USCCB’s political agenda in the U.S.
“Not only do the bishops not follow his lead in that way, they really have doubled down on their agenda,” Ratcliffe said. “The Catholic bishops really have moved an agenda, starting in 2011 on redefining what religious liberty means in this country, and they’ve convinced the Trump administration in particular — although, to some extent the Obama administration as well — that their version of religious liberty must be, if not followed, certainly acknowledged.”
The earliest Gallup poll on Christian views of abortion was conducted in 1975, just two years after Roe v. Wade. Of Catholic respondents, 32 percent said abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, 50 percent said it should be legal under certain circumstances, and 17 percent said it should be legal under any circumstances. Of Protestant respondents, 21 percent said abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, 58 percent said it should be legal under certain circumstances, and 18 percent said it should be legal under any circumstances.
This data suggests that evangelical opposition to abortion has undoubtedly intensified since the mid-1970s, whereas the lay-Catholic opinion has remained comparatively consistent.
According to Ratcliffe, evangelicals might oppose reproductive rights in larger numbers but they are not as well organized. Catholic bishops, she said, are still active in the halls of power, whether it’s getting members of Congress to repeat their talking points, helping to write various amendments on congressional committees or encouraging the Trump administration to install high-level conservative Catholics in Health and Human Services, the White House or the Domestic Policy Council.
According to a CFC survey, nearly 6 in 10 (59 percent) of Catholic voters said the views of their bishops in the U.S. are not relevant when deciding whom to vote for in presidential elections. Four in 10 said the bishops’ views were important. Two out of 3 Catholics would disapprove of religious universities denying employees or students insurance for birth control on the grounds that it’s a sin. Seventy-four percent would oppose (including 59 percent strongly opposing) a law that would allow companies to deny services to an employee or customer based on the owner’s religious beliefs.
“The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is absolutely still behind the scenes and in the halls of political power, wielding influence that’s undue based on what the vast majority of Catholics think about these issues,” Ratcliffe said.
Ratcliffe agreed that evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham and Rick Warren have been important players in the current abortion debate but thinks the Catholic hierarchy remains more influential on the issue.
“I would argue that conservative Catholic organizations in conjunction with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are still very much at the front of that pack.”
The Rev. Rusty Lee Thomas, the national director of Operation Save America, a Protestant evangelical conservative organization that opposes abortion, Islam and homosexuality, said in the early ’70s that the anti-abortion movement was seen as primarily Catholic but that evangelicals have become more active and outspoken in the anti-abortion movement since then.
The Roman Catholic Church has always condemned abortion as sinful, but evangelicals do not have a comparable hierarchy and claim to follow only the Bible, which never mentions abortion. It does, however, contain subtle references to life in the womb.
“It was a slow process as more evangelicals got involved to end this holocaust in the United States of America. More doors had opened to the evangelical churches. Specifically, in the last four or five years, the vision and mission has spread tremendously within the evangelical church,” Thomas told Yahoo News.
More and more, he said, evangelicals are taking their message to the streets, government officials and abortion providers, which he called “death camps.” He said the strategy now is to work on ending abortion one state at a time. Invoking the Protestant doctrine of the lesser magistrate, which posits a lesser ruler’s authority to rebel against a tyrant, Thomas is calling upon local and state governments outlaw abortion and gay marriage regardless of federal law the same way progressive states have legalized recreational marijuana despite federal law.
The anti-abortion movement started to make larger strides on the local and state level in 2010. By January 2016, the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization committed to reproductive health, reported that 27 percent (288) of all 1,074 abortion restrictions enacted since Roe v. Wade came after 2010. And this hasn’t slowed down. A Planned Parenthood report in March showed that the first three months of 2018 alone saw half of all states attempt to introduce at least one abortion ban.
It’s worth nothing that the states at the forefront of this anti-abortion push don’t have many Catholics in them.
In a newsletter that was excerpted in New York Magazine, Harold Meyerson, the executive editor of the American Prospect, noticed that the eight states with the largest Catholic populations — Rhode Island (42 percent), Massachusetts (34 percent), New Jersey (34 percent), New Mexico (34 percent), Connecticut (33 percent), New York (31 percent), California (28 percent) and Illinois (28 percent) — were among the 17 states that had not enacted any abortion restrictions since 2010.
Meyerson pointed out that the states with the lowest number of Catholics — Mississippi (4 percent), Utah (5 percent), West Virginia (6 percent), Tennessee (6 percent), Alabama (7 percent), North Carolina (9 percent), Georgia (9 percent), South Carolina (10 percent), Kentucky (10 percent), Idaho (10 percent) and Virginia (12 percent) — were among the 33 states that did pass abortion restrictions.
“It’s no longer the case, and it has not been the case for a long time that you can attempt to win significant blocks of Catholic voters with an anti-abortion stance,” Meyerson told Yahoo News. “I don’t think that’s actually where most American Catholics are at, and secondly, there’s very little data showing that this is that important an issue to them. They tend to rank other issues — economic issues and among liberal Catholics certainly social justice issues — higher than the abortion question.”
In the 2016 presidential election, Republican Donald Trump got more Catholic votes than Democrat Hillary Clinton: 60 percent to 37 percent. But Hispanic Catholics supported Clinton over Trump by a wider ratio, 67 percent to 26 percent. Although Catholics are still most heavily concentrated in the Northeast, there’s been a recent increase in the South and Midwest. Much of the growth in the Catholic population is because of immigrants or the children of immigrants, many from Latin America.
Mark Gray is a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a social science research center affiliated with Georgetown University that studies Catholicism. By and large, he said, the big topics for Catholics at any moment tend to be the same as for the public at large, whether that be the economy, terrorism, health care or something else.
“If you look at the most important problem or issue in an election, they tend to be identical to the general population, so there’s not a different set of issues that Catholics are concerned about that non-Catholics aren’t,” Gray told Yahoo News.
Gray, who also directs CARA Catholic Polls, said his research bears out that Catholics and the American public in general have similar opinions on abortion but that there’s an important nuance to keep in mind.
“If you just ask a single question about abortion, you’re not really measuring people’s attitudes. It’s just too complex of an issue,” he said. “It’s really not a yes/no question for almost everyone.”
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