The survey found that there is an enormous gulf between the 58% of Catholics who accept all (17%) or most (41%) of the teachings of the Church and those who accept only some teachings or who say that the Church has little or no influence in their lives. The degree to which Catholics live their faith is a key determiner in how they respond to the issues of our time and how they vote.
That gulf is especially apparent where the question of the 2020 election is concerned.
Catholics – especially engaged or active ones – have been a crucial voting bloc in every election of the last fifty years, and 2016 was no exception. Donald Trump split the total Catholic vote with Hillary Clinton, and he will have a very difficult time regaining the White House without comparable Catholic support.
This poll demonstrates that the Catholic vote is far from a monolith. Across the spectrum, young Catholic voters trend toward the Democrats while older Catholics vote more consistently Republican. This poll tends to confirm also the rising influence of Latinos on American Catholicism. Thirty-seven percent of Catholics in America are Hispanic/Latino, and so both parties must recognize the importance of that aspect of those who self-identify as Catholics, especially as they trend solidly 60% Democrat.
Beyond the generational and ethnic considerations, the Catholic vote is clearly shaped by the differences between active or committed Catholics and those less influenced by the teachings of the Church but who still identify themselves as Catholic. Active Catholics (those classified as Catholics who accept all or most of the teachings of the Church) consistently vote in elections and are by far among President Trump’s most reliable supporters. They give him a 53% job approval rating (matched only by Evangelicals at 60%), and 43% of active Catholics state that they are sure to vote for him in 2020, again matched only by Evangelicals. These are strong numbers and a primary reason why 34% of all Catholics plan to vote again for him and another 19% say there is a good chance or consider it possible he will have their vote.
Still, Trump’s overall job approval among Catholics is at 44%, and among all categories of Catholics, he trails every Democrat contender a year out from the election. For those Catholics who plan to vote in the Democratic primaries, the race is tight, but two candidates seem to have captured the attention of Catholics: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, with 29% and 24% respectively. Both do best in a head to head matchup with Trump, while the others are ahead by narrower margins.
We are almost a year out from the election, of course, and any poll is a snapshot at the very start of a long campaign.
One area at least of relatively common agreement is worry over the decline of religion in the country.
A solid majority of Americans – including American Catholics – see a shrinking influence for religion and Christian values on American life, with 69% of Americans and 70% of Catholics agreeing that people are becoming less tolerant of religion in America today. Meanwhile, 62% of all American Catholics believe that Christian values should play a more significant role in our society. Notably, only 43% of young Catholics agree about the role of Christian values.
Similar general agreement exists among majorities of American Catholics who are angered by the clergy sexual abuse crisis and its impact on the credibility of the Church’s leaders. Some 63% of all American Catholics say that their trust in the leadership of the Catholic Church has been damaged by the clergy sex abuse crisis. This is seen also in the fact that 55% of all American Catholics disapprove of how the U.S. Bishops have handled the abuse crisis. Pope Francis receives better marks, with 44% of American Catholics generally approving of how Pope Francis has handled the situation, while 41% disapprove and 15% don’t know. These numbers underscore the immense pain and anger caused by the sex abuse crisis and the failures of many Church leaders to prevent it and deal with it swiftly, effectively, and transparently.
All of the findings about Catholics are of intense interest to political strategists and campaigns. For Catholics, these numbers are also deeply personal and reveal a troubling fissure between those who are active in the practice of the faith and those who are not. According to the findings of this poll, 39% of all Catholics go to Mass at least weekly; 49% of American Catholics believe in the Real Presence; and only 6% of American Catholics go to Confession at least once a month. Among the most active Catholics (those who accept all or most Church teachings), 93% pray at least once a week; 66% believe in the Real Presence of the Eucharist; 56% attend Mass at least once a week; 52% go to confession at least once a year; and 51% pray the Rosary at least once a month.
For the Catholics of America, the poll confirms what we have long suspected and even assumed. Catholicism has been battered by the winds of secularism, materialism, and relativism. Two generations of poor catechesis and formation have created wide gaps in practice and belief that stretch now into every aspect of Catholic life.
Many will find the results of this poll disappointing and even disturbing when it comes to how many Catholics in the United States do not consider the faith to be important or even relevant to their lives. Others will see the results as confirmation that American Catholics have largely completed the journey begun in the 1950s and 1960’s of becoming unrecognizable from their fellow citizens. There is still much more to learn in the coming polls over the next year, especially in understanding more about the active Catholics and the key issues of our time, including abortion, secularism, religious liberty, and the polarization of American politics and life.
This poll, however, provides a starting opportunity to understand where Catholics stand, what they are thinking, how they are living – or not living – the Catholic faith, and how that will shape their vote and participation in American elections. While much of the news is not good, there are many signs of hope in the findings. One of them is that for all of the justifiable concern over the decline of religious and particularly Christian values among Americans, 84% of Americans and 86% of all Catholics still consider religion important in their own lives. That is a helpful reminder that we remain one nation under God even if we seem at times today far from indivisible.
Note on polling methodology: The poll was conducted with adults 18 years of age and older residing in the contiguous United States who were contacted online (English & Spanish) between 15-21 of November 2019. The sampling size was 2,055 U.S. Registered Voters, including an oversample of 1,223 Catholic voters. It has a credibility interval of Registered voters of +/- 2.38 percentage points and Catholic voters of +/- 2.66 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.