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Part 1

The 2004 election saw some of the most passionate involvement by Catholics, including clerics, in the political process in a number of years. But when all was said and done, was there a "Catholic vote,"—and did Catholics make any difference in the electoral outcome? Will Catholics who espouse the Church’s teaching, particularly on the primacy of the right to life and on the sanctity of marriage, have any impact on policy and lawmaking going forward?

IgnatiusInsight.com asked a number of Catholic thinkers and political activists those questions and the consensus was—maybe, maybe not. Catholics voted in greater numbers for President Bush this time—at 51 percent, up from 47 percent in the 2000 election. Weekly church-attending Catholics showed even greater support, 56% to 43%. According to newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, Bush also increased his margins among Hispanics and Jews.

But that is just over half of the Catholic electorate voting for a candidate who clearly espoused pro-life principles, in comparison to Democrat candidate John F. Kerry, who advocated unrestricted access to abortion, including partial birth abortion. This in spite of several bishops’ public condemnation of Kerry’s anti-life positions and announcements by several that they would not give him communion.

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput told IgnatiusInsight.com Friday that Catholics willingness to speak out made a difference.

"I think the abortion issue, the marriage issue, and the contradictions built into Sen. Kerry's private views vs. his public actions had a huge impact on the way Catholics voted," Chaput said.

"Two out of three regular Mass-going Catholics in Florida and Ohio voted against the Democrats. That was decisive," said the Colorado bishop, whose interview and op-ed piece in The New York Times during the election's closing days stated the right to life is a foundational principle. "The issues-education carried out by some Catholic groups and bishops clearly had an effect," Chaput said.

The most pessimistic about the Catholic vote was Catholic Answers founder and president Karl Keating. More positive were Father Richard Neuhaus, editor of the interreligious journal First Things, Catholic activist Bill May, Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online, and Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life. Day, whose religious affiliation is unknown, says Catholic activism broke open a number of national and state races.

"Priests for Life was traveling all around the country encouraging people to vote and to vote for pro-life candidates. I am sure they had a huge impact on this election and getting people out," says Day. "It’s been a good year for pro-life Democrats," she said, noting that while George W. Bush carried West Virginia, the state elected a new pro-life Democratic governor, Joe Manchin III. Louisiana’s two Congressional runoffs feature prolife Democrats, she said, and Robert Casey Jr. was elected as state treasurer in Pennsylvania.

"This time the Catholic vote broke significantly for President Bush and I think that is something of considerable importance in terms of the realignment of Catholic voters in this country," said Father Richard Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things, a highly-regarded, monthly journal of religious thought.

"I think more and more Catholics are being weaned from their almost reflexive identification with the Democratic Party and we are witnessing what I wrote about twenty years ago in a book called The Naked Public Square—Catholics and Evangelical Protestants, in short, self-consciously orthodox Christians in the public square, increasingly finding one another in common cause and in this case, the most important common cause of the culture of life," Neuhaus told IgnatiusInsight.com.

Neuhaus said even The New York Times editorial page put a "but" after its endorsement of women’s reproductive choice on Thursday in a call for ending the social wars in the United States. "That’s an absolute first," Neuhaus said. "And coming from the hard-core pro-abortion center that is The New York Times. It indicates at least in the initial shock of the election results that some serious rethinking is going on."

NRO's Lopez says she believes Catholics were a factor, particularly in battleground states. "The Republican party, it seems to me, deserves credit for engaging Catholics and evangelicals. Hispanics (who fall under both), too. Their grassroots operation this time was something on a whole new level for them, really beating Democrats at the ground game-the grassroots factor," she said.

Whether Catholics were as decisive a factor as Evangelical Protestants and other social conservatives is unlikely, says Karl Keating, founder and president of the apologetics apostolate Catholic Answers, which published a "Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics" that many attributed with swaying and energizing pro-life Catholics to come out in greater numbers.

Although Keating is one of the most active in the efforts to build a Catholic voting consciousness, he doesn’t think there is a Catholic vote.

"I don’t think it’s good to talk about a Catholic vote. I don’t think there is one. I think there are voters who are Catholic. …There seem to be a slightly larger proportion of Catholics who paid some attention to the Church’s moral instruction this time around than in previous years but there is still a very large number of Catholics, approaching half, who seem to pay no attention to the Church’s teaching at all." Keating thinks it is possible the margin of Catholic votes affected some races but says there is no hard proof.

Catholics did make a difference in this election by speaking out more vocally on Catholic teachings, Keating says. "I think we’ve only just begun to flex Catholic muscles in the political arena." Keating says that since self-identified Catholics comprise 25% of the electorate, if just one-in-five Catholics voted consistently on Catholic moral teachings, it would be enough to sway most elections. "We’re nowhere near close to that," he observes.

But other political activists on the ground are much more positive. Day says Democrats for Life has been getting many more calls and emails post election. And, Bill May, chairman of Catholics for the Common Good, a non-partisan Catholic action group, is energized by the election results.

"When the final analysis is in, I believe that the Catholic vote will be recognized as one of the most significant factors in President Bush’s reelection," May said. "It was reported from the exit polls that Bush won the national Catholic vote 52% - 48%. Catholics represented 27% of the total vote nationally. Bush increased his Catholic vote margin of victory compared to the 2000 election by a stunning 10 points in Florida and 4 points in Ohio. These changes were significant if not decisive in his winning those key states."

May noted Priests for Life’s intensive nationwide proselytizing for prolife votes, and "the high profile, courageous public pastoral teachings led by Archbishops Charles Chaput, Raymond Burke and John Myers, reported in the press and widely circulated through the Internet, elucidated the seriousness and the moral imperatives of issues relating to protection of life and the family."

May also credited Catholic Answers concise, unequivocal voters guide, and the sustained efforts of many Catholic lay organizations. "We also need to acknowledge the impact of wide spread prayer and fasting," he adds.

Part Two: Will Catholics have any influence on upcoming policy and law decisions, including judicial nominees? Read "Catholic Voters and the Work Ahead."

Valerie Schmalz is a writer for IgnatiusInsight.com.

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