Courting and Coercing “The Catholic Vote” in America

The reality of the Catholic Church’s Social Teachings as stated clearly by Pope Francis and the U.S. Conference of Bishops is that neither of the two major party candidates for President is completely in step with the Catholic Church, and so Catholic voters, after careful discernment, should form their individual consciences based on the full breadth of these teachings and avoid casting votes through the lens of a single issue.  Anyone saying that it is a “sin” to vote for one candidate over another is either misunderstanding Catholic teaching, misrepresenting it, or both.

Courting and Coercing “The Catholic Vote” in America

The Struggle for the Catholic Vote in America

The concept of “Separation of Church and State” may be enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, but “religion” is one of the top media headlines around the world when reporting on the U.S. elections this year.  Of particular note is the attention given to “the Catholic vote” and its logic-defying subtext of support for a president who is fundamentally against virtually all Catholic values except one, and who in 2016 openly clashed with Pope Francis.  This is in contrast to demonstrably deeply religious, weekly Mass-attending Catholic Joe Biden.

The international community is understandably confused. “So, Biden is Catholic, but why are Catholics voting against him and for Trump?  What happened to make them to think this way?”

Much of the analysis and many recent articles have done a worthy job of identifying and documenting the fact of this phenomenon – Catholics voting for Trump – but without explaining exactly what brought the majority of them to think this way.

We know from post-election data analysis of the 2016 Trump victory/Clinton loss showed that the “Catholic Vote” tipped the Electoral College in Trump’s favor in three key Great Lakes states with large Catholic populations – Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Trump won each of those states by narrow margins, but with strong Catholic support, especially among white Catholics, and almost solely as a result of Trump’s anti-abortion rhetoric and Clinton’s support for “pro-choice.”  

As Professor Ryan P. Burge writes in Christianity Today, “to win re-election (in 2020,) Trump might be able to afford to lose some evangelical votes, but he definitely cannot afford to lose Catholic votes.”  A recent New York Times article by Katie Glueck Trump and Biden Court Catholic Vote, in Very Different Ways does a good job of showing how the two candidates are courting the Catholic constituency, highlighting that “abortion” is again a critical factor. 

Mark Markuly, Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry, Seattle University, wrote an op-ed piece in the Seattle Times recently entitled, God help us: Religion’s influence on the 2020 presidential election, which comes closest to identifying the underlying answer when he quotes Warren A. Nord, author of “Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma” as saying that “a deeply religious culture like America puts itself in peril when it becomes simultaneously religiously uninformed.”

Religiously Uninformed & Misinformed

Putting it all together then, it’s obvious that the answer to why there is large Catholic support for Trump is “abortion.” The explanation of what is causing this single issue to sway so many Catholic votes, however, is exactly what Nord warns about: being “uninformed.”  It is because of the gross misunderstanding by almost the same number of these Catholics of the reality of the Catholic Church’s official teaching on “Pro-Life.”

Pope Francis through his addresses, the Catholic Church through its documents, the US Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) through their directives, such as Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenshiphave all said officially – repeatedly – that candidates and issues must be evaluated in the full context of Catholic Social Teaching.

Forming Consciences states that Catholics are encouraged to form their consciences based on the breadth of Catholic Social Teaching and to avoid casting votes through the lens of one issue.   

The USCCB’s Forming Consciences details at great length the entirety of Catholic Social Teaching, and frames it against how Catholics need to evaluate not only the issues of the day but the candidates as well.  It is a 46-page tome more along the lines of a theological treatise, and, understandably, many Catholics have not read it.  Many Bishops have not explained it well to their faithful nor to their priests.

That wouldn’t be a problem except that for some time now, some lay Catholic groups and organizations (and even some priests), supported by some Catholic radio stations and websites, have usurped the voice and authority of the Church and have claimed – falsely – that their interpretation of Catholic Social Teaching, which hinges on usually just one part of one aspect of “Pro-Life” Catholic Social Teaching – usually abortion – is the only lens by which all candidates and issues must be judged. 

These groups and their supporters have portrayed the Church’s teachings as a stack-ranked order of weighted priority to make it appear that it is the Church’s teaching that only one part of one teaching – being anti-abortion – outweighs all others. In this way, their simple messaging aims to convince Catholic voters (as well as voters of other faith persuasions) that voting for a candidate who is in line with every other Catholic Social Teaching except being pro-choice is a mortally sinful act, but voting for a candidate who stands against every Catholic Social Teaching but at least verbally supports anti-abortion initiatives, is the only holy choice. (Again, while this is what they claim, according to the Catholic Church, this is patently false and tantamount to spiritual bullying and coercion.)

Silence of the Lambs

Unfortunately, the Catholic Church, in wanting to appear politically neutral and only speaking through published statements and documents, has inadvertently continued to enable these lay groups to rise up and purport to “speak for the Church” by virtue of identifying themselves as “Catholic.”  For many Catholics in the pews (and non-Catholics as well) who hear these distorted messages and false threats of damnation, it seems like this is the authoritative voice of the Church because it is loud and goes unchallenged.  However, it is not the authoritative voice of the Church. 

For Catholics who don’t care and make up their own minds one way or the other, or who understand what the Church actually teaches and make up their own minds after careful discernment, this is not a problem.  But for Catholics who are ignorant of what their Church actually teaches but who want to follow what they think their Church teaches – and there are many as has been well documented – they have been deliberately misled by these groups. This has resulted into their being confused as to what to do, and finally, being cajoled and browbeaten by false claims of “mortal sin” and damnation unless they vote a certain way.  Perhaps to put it more accurately, if not more colorfully, paraphrasing one of Rick’s famous lines in Casablanca, “they’ve been misinformed.”

This is how large groups of well-meaning, religious Catholics have defied logic and their own faith’s teachings and been able to sway presidential elections.  

Some priests are finally speaking up to counter this problem with the truth about Catholic Teaching and voting.  Fr. Michael Ryan, influential Pastor of St. James Cathedral in Seattle, the seat of the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, writes eloquently, clearly and specifically, on Oct. 4, 2020 in a brilliant essay to the his parish and the wider community in his “Letter to the Parish”  “…what needs to be acknowledged right up front – is that, when it comes to all of the serious moral issues that make up the body of what is called Catholic Social Teaching – and there are many – neither of the two major party candidates for President is completely in step with the Catholic Church. I’ll say that again: neither of the two candidates for President is completely in step with the teaching of the Catholic Church. For that reason, every Catholic voter is required to do some serious study and some serious soul-searching – study that involves learning as much as possible about Catholic moral and social teaching in all its breadth, depth, and complexity; soul-searching that involves the delicate work of conscience which, in the end, is the only path to making an enlightened choice.

…trust me, there is a choice and anyone who says otherwise is either misunderstanding Catholic teaching, misrepresenting it, or both. And that includes the priest from Wisconsin who recently released a video implying that anyone who voted Democratic was going to hell! 

Let me clarify something else. Despite impressions given – sometimes intentionally, sometimes not – the Catholic Church does not endorse candidates for public office. It must not. The Church respects the right and the duty of each of its members to study the issues and to make an informed, conscience-driven decision about which candidate to vote for. This becomes difficult when, as is the case with the upcoming election, neither candidate nor political party can make the claim to be “pro-life” in the full, rich sense in which the Church understands that term. 

Can we get an “amen” to that?

The Sin of Coercion

Until the real authoritative body of the Catholic Church (the same one that would quickly and loudly disavow and crush lay and clergy voices interpreting Church teaching to promote, say, married priests or women priests, or same-sex marriage, for example) steps up and takes control of managing its own message in a clear, easy to understand way, like Fr. Ryan’s letter, this confounding contradiction of Catholic voting patterns will continue. Worse, the intense personal confusion forced upon Catholic voters by the Church itself, will persist.  Catholics need to be told in no uncertain terms by their Church’s highest authorities – the bishops and archbishops – in unison, that they are free.  Free to choose.  Free to vote.  Free to form their own consciences and make decisions as Catholics based on discernment from the fullness of Catholic Social Teaching, and not to be coerced by any Catholic groups claiming that only their particular cause célèbre matters or that a vote for a certain candidate other than theirs is somehow a “sin.” That falsehood is directly against the teaching and instruction of the Church. When we come to that point, where Catholics understand, as Fr. Ryan put it, “as much as possible about Catholic moral and social teaching in all its breadth, depth, and complexity,” candidates will be forced to spout more than just a one word battle cry and hope to “capture the Catholic vote.” 

In the end, after careful reflection and prayer, guided by this knowledge that they are free to discern taking into account the entire context of Catholic Social Teachings, individual Catholics may come to a conclusion to vote for one candidate over the other for different reasons involving their conscience and heart.  That’s OK. That’s democracy.  That is also true spiritual discernment.  But coming to that conclusion by any other means is nothing short of spiritual coercion and bullying and that, in no uncertain terms, is a sin. 


Sources cited in this article:

  1. Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship
  2. Firing a Salvo in Culture Wars, Trump Pushes for Churches to Reopen
  3. Donald Trump Fires Back at Sharp Rebuke by Pope Francis
  4. Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching
  5. Trump and Biden Court Catholic Vote, in Very Different WaysKatie Glueck, September 25, 2020
  6. God help us: Religion’s influence on the 2020 presidential election, Mark Makuly October 12, 2020,
  7. “Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma”, Warren A. Nord
  8.  “Letter to the Parish”, Fr. Michael Ryan, October 4, 2020,
  9. Civilize It: Dignity Beyond The Debate
  10. Pope Francis urges bishops to teach Catholics discernment on voting and politics

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