5 Myths About the Catholic Vote And How to Counter Them

Amie Newman

Think you know how Catholic voters feel about the issues and how they'll vote in the elections? Think again.

We know now that at least half of all members of the Tea Party self-identify as part of the religious right. It is clear that this election season, with its Tea Party influence, is about the ways in which a political movement cloaked as a party can successfully “hide” its religious extremism for only so long. Jeff Sharlet explores this today, in fact. Jodi Jacobson has been writing about the “duh” factor in this link, which the mainstream media ignored at our peril, over the last few weeks. The possibility of this election “mainstreaming extremism,” through the victory of Tea Party candidates with their outrageous stances on womens’ health access in this country is frightening.

Even religious organizations and members of the clergy who don’t align themselves with the progressive or reproductive rights movements are saying enough is enough.

All of this has created an environment ripe for a misunderstanding of exactly how those voters who identify as religious do feel about the issues – and how they may vote.

Catholics for Choice says “many news outlets are repeating misinformation about what Catholics believe and what they can and should do when it comes to voting.”

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If you are a Catholic voter, you might be wondering why your support for contraception, your view that the economy and good jobs are more important issues to focus on than ensuring that same sex couples cannot marry, or that you don’t believe your legislators vote for the health care reform bill was a vote for “taxpayer funded abortion” has not been represented by the media.

Here are 5 myths about the Catholic vote, according to Catholics for Choice, and how you can clear them up for people:

MYTH ONE: Catholics are more conservative than the rest of the electorate
REALITY: Catholics’ opinions largely mirror those of the rest of the electorate

  • Sexually active Catholic women older than 18 are just as likely (98%) to have used some form of contraception banned by the Vatican as women in the general population (99%). (National Survey of Family Growth, 2008) 

  • Catholics (69%) are as likely as people with different religious beliefs to support medical research using embryonic stem cells left over from in-vitro fertilization procedures: Protestants (74%), other Christians (66%) and the overall population (72%) have broadly similar views. (Harris Interactive, 2010)

On these and other issues, we see that Catholics make up their minds independent of the bishops or the loud noises from the blogosphere. 

MYTH TWO: All Catholics oppose abortion
REALITY: Catholics are prochoice

  • When Catholic voters considered healthcare reform in 2009, and were asked about access to abortion, they supported health insurance coverage for abortion in many circumstances: when a pregnancy poses a threat to the life of a woman (84%); when a pregnancy is due to rape or incest (76%); when a pregnancy poses long-term health risks for a woman (73%); when test results show a fetus has a severe, abnormal condition (66%); and whenever a women and her doctor decide it is appropriate (50%). (Belden Russonello & Stewart, 2009)

  • Only 14% of Catholics in the US agree with the Vatican’s position that abortion should be illegal (Belden Russonello & Stewart, 2009) and a poll released by the bishops themselves in late 2008 showed just 11% of US adults support the bishops’ preferred option: a complete ban on abortion. 

The reality is that like people of other faiths and no faith, a large majority of Catholics can see circumstances in which abortion is an acceptable or even necessary moral choice. 

MYTH THREE: Catholic teachings on reproductive health issues are rigid and unchanging
REALITY: Catholic teachings on abortion and family planning are more nuanced than the bishops claim

  • Although the Catholic hierarchy says that the prohibition on abortion is both “unchanged” and “unchangeable,” this does not comport with the actual history of abortion teaching. At the outset, the church hierarchy only opposed abortion because it suggested illicit sexual activity. Their current position evolved in later years. 

  • Church teachings on moral decision-making and abortion are complex. In Catholic theology there is room for the acceptance of policies that favor access to the full range of reproductive health options, including contraception and abortion.

The reality is that Catholics can, in good conscience, support access to abortion and other reproductive health services and affirm that they can be a moral choice.

MYTH FOUR: Catholics do what their bishops tell them to
REALITY: Catholics do not want to hear from their bishops about politics

  • Only eight percent of Catholics believe that the views of the US bishops are “very important” in deciding for whom to vote. Seventy-three percent of Catholics believe they do not have a religious obligation to vote on issues the way their bishop recommends and 69% of Catholic voters do not believe they have a religious obligation to vote against candidates who support legal abortion. (Belden Russonello & Stewart, 2008) 

These numbers are crystal clear. Catholics are perfectly capable of making up their own minds about whom to vote for and can and do, in good conscience, cast votes that their bishops might oppose. 

MYTH FIVE: Catholics are obsessed about abortion
REALITY: Abortion is not the only issue that concerns Catholics

  • An overwhelming majority of Catholics (92%) rate the economy as very important; almost as many (91%) say jobs are their top issue in the coming election. These numbers are nearly identical among all major religious groups and the overall population (90% for the economy and 88% for jobs). 

  • Social issues, such as abortion, are much farther down the list with fewer than half of Catholics and Americans (both 43%) rating abortion as “very important” during this election cycle. (Pew 2010 Annual Religion and Public Life Survey)

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