By Gregory B. Hladky
4:40 PM EDT, September 4, 2012
Connecticut is a very Catholic state. And Connecticut's Roman Catholic bishops have been very politically active lately, loudly criticizing Obamacare, pro-choice Democratic candidates, and politicians who support gay marriage.
But that doesn't mean they're going to have any real impact on how Connecticut Catholics vote. In fact, some experts and reform-minded lay Catholics believe the bishops' moral authority and their ability to influence their flock is lower than it's ever been, despite their higher political profile.
"A lot of that has to do with the way the bishops have mishandled the sex abuse crisis," says Paul F. Lakeland, a Fairfield University professor of religious studies and director of the school's Center for Catholic Studies. Lakeland says American Catholics have never had much use for political messages from their bishops.
John Marshall Lee, a board member and former leader of the Connecticut chapter of the Voice of the Faithful church reform group, argues that the combination of sexual and financial scandals have severely damaged the Catholic hierarchy.
"They have eroded their authority tremendously," Lee says. He also cites poll data to back up his claim that, "Our church leaders have lost the people in the pews" on a whole range of hot social issues that are driving this political season.
Connecticut's Catholic leaders aren't doing all this on their own. They're part of a nationwide campaign by American Roman Catholic bishops to convince people that religious freedom is under attack.
And they insist they're not favoring one party or directly telling Catholics how to vote, although their "religious freedom" message is largely directed against the Obama Administration's regulations requiring most religious group employers to make contraceptives available to their workers through health insurance.
Attempts to get an interview with a spokesperson for the Connecticut bishops were unsuccessful. "We will not be able to contribute to your story at this time," Maria Zone, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Hartford, said in an e-mail.
But Zone has in the past denied the bishops were looking to sway votes. "We're just letting people know what our position is," she told the Hartford Courant not long ago.
In his August column in the Catholic Transcript, Hartford Diocese Archbishop Henry J. Mansell warned that the Obama Administration's mandate on birth control coverage "must continue to be challenged."
"The threats to religious freedom are ominous," Mansell argued. "It is especially critical that we continue to contact those in public office, and those running for office, with our convictions on these matters. Religious freedom is a fundemental pillar of our society. We must be passionate in its support and stand forcefully against its erosion."
The Catholic hierarchy's political stands aren't uniformly pro-Republican. The bishops don't care for some of the GOP's plans to slash social programs for the poor, and they've applauded Obama's recent decision to allow illegal immigrants who were brought to this nation as infants to stay.
Connecticut's Catholics make up 36.6 percent of this state's population, according to the U.S. Conference of Bishops. That's the fourth highest in the nation behind Rhode Island (59 percent), Massachusetts ( 42 percent) and New York (37.1 percent). Catholics represent about 22 percent of the entire U.S. population.
Lakeland says American Catholics' views on most issues aren't that much different from the views of their non-Catholic neighbors. And public opinion polls indicate that most American Catholics are more liberal on many issues than their bishops.
"It's probably safe to say that most Catholic bishops appointed [by the Pope] in the last 10 years or so have been relatively conservative," Lakeland says. That includes Archbishop Mansell and William E. Lori, who was bishop of the Bridgeport Diocese until becoming Archbishop of Baltimore earlier this year.
"Currently, the American bishops are doing a lot of chest beating and taking a higher profile politically," Lakeland adds.
Lori has been one of the most prominent critics of the Obama Administration's requirement that faith-based colleges and hospitals offer employees health insurance plans that cover birth control. He is now heading up the Catholic bishops controversial campaign to promote the idea that religious freedom is under attack.
But most American Catholics aren't buying what the bishops are selling.
A recent Public Religion Research Institute poll found that about 60 percent of Catholics in this country don't believe that religious freedom is under attack.
The same polling group last year found that 43 percent of American Catholics support same-sex marriage; and another 31 percent favor gay civil unions. The Catholic Church considers homosexuality to be a "sign of intrinsic disorder."
Another survey by the Public Religion Research Institute in February indicated that 58 percent of Catholics agreed that all employers should be required to offer employees health insurance coverage for birth control at no cost.
In Connecticut, a state with very liberal attitudes about abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage, the bishops' arguments on these issues are likely have even less traction with Catholic voters.
Recent polls show Obama leading Republican Mitt Romney by about seven percentage points in Connecticut.
The political track record of Catholic bishops in this state hasn't been terrific.
Several years ago, Mansell led the fight to block state legislation to require Catholic hospitals to provide Plan B birth control to rape victims, and lost. The bishops lost another high-profile fight when the General Assembly approved same-sex marriages.
Repeal of Connecticut's death penalty last year was something Connecticut's bishops have been urging for decades. But how much influence they had on that debate or any other major political issue in Connecticut is questionable.
Catholics in Connecticut "behave politically very much like any other Americans," says Lakeland. "And they don't take marching orders from their bishops."