More than half the Roman Catholics in this country accept “all” or “most” of the church’s teachings and try to live their lives accordingly, a new survey of Catholic voters has found.

They go to the polls, too. This is especially true of the parishioners who are most active in their church. If Donald Trump manages to win a second term in the White House, he will be indebted to the cadre of highly observant Catholics who believe that the man in the Oval Office and his political party align with their own views of faith, culture, and public policy.

This core group is the 18% of Catholics who say they accept “all of the Church’s teachings” -- and that those teachings are reflected in how they live their life. Another 38% report that they accept “most” teachings and try to live their life accordingly. Rounding out the mosaic of self-described Catholic voters in this country: 29% do not accept some of the key teachings of the church; 13% say Catholicism has only a minor influence on their lives; and 2% are lapsed Catholics.

These are among the findings in the latest poll by RealClear Opinion Research. The in-depth survey of 1,521 registered Catholic voters in the United States was conducted from Jan. 28 to Feb. 4, and has a credibility interval of plus or minus 2.77 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Respondents were contacted online, and the questions were offered in English and Spanish. It is the second such survey done in partnership with Catholic-themed television network EWTN.

The first poll, conducted in November, offered fresh insight into the mindset of a vast voting group that both major U.S. political parties consider crucial in national elections. Among other things, it revealed that a decisive majority of Catholic voters believe the United States is becoming less tolerant toward people of religious faith. Also, by a margin of 2-to-1, registered Catholic voters would like Christian values to play a more important role in society -- significantly higher than the 54% of all registered voters who agree with this sentiment.

The new poll measures doctrinal and attitudinal issues ranging from abortion, capital punishment, and religious liberty to the theological meaning of evil. It provides an interesting window into how Roman Catholics, particularly those who are the most devout, balance the tensions between their church and their political party. Abortion is an example:

Depending on how the questions are phrased, other surveys show similar results for the country as a whole: A majority of Americans now favor legalized abortion. Yet Catholic teaching on this issue is unambiguous: The church has long described it as “a moral evil.” Taking guidance from Rome, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adds, “Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.”

American Catholics are not unaware of this stance. Yet asked whether they believe abortion is “intrinsically evil,” 53% say no, with 47% saying yes. Perhaps even more stark is that twice as many Catholics think abortion should always be legal as compared to those who believe it should never be legal. Likewise, acceptance of euthanasia, which is also opposed by the church hierarchy, is a majority position among Catholics. Only 45% described it as evil, compared to 55% who do not.

Capital punishment is yet another issue in which rank-and-file Catholics don’t fall strictly in line with their church’s doctrine. The new RealClear Opinion Research survey prefaces a question on this topic by noting that 21 states have abolished capital punishment, then asks, “Do you personally support or oppose the use of the death penalty in the United States?” Once again, a significant majority of American Catholics don’t ascribe to the church teachings opposing capital punishment: 57% of Catholics professed support for the death penalty, with only 29% opposed.

What is going on here? Well, several things. For starters, majorities of U.S. Catholics apparently take the concept of separating church and state seriously. In other words, the Catholic laity simply does not necessarily give the clergy the last word on secular publicly policy matters, even those with a moral dimension.

In a sense, America has come full circle in this arena. In the 1960 presidential election, fear-mongering opponents of John F. Kennedy warned darkly that a Catholic president would give the Vatican a direct line into the White House. Sen. Kennedy proffered a simple retort. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” he told an influential group of Protestant pastors in Houston. “I am the Democratic party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

Although his co-religionists subsequently voted in overwhelming numbers for JFK, in the ensuing six decades the Catholic community has internalized Kennedy’s vow of independence -- perhaps more than their bishops would like. Another way of thinking about this dichotomy is that many Catholics feel they should obey church teaching in their own lives, but don’t believe it should be the law of the land.

A less charitable explanation may be that lay Catholics simply aren’t paying close attention to what their leaders are trying to impart to them, either doctrinally or in secular human affairs. Or, conversely, that church leaders aren’t doing an effective enough job of communicating Catholic teachings to the flock. Poll respondents were asked, for instance, to choose between three statements describing the Catholic Church position on the death penalty. Pay attention to the responses:

Another way of looking at this ambivalence to church teaching is that in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of current U.S. politics such obliviousness is a defense mechanism. An unfamiliarity with the catechism on hot-button secular political issues gives lay Catholics a kind of plausible deniability for holding the “wrong” view within their highly polarized secular tribes, i.e., the Democratic Party or the Republican Party.

The point here is that it is the Catholic bishops -- and not the nation’s two major political parties -- that have a coherent set of views on the so-called “life” issues. Church leaders, starting with Pope Francis, oppose abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and most wars. Republicans and Democrats lack similarly harmonious political philosophies. They’re trying to assemble coalitions of supporters who get them to 51% on Election Day, a goal that entails adopting policies based less on ideas and more on geography and demographics – not to mention the pet issues of individual billionaire donors or well-heeled special interest groups.

Planned Parenthood wants to preserve Roe v. Wade, but trial lawyers also want liberal criminal justice reforms? No problem, Democrats, we can back abortion rights and oppose the death penalty! Meanwhile, Republicans simultaneously cater to the National Right-to-Life Committee and the National Rifle Association.

Loyal party-line voters who belong to the Catholic Church thus face a perennial dilemma. They aren’t alone, as evidenced by the adage about voting “for the lesser of two evils.” No good Catholic – or devoted Democrat or Republican, for that matter -- would describe their church or their political party as evil, but the same principle applies: On public policy issues with a moral dimension, Catholics must often choose between church doctrine and their political party’s platform.

The good news here for Democrats is that 56% of U.S. Catholics say the Democratic Party “represents my values.” For Republicans, that number is only 47%. The bad news for the Democrats seeking to replace Donald Trump is that when it comes to political engagement not all Catholics are created equal. Simply put, the most devout are more likely to vote for the GOP. The RealClear-EWTN poll shows Trump’s job approval rating among Catholics at 47%. This is on par with the RealClearPolitics polling average, but among the most devoted Catholics, this figure is 16 percentage points higher.

“Like the country, the ‘Catholic vote’ is divided -- but it’s not 50-50, its 80-20,” says John Della Volpe, RealClear Opinion Research polling director. “A majority of the larger group of Catholics are Democrats who disapprove of President Trump and believe the country is on the wrong track. However, there’s a strong 20% who vote in a higher proportion than the 80% -- and who are twice as likely to say they will definitely vote to reelect the president. They believe that Trump is strongly committed to pro-life policies and they are convinced that Democrats do not share their values.”

A parallel fissure has long existed among Protestants: Membership in the traditional mainline churches skews liberal, while more passionate evangelical congregations, many of them non-denominational, embrace conservative Republicans. Among Catholics, this highly engaged cohort comprises 18% of the church. So just who constitutes this 18% of Catholics? The new RealClear-EWTN poll explored them in depth.


The most devout Catholics fit no stereotype when it comes to race, age, or gender (click on the inset chart for a larger view):

Slightly more than half (52%) are women.

Nearly half (48%) are under 45 years of age, with about one-third under 35.

41% are Hispanic.

They are twice as likely as less devout Catholics to have attended a church-affiliated college or university.

They are more likely to live in urban areas (40% compared to 31%) -- and less likely to live in suburbs (42%) compared to other Catholics.

By a margin of 59% to 49%, they are more likely than other Catholics to be married.

Devotional Practices

This 18% cadre of true believers adhere more closely to church teachings on politics than other Catholics, which is logical. For one thing, they spend more time around the priests and the parish:

The Devil in the Details

Four-fifths believe certain actions are “intrinsically evil.”

Asked whether abortion was one of those actions, 71% answered affirmatively, including 24% who believe the procedure should be legal. Only 41% of other Catholics term abortion as evil.

70% believe physician-assisted suicide is “intrinsically evil” – twice as many as other Catholics. And 64% of the most devout Catholics consider euthanasia to be intrinsically evil; 41% of others say the same.

Fully 87% of highly active Catholics believe in the concept of hell; 80% of other Catholics also believe in hell.

Similarly, 77% of all Catholics believe in Satan, a number that rises to 86% among the most religious Catholics. Almost all Catholics (85%) believe the Devil is a fallen angel, and not merely a symbol of evil.

Political Views

Half of the 18% cohort of devoted Catholics are Republicans, with only 38% self-identifying as Democrats. This is upside down from less devout Catholics, only 30% of whom are Republican – with 47% saying they are Democrats.

A majority identify as conservative (53% compared to 37% among other Catholics.)

They follow national political news closely (51% to 35%) and are more likely to vote in federal elections (75% compared to 55%). That voting activity leans right: 63% approve of Donald Trump, while only 43% of all Catholics say the same.

Delving more deeply, 59% said they are certain they will vote for Trump in 2020; another 8% say there’s a good chance they will. These are far higher percentages than among other Catholics.

Finally, devout Catholics are significantly more optimistic about America’s future: 62% believe the nation is generally headed in the right direction, 27% say it’s on the wrong track. For other Catholics, it’s 36% right direction and 51% wrong track.

There are areas of commonality besides their views of the devil, including on hot-button political issues. Asked about access to bathrooms and locker rooms, 55% of Catholics agreed that it should be based on biological sex at birth, almost the identical percentage among the most devout Catholics. Similarly, by a margin of nearly 2-to-1, Catholics are united in their support for capital punishment. Catholics across the board would also like to see more family-friendly entertainment from Hollywood.

In stark contrast, naturally, are attitudes within American Catholicism about Donald John Trump, our great Divider-in-Chief in this spectacularly divided nation. When it comes to this man, Catholic voters are as torn as the rest of the country. The numbers hint at a close election in November.

“This new poll shows clearly that one-fifth of the Catholic population lives and votes very differently from many of their fellow Americans and even their fellow Catholics,” noted Matthew E. Bunson, executive editor and Washington bureau chief for EWTN News. “They are more active in their daily practice of the faith, go to Mass more often, and are guided by Catholic teaching on a more regular basis as they decide how to vote and how to respond to the great social issues and crises of our time.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.