October 1, 2012 (CatholicCulture.org) – Now that a Pew Survey shows Catholics favoring Obama by a 15-point margin, it is time to point out what is truly significant about the survey results. It isn’t significant that those who attend Mass monthly or yearly favor Obama 53 to 39 percent or that those who attend Mass seldom or never favor him by a 61 to 32 percent margin. These things, based on a combination of demographics and obvious spiritual apathy are to be expected.

Catholics who attend Mass infrequently cannot be expected to make Catholic moral judgments or to be champions of Catholic independence from government coercion. Most of these Catholics will have inherited sympathies for the Democratic Party based on ethnic group, family tradition or liberal media myths (Democrats care about people, Republicans don’t). They are almost inevitably influenced more by these attachments than by either coherent moral analysis or the needs and interests of their Church.

No, the most damning result of the poll is that Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly favor Mitt Romney by only nine percent (51 to 42). This compares with nearly a 30 point gap the other way for those who attend Mass very rarely or not at all. Why isn’t there a comparable gap against Obama by regularly practicing Catholics? This represents a colossal Catholic failure.

Obviously, one can allow for a certain apathy here. Mitt Romney does not impress voters as a man who has either a moral or a political clue. His position on abortion and related issues is confused and, as far as anyone can tell, self-serving. His ability to project a serious love and concern for our nation and its people ranges from weak to non-existent. He stumbles and backtracks constantly.

While there are many excellent moral reasons to vote against Barack Obama, there are few excellent moral reasons to vote for Mitt Romney. Moreover, there is always a strong reluctance on the part of those who depend on Federal largesse to admit the dangers of Federal power, a factor which minimizes support for Republican budget proposals.

But there is one huge issue that separates Obama and Romney, and it is the same issue which has been most forcefully identified by the country’s bishops—the HHS Mandate.

Obama is the architect of a law which forces Catholic organizations and individuals to financially support contraception, sterilization and abortion despite the Church’s teaching that it is deeply sinful to do so. In a similar way, Obama is the architect of policies which exclude Catholic organizations from traditional roles in social services because they will not do things like provide abortion referrals, recommend contraception, or facilitate adoptions for same-sex couples. But Romney has pledged to eliminate the HHS mandate immediately upon election, and has shown no propensity to continue Obama’s ideological exclusion of Catholic participation in public life.

Now, the American bishops have clearly identified the HHS mandate as a gross abrogation of religious liberty, and they have made it clear this violation is a key Catholic concern in the current campaign, the kind of concern that would prompt anybody with profound Catholic sympathies to vote against the Democrats. And yet only 51 percent of regular Catholic churchgoers state that they are willing to do so. This failure of churchgoing Catholics to defend their own religious freedom and the rights of the Church is the most significant revelation in the Pew poll.

There are, of course, several critical factors which work against the bishops here. First, with respect to doctrinal orthodoxy and Catholic identity, episcopal leadership has been notoriously weak and even directly counter-productive over the past fifty years. The American bishops have presided over a national, diocesan and parish infrastructure riddled with Modernism. They have been largely idle in the face of an abject secularization of Catholic colleges and universities. They have not worked to counter the loss of ecclesial fidelity in the nation’s religious communities. And they have done almost nothing to combat the universal acceptance of contraception which lies at the heart of the culture of death—and which makes the HHS Mandate seem innocuous.

Second, as Phil Lawler has pointed out several times (see, for example, The noise-to-signal ratio at the USCCB), while the bishops have spoken out strongly on religious liberty, they have spoken out again and again on so many other purely prudential topics that their concerns about religious liberty have been far too easily ignored.

Third, even the Fortnight for Freedom campaign was not implemented evenly across the country. There is still sufficient squishiness within the ranks for recalcitrant bishops and pastors to have ignored it, or for its message to go by without reinforcement.

For all these reasons, the American bishops have a long way to go before they will be able, over time, to effectively form the consciences of American Catholics. We are at the beginning of a long, slow and painful episcopal renewal in this country, not near the end.

The episcopal renewal will take even longer to bring renewal across the board, in all the structures and sub-institutions which shape American Catholic life, and in the laity themselves. Therefore, we can only wonder how much further religious liberty will suffer in American politics while the renewal develops—and whether increasing persecution will strengthen or weaken the Church overall.

The latest Pew survey is a reminder of this one essential fact: We are not at the end of a process here. We are at the beginning.

This article was originally published on CatholicCulture.org and is republished with permission.