Although the Catholic Church is the largest individual denomination in the United States, the political behavior of Catholic voters has received relatively little attention from political scientists.
Now, new research from the University of Notre Dame looks at so-called seamless garment Catholics (SGCs), or those Catholics who embrace the Church’s policy positions on both sides of the political spectrum.
A biblical phrase referencing the seamless robe Jesus wore before his crucifixion, the term “seamless garment” is attributed to Catholic activist Eileen Egan, who said, “The protection of life is a seamless garment. You can’t protect some life and not others.” Politically, the seamless garment perspective is associated with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life,” which called for not only opposition to abortion, but also support for anti-poverty programs, immigrant rights and care for the elderly.
The research team, consisting of Notre Dame Professor of Political Science Geoffrey Layman along with Notre Dame doctoral candidate Levi Allen and University of Maryland, Baltimore County Associate Professor of Political Science Laura Antkowiak (a 2000 Notre Dame alumna), found that younger Catholics are more likely than older Catholics to hold seamless garment perspectives. Latino Catholics, the fastest-growing group in American Catholicism, are more likely than white Catholics to be in the SGC camp. Church attendance and commitment to the Catholic faith also work to make people who hold seamless garment views more likely to stay in the SGC fold. These results were recently published in the journal Advances in Political Psychology.
Neither major U.S. political party represents Cardinal Bernardin’s consistent ethic. Republicans are staunchly pro-life on abortion, but oppose social welfare spending, loosening of immigration restrictions and environmental protection programs — an emphasis of the Catholic Church since Pope Francis issued his 2015 encyclical on the environment. Democrats support social welfare, immigrant rights and environmental protection, but are adamantly pro-choice on abortion.
Given the two parties’ dominance of American political life, it is no wonder that SGCs are a small and shrinking group. The researchers found that SGCs make up just under 9 percent of American Catholics, down from about 16 percent in the 1980s.
However, Antkowiak, Allen and Layman say that SGCs’ political influence still can be significant. For more than four decades, Catholic votes have been evenly split. In 2020, for example, 50 percent of Catholics voted for Trump and 49 percent supported Biden. In that context, SGCs “may be of paramount importance.”
How, then, does this important set of American Catholics decide how to vote?
The authors contend that SGCs are politically “cross-pressured” because each party represents only part of the Church’s policy positions. And unlike other religious voters, who may be pulled in one direction by their faith and in another direction by their other social ties, the researchers argue that “the cross-pressures that Catholic voters are subjected to are unique because the Catholic Church itself espouses policies that fall on both sides of the political spectrum.”
Layman and the other researchers believe that SGCs will persist despite the partisan pressures working against them. They find that SGCs get around this political dilemma in two ways. One approach many take is not solving the dilemma at all. They choose not to choose between the Democrats and Republicans by being more likely than other Catholics to either abstain from voting or vote for third-party candidates.
The other, more common way that SGCs address their political paradox is by using what the researchers call a “select-and-project” strategy. First, they select political candidates based on which set of issues is more important to them. Second, SGCs project their own views on policy issues they deem less important onto the candidates they support.
Catholics with seamless garment views essentially fool themselves politically, the researchers say. SGCs who vote for Republicans because of abortion perceive those Republicans to be more liberal on social welfare issues than they really are. SGCs who vote for Democrats because of their support for anti-poverty programs believe that those Democrats are more pro-life on abortion than they really are.
In the end, however, most seamless garment Catholics prioritize social welfare issues, immigration and the environment over abortion. Accordingly, they tend to vote Democratic. The authors believe that is likely to remain true even if the abortion issue grows in importance as the Supreme Court wrestles with challenges to Roe v. Wade. Based on their research, “it appears that as long as social justice issues are at least equal with abortion in importance, Seamless Garment Catholics are unlikely to flock to the GOP.”
Antkowiak, Allen and Layman contend that this study and the questions they posed for future research could help political scientists track the influence of the Catholic Church in American politics. Also, because SGCs’ “maintenance of partisan-incongruent policy preferences bucks prevailing political trends, they may be more broadly interesting to political psychologists and scholars of voting behavior.” The authors’ findings “also may offer food for thought for Catholic religious and political leaders as they battle for the allegiance of the laity.”