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Is Theology or Politics Behind Catholics Bishops Move?

by Patrick Murray

This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on June 27, 2021.

If headlines are to be believed, Catholic bishops are on a mission to keep President Joe Biden from taking Holy Communion. In reality, nothing has happened… yet. What lies on the horizon, though, could mark a turning point for American Catholicism.

The bishops actually approved a resolution to draft guidelines on the meaning of Communion which would be voted on later. This is an effort to launch a “Eucharistic revival” among U.S. Catholics in response to the fact that only one-third of Catholics believe in transubstantiation, which is a central tenet of Church doctrine. What sparked the media frenzy, however, is that these national guidelines could also establish rules denying Communion to people who publicly support legalized abortion.

A majority of self-identified Catholics say abortion should be legal in most cases, according to the Pew Research Center. However, that finding masks a stark divide based on church attendance. Two-thirds of regular mass-goers oppose abortion access while two-thirds of more nominal Catholics support it. Draconian guidelines on Eucharistic eligibility are likely to drive away many, particularly younger, Catholics rather than fill parish pews.

In New Jersey – which has the second highest concentration of Catholic residents in the United States at – this could lead to a significant shift in religious affiliation. About 4 in 10 state residents call themselves Catholic, but far fewer regularly go to church. Based on national figures, mass attendance ranges from half of those over 60 years old to one-quarter of those under 30. That is a far cry from the 1950s, when 3 in 4 Catholics – regardless of age – regularly attended mass.

Some conservatives may actually welcome a shrinking, but more ideologically pure, body of the faithful. One question, though, is whether theological concerns are the sole driver of this move, or whether partisan politics are playing a much more central role.

Pew’s study on abortion beliefs points out that Catholic Republicans are much more likely than Catholic Democrats to oppose legalized access to abortion. Some may say this is simply because devout Catholics are siding with a political party more in line with their religious beliefs. That may be true on this particular issue, but other evidence suggests that party affiliation may in fact be determining what is acceptable for the Church rather than the other way around.

For example, when Pope Francis was about to make his first visit to the U.S. in 2015, a Monmouth University Poll found that large majorities of Republican and non-Republican Catholics alike said he should feel free to speak out on issues like abortion and human rights. Things started to get a little trickier, though, when asked whether Francis should express his views on issues such as economic inequality and climate change. On these topics, most Republican Catholics said the pope should keep his mouth shut.

Keep in mind, the question asked was not whether Catholics agree with Francis on these issues. It was simply whether the pope should be able to speak about topics that have secular as well as spiritual implications. Rather than being open to the Holy Father challenging their views on certain issues, many Republican Catholics felt entitled to tell the supreme pontiff when he should or should not open his mouth. That does not sound like a group of devout followers adhering to their catechism, particularly the part about the pope having “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church.” Those poll results are a stark example of the dissonance between claims of piety and the primacy of partisanship.

This takes us back to the problem with the bishops’ statement. This crusade seems set on establishing a moral purity standard for public officials. Moreover, it links a Eucharistic proscription to only one public issue – among many secular issues that are also supposed to be central to church teaching. It is also difficult to accept as mere coincidence that the timing of this push comes when a practicing Catholic who supports legal abortion occupies the Oval Office.

Back in the 1980s, Republicans appealed to working class Catholics on issues around the economy and public safety more than morality. This is not to say abortion does not raise important spiritual questions. It is just that this new move appears to be another sign of religion becoming weaponized in the tribal partisan war that currently plagues our country.

The existing statement on the reception of Communion, adopted by the U.S. bishops 25 years ago, expressed hope that a deeper understanding of the Eucharist would “begin to dispel the sad divisions which separate us.”  It appears that the current effort to revise that statement is designed to accomplish exactly the opposite.

For now, keeping a mask on indoors isn’t such a bad idea

By Patrick Murray

This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed on on May 21, 2021.

Follow the science. That’s the mantra. Recent reports on the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, particularly the mRNA ones, prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to loosen its advice on wearing a mask. Gov. Phil Murphy is getting grief for not immediately jumping on this new guidance.

The CDC, and advocates of lifting mask mandates, point to a recent real-world study showing that certain vaccines are 94% effective at preventing illness from COVID-19. Following that science, they say it is safe for vaccinated people to take off their masks around other vaccinated people. However, epidemiologists continue to punt on pinpointing the likelihood that a vaccinated person could become infected without showing symptoms and potentially transmit that infection to unvaccinated people. That is why an indoor mask mandate should still be on the table.

On top of this, the CDC’s recommendations seem to ignore, or at least give short shrift to, another set of sciences altogether — the social sciences. In other words, we need to take into account typical human behavior and how this guidance will be interpreted and acted upon by real people.

When the pandemic first hit last year, we were initially told that it really only affected older people and those with preexisting health conditions. It soon became clear, of course, that we were all at risk of getting the virus. Mask-wearing became mandatory in the state, not only to protect oneself but to protect others. However, not everyone saw it that way. To a sizable minority, the mask mandate was a partisan dictate that infringed on one’s “freedom” rather than an opportunity to pull together for the sake of one’s community.

As with everything in society today, COVID-19 restrictions were viewed first and foremost through a narrow partisan lens. This did not surprise those of us who have been engaged in the study of public attitudes and behaviors.

Take the issue of differing vaccination rates. The public opinion data has pretty consistently pointed to three basic groups in the population — those who are eager to get the vaccine, those who are hesitant and those who are opposed. In New Jersey, the hesitant group makes up about 14% of the adult population and the opposed group makes up another 14%, according to a recent Monmouth University Poll.

Those in the hesitant group want reassurances that the vaccine is safe or they lack easy access to get the vaccine. These two factors tend to go hand in hand. For example, vaccination rates in urban areas are incredibly low. These residents are among the most hesitant because they do not see many of their neighbors and community leaders getting the vaccine, in part because vaccine sites are not within easy reach.

The new CDC guidance is supposed to encourage more vaccine uptake, according to a brief published last month. They frame loosening mask restrictions as an incentive to get vaccinated. This may be true on the margins, but on the whole, this incentive won’t increase acceptance of vaccines in areas where access is the dominant roadblock.

More importantly, the CDC doesn’t provide any real evidence to support its assertion that loosening restrictions for the vaccinated will act as an incentive for the unvaxxed. Where’s the science they are following? Because here’s the problem: existing social science data suggests those in the COVID vaccine opposition camp cannot be incentivized. And in fact, the psychometric data suggests that folks in this group, because of a belief system that casts themselves as pitted against the rest of society, will use the lifting of mask requirements for vaccinated people as cover to go maskless themselves.

In other words, once the mask requirements are lifted, the only people you are likely to see wearing masks are vaccinated people who are worried about the relatively low, but still very real chance, of becoming infected with the coronavirus from unmasked, unvaccinated people. Their concerns are not just for themselves, but for others. And that is because the CDC still hasn’t been completely clear on the extent that vaccinated people can transmit the virus to the unvaxxed, especially children.

Fortunately, here in New Jersey, outright opposition to the vaccine is lower than it is in the nation as a whole. That means achieving some level of herd immunity — a standard on which the science is not clear, by the way — is more likely to happen here than in other states. But it will take a greater effort to reach the vaccine hesitant than offering a free beer or dinner with the governor to make it so.

In the end, maybe having an indoor mask mandate for just a little bit longer isn’t such a bad thing if it may help keep another surge at bay when we are so close to getting to the other end of the tunnel. At the very least, it’s the neighborly thing to do.

New Census, Same Old Redistricting

by Patrick Murray

This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on May 2, 2021.

The release of a new decennial census usually means that redistricting cannot be far behind.  But this year will be different for New Jersey.

The first round of numbers released this past week held some unexpectedly welcome news for the state. We gained more residents over the past ten years than annual survey-based estimates had indicated. Our population tops 9 million for the first time!

While we now know we will hold onto our 12 Congressional seats, we don’t know what needs to be done to adjust those districts to ensure each one has an equal number of people. And perhaps even more importantly, we also lack the data necessary to redraw the state’s 40 legislative districts so they are substantially equal.

That’s because we are still a few months away from receiving the population data that gives precinct-level detail of population shifts. And that won’t arrive until August or September – about 6 months later than New Jersey usually receives it.

The pandemic-related delay in completing the national census has now delayed states getting the data they need for redrawing congressional and legislative lines. This isn’t a problem for most states. Some have statutory deadlines that they will be pressed to meet, but all states should have enough time to create new maps in time for their upcoming state and federal elections in 2022.  All states, that is, except two.

New Jersey and Virginia are the only states in the nation that hold legislative elections the year after the U.S. Census is taken. The delay in that count means neither state will have a new map in time for this fall’s contests.

New Jersey was prepared for this. Last year, voters passed a constitutional amendment that postpones legislative apportionment if the census data is not received by mid-February. Our bipartisan commission will have until March 2022 to create the new map, which will go into effect with the 2023 elections for state Senate and General Assembly. Our 2011 map gets to stay in play for an extra inning.

Pity poor Virginia, though. They do not have any statutory direction on what happens when census data is received late in the game. Like, New Jersey, they won’t have a new legislative map ready for November. But rather than being able to just delay its implementation until the next regularly scheduled election, the courts could force the state to hold a special election with the new map in 2022. That would mean their House of Delegates would be on the ballot 3 years in a row.  It’s happened before. Virginia had to hold successive elections in 1981, 1982, and 1983 because of redistricting problems.

Why didn’t Virginia have the foresight New Jersey did? Well, it may be because they were too busy implementing real reforms. While Garden State voters inserted some new deadlines in our state constitution, those in the Old Dominion actually had to decide on a significant change to their entire redistricting process.

Virginia voters last November approved a measure that took the process of drawing new district maps out of the hands of the legislature and assigned it to a commission made up of both legislators and citizens. The legislature still gets an up or down vote on the plan and the ability to boot the final decision to the state’s Supreme Court, but it cannot actively create or alter the map.

One potential problem with the Virginia process this year is the clock that starts ticking when the state receives detailed census data. Based on when that is expected to arrive now, it is probable that a special session of the legislature will be convened right before the November election.  Legislators will have to vote on a new map that will directly impact own political futures. In other words, the new map has the potential for becoming a campaign issue.

New Jersey may have been forward thinking on the timing of this year’s census, but we continue to fall behind in terms of real redistricting reform. We were one of the first states to put legislative apportionment in the hands of a commission over 50 years ago. Now, other states have surpassed us in reform efforts by creating commissions with even more independence as well as providing principles to follow when creating new district maps to reflect ever-changing communities of interest.

In the end, our redistricting process still boils down to two partisan teams strategizing on how to earn the favor of a single tie-breaking vote. Kudos to New Jersey for avoiding the uncertainty of a pandemic-delayed census. But we still have a lot of work to do get back in vanguard of best redistricting practices.