Salena Zito

"Will you vote the values that will stand the test of fire? Some things are more important than high gas prices or a faltering economy. They are life, marriage and freedom. This November, Catholics must stand up and protect their sacred rights and duties," says the Test of Fire video produced by Creative Lab LLC in West Palm Beach, Fla.

A Gallup survey in early May found Catholic voters evenly split for Obama and Romney, though white Catholics who identified themselves as "mostly" or "moderately" religious favor Romney and the nonreligious support Obama.

In April, a Pew Research Center survey found Obama's approval among Catholics dropped 8 percentage points since March, down from 45 percent, as support for Romney rose 6 points to 57 percent.

"That drop among Catholics is very concerning," said Al Zangrilli, a member of Pittsburgh Catholics for Obama.

The group of 80 people, including two priests and 10 nuns, held its inaugural meeting in March and last week debuted a website, www.pittsburghcatholicsforobama.org, to provide information for Catholic voters who might be hesitant to choose Obama again.

Zangrilli thinks Catholic voters could tip the election in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. With the website, he said, "Our aim is to provide a place for Catholics to know that, even if all of the president’s positions don't line up with the Catholic (doctrine), they can still vote for him."

The site claims Obama's views and policies affirm the major principles of Catholic social teaching, such as helping the poor and promoting peace. It describes Obama as "a person of integrity and moral convictions (who) recognizes the complexity of moral issues which divide Americans."

"He affirms our responsibility to work together to bring about the common good," the website says.

In every modern presidential election, the Catholic voting bloc has been a harbinger of the popular vote, said Catherine Wilson, a Villanova University political scientist who specializes in religious voters.

"They are the ultimate swing vote. Where they go, so goes the election," she said.

Though many Catholics decried Obama's support of abortion and embryonic stem cell research in 2008, he won 54 percent among Catholic voters against Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Now, Obama's acceptance of gay marriage and a raging argument over religious freedom that began with his administration's health insurance rule involving birth control, could shift that support.

Catholic leaders in eight states and the District of Columbia are suing in federal court to exempt religious organizations from a provision in the 2010 Affordable Health Care Act that mandates employers offer insurance covering contraceptive costs.

Church leaders including Bishop David Zubik in Pittsburgh and his predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, argue the requirement violates religious freedom. The mandate includes a radical definition of what constitutes a religious community and ministry, Wuerl said on May 27 on Fox News Sunday.

"The new definition says you are not really religious if you serve people other than your own and if you hire people other than your own," Wuerl said. "That wipes out all of the things that we have been doing, all the things that we contribute to the common good -- our schools, our health care services, our Catholic charity and even parish soup kitchens."

The Pew data found Obama's support among other demographic groups that are considered reliable Democratic voting blocs -- people ages 50 to 64 and those making $30,000 to $75,000 a year -- also slipped 8 percentage points from March to April. The Washington-based nonpartisan research center has no immediate plan to update its poll on Catholics.

The Pew survey, during uproar over the health care mandate, might indicate "some Catholics are exhibiting a mild case of voter backlash," Wilson said. But a more plausible reason for Obama's slipping popularity is voter angst about the economy, she said.

Still, social issues can weigh heavily with voters. Duquesne University law professor Nick Cafardi, a member of Pittsburgh Catholics for Obama, resigned from Franciscan University in Steubenville in 2008 following his vocal support of Obama.

"In 2008, it appeared that if you were Catholic and casting a vote for Obama it would be a mortal sin," said Joyce Rothermel of Wilkins, former CEO of Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and another member of Pittsburgh Catholics for Obama.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.