Quite a few years ago (1977, to be exact), a colleague tried to convince me that the best way to make our college conservative was to set up a curriculum and a program in Christian studies that would appeal to conservative Catholics.  There are lots of Catholics who are fed up with the “R.C. lite” of most so-called Catholic schools, he reasoned, and since there are more conservative Catholics than conservative anybody-elses, such a strategy would be money in the bank.

Actually, he was not that cynical.  He was convinced that believing Catholics were running out of educational options for their sons and daughters—and he had a point.  Since then, conservative Catholics have begun to put their educational money where their faith is.  There hasn’t been a stampede yet, but foot traffic has not been toward the educational left.

What about Catholic voters in the so-called public square?  Barrels of ink have been spilled showing that Catholics, ever since the glory year of 1960, have been “swing voters.”  Catholics are always on the winning side in presidential elections.  The old “lunch-bucket” Catholic voters who lined up for FDR sort of sidled over to Reagan but haven’t been all that reliable as Republicans and probably won’t be.  Analysts from Commonweal and the Nation all the way over to First Things and National Review agree that conservative evangelicals are Red Staters to the core.  But Catholics, they say, are more volatile, more nuanced—in other words, more capturable by whoever is arguing for what faction.

Politically, however, it is increasingly apparent that there are two kinds of Catholics: the Mass-going Catholics and the rest.  Since there are about 35 million Mass-going Catholics, and since they tend to vote, one would think they should be taken seriously.  They are not a bloc, to be sure, like Jews, African-Americans, and members of the Hollywood nation.  But some things are clearly important to them, such as their religion, decent wages, stable family life, good education, low crime, and the abomination of abortion.  About other things—free trade, immigration, and the war in Iraq being the most important—they are ambivalent.

The Bush administration has had a rhetorical fix on some of this with its “Catholic strategy” (the “culture of life” and “compassionate conservatism” resonate), but just as it has all but ignored evangelicals between elections, it has subordinated all the Catholic “social” issues (they are really moral) to war and trade.  Republicans are betting their political lives on the hope that Democrats have completely written off Mass-going Catholics.  Republicans also have to hope that Catholic ambivalence on trade, the war, and immigration will keep them from punishing the Republicans for their duplicity.  The simple truth is, given the relative stability of other major voting groups, the party that gets the votes of Mass-going Catholics is going to win.

It is entirely possible that nobody will get them en masse.  Mass-going Catholics are not single-issue voters, although their political participations certainly start with the life issues, which makes it unlikely that any Democrat will appeal to them.  Some of us can remember when “pro-life Democrat” and “conservative Democrat” were not oxymorons.  That day is unlikely to dawn again soon.  Where are the old city machines when you really need them?  Maybe they will be resurrected in Hispanic neighborhoods; until then, however, the Catholic ethnic vote is a thing of the past.  Self-respecting Mass-going Catholics wouldn’t vote for Kerry, so they certainly will not line up for Hillary, Barack, or John.

Among Republicans, who is making a good pitch?  The former front-runner, whose name ends in a vowel, is nominally Catholic, but Mass-goers can look his record up and down and not find one issue on which he squares with the Pope.  He plays pretty well at National Review, but not in the pews.  Will Mass-going Catholics be able to pull the lever for a Mormon?  That’s iffy at best.  McCain’s only campaign distinctive is enthusiastic support for the war, which will never be a defining issue for conservative Catholics.  The millions of Catholic foot-soldiers who enlisted in the Cold War against godless communism are not persuaded that a few Muslim terrorists warrant a holy war against all of Islam.  That could change, but not, certainly, before November rolls around.

So who appeals to serious Catholics?  Nobody has been courting them openly and aggressively.  National Right to Life has endorsed Fred Thompson; their support hasn’t helped him much, probably because his pro-life record, as good as it is, falls rather flat when he talks about letting the states resolve the issue.  Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul have received ringing endorsements from more-or-less conservative Catholics: Huckabee, from Mark Stricherz of Inside Catholic, part of the former Crisis magazine’s new internet operation; Paul, from historian Thomas Woods, by way of the paleolibertarian LewRockwell.com.

Each claims that, although his respective candidate is a Protestant with a capital P, he stands for exactly the things that should appeal to Mass-going Catholics: God, family, limited government, law and order, restraint in foreign policy—and above all, uncompromisingly, life.  Woods’ appeal is particularly passionate and moving.  It is not hard to make a Catholic case for these two principled men.  It is much harder, however, to make a case that Dr. Paul, at least, has a snowball’s chance in you-know-where to win.

Where does that leave Mass-going Catholics?  Maybe with no natural political home, and therefore with little chance to make the difference in 2008.  But this is a powerful group, full of energy and almost clear enough about its ideas to be potentially even more influential than the evangelicals have been since about 1980.  It remains to be seen who can put them to work.