The reported “religion gap,” linking voting patterns to how often people attend church, apparently applies to Catholics, according to a poll out this week.

Tuesday’s Gallup Poll found American Catholics divided over support for Sen. John Kerry, the first Catholic to receive a major party’s nomination for president since John F. Kennedy.

While Kerry leads among registered Catholic voters 51 percent to 45 percent in the most recent poll, those who attend Mass weekly support President George W. Bush over Kerry by a margin of 52 percent to 42 percent. This group represents about a third of all registered Catholic voters.

About 27 percent of registered Catholics attend church on a semi-regular basis, at least once a month. Kerry leads among that group 50 percent to 45 percent.

Among Catholics who worship infrequently or never, representing nearly two Catholics in five, Kerry holds a huge lead, 57 percent to 39 percent.

The divide shows that practicing Catholics are far more likely to agree with church teachings on issues like abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage than those who are not practicing. Devout Catholics perceive Bush, a Methodist, to be more in line with traditional Catholic teaching on those issues than Kerry, who says he is pro-life but doesn’t impose his faith on others through policy.

Bush recently tried to woo Catholic voters by speaking to the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization, at the group’s national convention in Dallas.

Kerry, meanwhile, has suffered backlash from debate over whether priests should deny Communion to politicians who have a pro-choice voting record on abortion.

Even some non-Catholics entered the fray. Baptist Press in April ran a two-part commentary by seminary president Albert Mohler analyzing seeming inconsistencies between Kerry’s social policies and Catholic faith.

The National Catholic Reporter quoted observers saying Kerry needs to do more to do identify with his Catholicism, such as using a Catholic backdrop to articulate how his beliefs transfer into action.

Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, said reaching out to Catholics concerned about health care, housing and war while opposing legal abortion is a Kerry “campaign speech waiting to be written.”

Catholic priest Andrew Greeley, a columnist for the New York Daily News, said Catholics are not obliged to vote against a politician who supports abortion rights, as long as they are not supporting him because of abortion rights.

“Catholics can vote for Kerry,” Greeley wrote. “They don’t have to, but it would not be a sin to do so.”

Catholics make up about one fourth of the U.S. population.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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