Twenty years ago, a Gallup poll found that two-thirds of Catholics in America did not accept one of the central theological doctrines of their religion: that the priest transforms the bread and wine upon the altar at Mass into the body and blood of Christ.
Such findings exposed an ongoing crisis: the Catholic Church's failure to educate Catholics on even fundamental church teachings. One result has been that the Catholic vote in presidential elections is often not very Catholic.
But this year, the Catholic Church and other denominations espousing traditional personal morals are under direct attack from ObamaCare, which mandates health coverage for contraception — including abortifacient drugs — and sterilization.
Moreover, the Democratic convention prominently featured Sandra Fluke, a law school student who demands free taxpayer-funded contraception; plus a floor fight over even mentioning God in the party's platform.
The latest IBD/TIPP Poll of 808 registered voters (154 of them Catholics) from Sept. 4 to 9 found Obama with a 46%-to-44% lead among Catholics, with 9% uncommitted. In 2008, Obama had a nine-point edge.
The narrowing is noteworthy. In nine of the last 10 presidential contests, most Catholics supported the winner, and by a significant margin.
"The Catholic voters indeed may decide the outcome of November's election," says Raghavan Mayur, president of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, IBD's pollster. He identified three key segments of Catholic voters: independents, middle-class voters and suburbanites.
Among independents, Romney and Obama are tied at 41%. But Romney has a whopping 20-point advantage with Catholic independents (52% to 32%).
And Obama's overall three-point advantage with middle-class shrinks to one with Catholic middle-class voters. Among all suburbanites, Obama has an eight-point edge vs. six points among Catholic suburban voters.
"The Roman Catholic hierarchy opposes ObamaCare's funding of abortion and contraceptives and the acceptance of same-sex marriage and is vigorously fighting against it," said Mayur.
"This puts Roman Catholics in a dilemma: Should they follow their church's teachings or act against their faith when voting in the coming elections?"
As New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan delivered the closing prayer to this year's Democratic convention, cameras found some delegates cringing at his oblique references to abortion and same-sex marriage.
Dolan has called the Obama-Care mandate "an attack on the cornerstone First Amendment freedom that is the very foundation of our democracy."
In the elections before George McGovern's loss to Richard Nixon in 1972, when abortion suddenly became an issue, Gallup polls show Catholics consistently supporting the Democratic presidential candidate.
But an April 1972 column by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak quoted a Democratic senator warning that McGovern represented "amnesty, abortion and acid," and the Nixon campaign made sure the label stuck.
As abortion became a national issue, something else was happening in Catholic America. Attorney Kenneth C. Jones quantified the crisis with his "Index of Leading Catholic Indicators."
He found only one in four Catholics attending Mass in the early 21st century vs. three in four in the late 1950s. He found just 10% of Catholic school teachers accepting church teaching on contraception, 53% believing it possible to have an abortion and 65% contending a Catholic may divorce and remarry.
Such laxity has spanned decades. But now Catholics are faced with an administration whose health reform is a direct attack on their religion, and a party hostile to the word "God." This year, Democrats may find it can't always be taken for granted that Catholics don't listen to their bishops.