Catholic vote? Which Catholic vote?

The aging patriarch's hands and voice shook, but his moral vision was solid as a rock.

America's pilgrim president sat solemnly while Pope John Paul II waded into the tense debate over stem-cell research. This week's summit produced images that White House strategists hope will linger in the minds of Catholic voters, long after the divisive details have faded.

"A free and virtuous society, which America aspires to be, must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage from conception until natural death," said the pope, condemning research on manufactured embryos. "In defending the right to life ... America can show a world the path to a truly humane future in which man remains the master, not the product, of his technology."

Millions of traditionalists will say "amen." The problem for President Bush is that millions of Catholic modernists will mutter curses about Rome kneeling with the religious right. And what about the less doctrinaire folks caught in between?

Politicians and pollsters are learning that there isn't one "Catholic vote." It's also too simplistic to say there is one "evangelical vote." Someday, it may even be hard to predict the actions of black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics.

But one statistic has politicos buzzing. Call it the pew gap.

Two-thirds of those who never attend worship services voted for Al Gore, while an almost identical percentage of those who say they worship each week voted for Bush. More than four-fifths of evangelicals who regularly attend church went to Bush. Catholics? Nearly three-fifths of those who frequently go to Mass voted for Bush.

"Issues of morality and faith are crucial," said John Green, director of the University of Akron's institute for applied politics. "The key is not what people say they believe, but the intensity with which they practice that faith."

Since the election, Green and a network of colleagues have been dissecting interviews with 4,004 voters, charting beliefs and votes. For example, nine out of 10 evangelicals who backed Bush said the Bible is the "inerrant Word of God," while only two-third's of Gore's evangelicals did so.

There were symbolic issues in other pews. While most Catholics affirm papal authority -- to one degree or another -- those who are migrating toward the GOP are much more intense about this conviction. These traditionalists were three times more likely to affirm private confession and nearly five times more likely to pray the rosary.

This is news, because of historic ties between Democrats and Catholics. But it's important to ask if the numbers of traditional Roman Catholics are growing nationwide, as opposed to those of "American Catholics" who reject church traditions or want to see them modernized. Politicians also haveto avoid offending the less-committed "centrists" who claim to cling to Catholic beliefs, but are unsure about most details.

"What if traditional Catholics are, slowly but surely, becoming statistically less numerous? Most polls show that they are," noted Green. "In that case, Bush's strategy of courting them may seem unwise. But what if, at the same time, these Catholic traditionalists are becoming more active politically and are swinging toward the GOP on moral issues? Which of these two trends do you choose to emphasize?"

Similar patterns can be seen in other flocks. Traditionalists are, by definition, those who defend creeds and institutions. Their activism is fueled by a fear of compromise on ancient truths. Thus, any compromise is a defeat. This breeds a unique sense of commitment.

The religious left yearns to update old creeds in the name of tolerance. But modernists face a unique challenge, noted Green. Those who rebel against religious structures rarely turn around and invest their time and money in building new ones. Try to imagine a Unitarian megachurch.

"Traditionalists do have structures they can depend on, structures they can use to have an impact in the public square. That's important," he said. "Nevertheless, you would have to say the direction of American culture is going against them. It's hard to see their numbers growing. ... Their approach to life is based on making moral judgments about what is right and what is wrong and most Americans don't feel comfortable doing that anymore."