With the election of a new president less than a year away, at least one thing about the outcome seems reasonably clear: whoever the winner turns out to be, a majority of the voters identifying themselves as Catholics will probably have voted for him or her.

That’s been the pattern for a long time now, and there is no reason to think it will change next November. And why should it? People like to be on the winning side. Why should Catholics be any different?

Hold on though. When I’m tempted to think that way, I recall something said a while back by columnist Michael Gerson. Writing about Catholic voting patterns, Gerson remarked that Catholics are so often swing voters because, being “so typical,” they tend to vote “almost exactly like their suburban neighbors.”

Gerson, a non-Catholic, didn’t consider that good news. “There is something vaguely disturbing,” he remarked, “about the precise symmetry of any religious group with other voters of their same class and background. One would hope that an ancient, demanding faith would leave some distinctive mark.”

The erasure of such distinctive marks is of course part of the homogenizing effect of the process of cultural assimilation to which American Catholics, like the members of other religious and ethnic groups, have been subjected in the last two centuries. Among other things, this assimilation has involved — and goes on involving today — a steady, increasingly visible diminishment of religious identity.

The issues facing the nation in the election of 2016 are deeply serious and extremely complex. Catholics serious about their obligations as citizens and as Catholics could well come to different conclusions about candidates. What they cannot, or should not anyway, do is substitute semi-automatic conformity with the judgment of their peers for conscientious evaluation of the office-seekers.

Ranking high among the issues for consideration next November is the future direction of the Supreme Court.

Four of the court’s current members — Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Scalia and Kennedy — are now 75 or older. (Ginsburg tops the list at 82.) Barring a miracle of longevity, some and perhaps all of these will be leaving the Supreme Court in the next several years. And so, obviously, might others.

Thus a two-term president could well have the opportunity to name four or more new justices of the Supreme Court before leaving office in 2025. In doing that, he or she would have shaped the court as it will be for the next quarter-century — which means shaping it on a host of sensitive issues involving, along with much else, religious liberty and conscience rights as these pertain both to institutions and individuals.

Does it matter? You bet it does. As a young reporter unexpectedly assigned to the Supreme Court beat many years ago, I soon learned that the overriding reason why this was a good place to be lay in the fact that just about every big question in the nation’s life sooner or later comes before the Supreme Court for an answer.

To be a member of this vastly powerful body is not a ceremonial position, and choosing those who will serve there is one the most important functions entrusted to a president by the Constitution.

Here is something responsible voters — including assimilated Catholics — need to take with the utmost seriousness when casting their ballots for president in November. Amid the customary blather of a political campaign, Americans should ask themselves which candidate they trust to name new justices to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Russell Shaw, a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor, writes from Washington, D.C.