Can Pro-Life Catholics Vote for Obama and Other Democrats
I believe a just society is founded on the foundational right to life, which is the condition for the possibility for freedom and choice. Human life begins at conception. A culture of life fosters a respect for the sanctity of human life and the incomparable dignity of the human person from womb to tomb - conception until natural death. As Christians, we are called to care for the vulnerable, to be inclusive of the marginalized, to protect the innocent, to forgive the sinner, and to be a voice for the voiceless.
I am pro-life. Indeed, fellow "liberals" consider me an extremist. I even oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest in an ideal world. I would support a right to life amendment to the constitution, and would shed no tears if Roe v. Wade were changed in a legally valid way. Short of either of these things happening, I support incremental restrictions on abortion to reduce the harm.
All of this said, there may be non-restrictive means of reducing abortion rates. One of the conditions for the possibility of building a pro-life consensus in a pluralistic democracy would be to reduce the demand for abortion. Barack Obama promises to try to reduce abortion rates by non-restrictive means. Some statistics indicate that up to seventy percent of abortions are driven by economic decisions. Might a combination of economic justice initiatives and better education efforts (including abstinence training) decrease abortion rates? Might the late Cardinal Bernadine's "seamless garment" argument for a consistent ethic of life be more persuasive in forming a culture of life? Might this ethic be more consistent with the whole of Catholic social justice teaching? Isn’t the consistent ethic of life implied in Pope John Paul II's Evangelium Vitae?
A consistent ethic of life appeals to social conservatives who seek to prevent abortions, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and euthanasia. A consistent ethic of life also appeals to progressives who seek to prevent the death penalty, promote peace, reverse the excesses of militarism, reduce gun violence, protect the environment, and alleviate the dehumanizing and often deadly effects of poverty. A culture of life and a culture of social and economic justice does not need to be the either/or proposition our American political parties have tended to make it. We Catholics can strive for a both/and approach. This does not necessitate the formation new political party. Rather, it may mean taking different pragmatic approaches to solving the same problem. There may be a Republican way, and a Democratic way towards the same end.
I support a right to life amendment to the constitution. The office of President has absolutely and positively nothing to do with the formal process of passing an amendment. The President cannot veto an amendment, and his or her signature is not required for an amendment to become law. An amendment is passed by a two thirds vote in both houses of the legislature, or by means of a constitutional convention whereby three fourths of the states ratify the proposed amendment. Both processes have been successfully employed historically. For either of these processes to occur in passage of a right to life amendment, we need a huge national consensus for the sanctity of life. Reducing abortion rates by non-restrictive means today may set the stage for passing restrictions tomorrow.
The President does appoint court justices, who must be confirmed by the Senate. However, even after confirmed, judges are ethically bound by precedent. Even an "originalist" or "strict constructionist" admits that the constitution does not state that personhood begins at conception. The constitution clearly states that the rights of personhood belong to those who are born or naturalized in the United States. Only an amendment would change this. The issue decided by the courts is not really when the rights of personhood begin. Rather, the court settled whether the state has a compelling interest in the "potential for personhood" when this interest seemed to be in conflict with an implied right to privacy already established in prior cases. Roe and subsequent cases affirm that the state does have a compelling interest in the potential for personhood that increases as a pregnancy progresses. However, the right to privacy established prior to Roe is the foundation for a right to an abortion until the rights of personhood at birth are realized. Even pro-life Republican Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, admits that privacy is a legitimate constitutional right.
Supreme Court Justices, even if Catholic, must balance the weight of precedent with other principles, but precedent cannot simply be ignored. Justice Roberts (a presumably pro-life Catholic) put it best. We shouldn't "shock the system". Seven of the nine current justices were appointed by pro-life Republican presidents – five of them are Roman Catholic - and Roe hasn't been overturned yet. Even Justice Scalia (another pro-life Catholic) refers to the judicial process of reversing Roe as more of a "gradual chipping away" at it. One can argue that the court never should have taken the Roe case, or could have ruled differently than they did. Wishful thinking does not undo the historical reality that Roe is the law of the land and will be for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, if Roe is "chipped away" to the point of being overturned, all that occurs is that the issue is thrown back to the states. If we do not reduce the demand for abortion, most states will legislate in a pro-choice direction.
Restrictive laws and executive orders with less authority than an amendment can be passed, but they must be consistent with court rulings. So, we are currently stuck with Roe for the foreseeable future.
None of this has to do with theology. I am merely outlining the political reality. If we do not get about two-thirds of the general population to accept our pro-life point of view, the laws simply will not change as long as our current constitutional processes are in place. That is a fact. Changes in the law simply will not happen until we build a broader consensus.
I would argue that part of building this broader consensus is reducing abortion rates. Another part is having more civil discourse on this so-called "hot button" issue. Pro-life Catholics ought to refrain from rhetoric that repels others rather than reaching them. We will not change many hearts when we shout "baby-killer" at our opponents. We need to continue writing our legislators regarding our pro-life convictions. Many of us already volunteer with organizations like Project Gabriel, which help women chose life with support in bringing the child to term. We need to continue these efforts, and consider other opportunities to assist women in choosing life. We need to pray daily for an end to abortion.
On a theological level, many pro-life Catholics seem to be ignoring some critical teachings, in my opinion.
First, Guadium et Spes is explicit that there is a legitimate autonomy between Church and state, and it warns explicitly about confusing specific political solutions with the gospel. I support a right to life amendment, but the Gospel has nothing to say about such an amendment. While the Gospel may involve principles that lead to a pro-life position, passage of a specific law in a specific time and place is never the Gospel, per se. There may be more than one way to reduce abortions.
Second, while the Church teaches that the rights of personhood begin at conception and that all direct abortions terminate the life of an innocent human being, the Church does not explicitly teach that personhood begins at conception. The Church does seem to make a distinction between "being" and "person". This is obvious in Trinitarian doctrine, and subtly carries over into the teaching on abortion. The subtle distinction is clear in a document called Donum Vitae (signed by our current Pope, before he was Pope). The Church explicitly refuses to say when personhood begins. We can't know when personhood begins, which is precisely why we act with a presumption of personhood where there is room for doubt. If we cannot know that a zygote is a person, we also cannot know that a zygote is not a person!
On an intellectual level, many Catholics can comprehend the abstract logic of the Church's teaching. However, on another level, many of these same Catholics have doubts about whether a zygote is a person. We know the zygote is a human life with potential for personhood. We know this human life is somehow different than cell removed from one of our arms. We even agree that since we cannot know personhood exists already, we should ideally act as though personhood is present. However, zygotes don't have brains, and do not seem self aware. They do not relate to others in a personal way. Furthermore, it is even possible for a single zygote to undergo the phenomenon of twinning. If the soul and personhood begin at conception, how many persons were present in the single zygote that became identical twins?
In the tough cases - like rape, incest, or danger to the health of the mother - our doubts can be more forceful, especially in the early stages of pregnancy. From a theological point of view, the fact is that many canonized saints, including Aquinas, denied that a rational human soul exists at the very moment we would call conception. At the same time, Aquinas admits that a soul of some sort exists in every living being. Though Catholic Democratic House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, may not have made this point with clarity, there is some grounds for what she seemed to be trying to convey in a recent interview. Catholic politicians Mario Cuomo and John Kerry have made similar points. Human life begins at conception, but it is difficult for many people to accept that personhood or a soul exists precisely at that moment. If saints had difficulty with the subject, how can we expect non-believers in a pluralistic democracy to accept it?
Given all of this, in a pluralistic democracy, how far can we expect to push the issue? If one is an elected official in a representative democracy, one has an ethical obligation to uphold the constitution as interpreted by the court, and to represent the interests of one's constituency. If an elected official is supposed to represent not only one's personal views, but those of one's constituents, is there wiggle room or room for compromise? Indeed, Catholic Vice Presidential candidate, Joe Biden, states that while he personally opposes abortion, he believes that Roe is probably as close as we can get to a sort of compromised consensus in this country.
John Paul II indicated in Evangelium Vitae that a politician whose pro-life convictions were known and who felt that laws permitting abortion could not be abrogated should seek to limit the harm of abortion. I do not believe that John Paul II was merely encouraging Catholic politicians to say "I’m personally opposed to abortion, but,...," while going on to pander to the pro-choice constituency and doing nothing at all to reduce abortions. On the other hand, I don't think John Paul II was saying that there is one and only one way to reduce abortions.
The Gospel and Church teaching warn against rash judgment. While we can judge actions, we cannot judge the heart. I welcome efforts by bishops to invite pro-choice Catholic politicians to be honest with themselves about their motives. Yet, I question those bishops who seem to know the politicians are unworthy of communion based on political soundbites. I also question using the Eucharist as a political weapon in an attempt to sway the vote of the laity.
Another question is worth asking. When pitting abortion against other issues, can we have higher priorities in the present moment? Are we to be single issue voters if the issue is grave enough? Some pro-lifers compare legalized abortion to the holocaust. Let's extend that analogy. An argument could be made that in a democracy, voting for a president or legislator who supported genocide would be more egregious than voting for a politician who is pro-choice, even if there were statistically more abortions than the ethnic group targeted for extermination. The reason genocide might trump permissive abortion laws is that the state is acting as the primary moral agent committing the evil of murder, compared to a private citizen acting alone as the moral agent. In a democracy, when the state acts as the primary moral agent, we are all complicit in some way.
Pope Benedict said to the U.S. bishops prior to the 2004 election that a Catholic can vote for a pro-choice politician when she or he does not agree with the politician on the issue of abortion. The decisive factor is that we must have proportionate reason to do so. Abortion involves a foundational human right - the right to life. It is difficult for many Catholics to imagine what could be a more dominant issue than that. Pope Benedict was explicit that abortion and euthanasia, as intrinsic evils, carry more weight than war and the death penalty, which are not intrinsically evil.
On the other hand, the example of genocide captures something of why I believe many Catholics do feel that just war or elimination of the death penalty might outweigh abortion in certain instances. War and the death penalty involve the state acting as the primary moral agent.
Genocide, like abortion and euthanasia, is an intrinsic evil. Yet, I would argue that genocide outweighs pro-choice laws because of the moral agency of the state. To use another example, mandatory abortions, as with China's one child per family laws, is worse than America's pro-choice laws. To drive home the point further, the Catechism calls masturbation intrinsically disordered, and it is obvious that masturbation or pornography are not on par with abortion, genocide, and euthanasia. Nor would anyone argue that all acts of masturbation should be criminalized, as though the issue is non-negotiable. It is not because an act is intrinsically evil that it becomes dominant. Rather, it is the gravity of the act that makes it outweigh another issue. When the state performs evil, it is graver than when a private citizen does evil on his or her own.
To call an act intrinsically evil does not mean that the act is always gravely evil or politically non-negotiable. Rather, in the language of Church teaching, an intrinsic evil is an act that is always and everywhere immoral to some degree, without exception. The degree of evil may be mitigated to the point where the sin is venial. Indeed, culpability for subjective sin might be non-existent even while the act is objectively immoral to some degree regardless of the ends, means, or circumstances.
Considered generally, war is not an intrinsic evil because there are situations where waging a legitimate and proportionate military defense against unprovoked aggression underway as a last resort is morally just. While the death penalty may be immoral in societies that have the means to bloodlessly restrain violent offenders, the death penalty might be just in other types of societies, such as a primitive federation of nomadic tribes without a prison system. Because these issues are not intrinsically evil, and abortion is considered intrinsically evil, abortion will always carry some weight with our vote, while war or the death penalty might not in certain circumstances. On the other hand, when unjust wars are waged, they violate the sanctity of life just as much as abortion. Unjust executions violate the sanctity of human life as surely as euthanasia. In other words, military policy and the death penalty involve grave issues.
If one is convinced that a particular use of military force is unjust, such as the invasion of Iraq and the so-called Bush doctrine of unilateral pre-emptive war, one might weigh that particular issue as equal to or greater than abortion in gravity. Like genocide, the use of military force involves the state as the primary moral agent, compared to abortion, where a woman and her doctor act as the primary moral agents. A similar point could be made with the intrinsic evil of torture.
Let's not forget that we also don't judge candidates solely on the issues, but on their leadership and character – their integrity and ability to get things done. It does no good to elect a pro-life candidate who is an ineffective leader. Furthermore, if the President has little to no real constitutional power to change abortion laws, but does have some real constitutional power to effect the economy and set foreign policy, isn't that sufficient reason to expand our focus beyond a single issue?
Few Catholics believe in single issue voting. In general, I agree with many conservative pro-life Catholics who refer to abortion as one dominant issue among other dominant issues in voting. I even agree that in some cases, it will be the decisive factor in our vote. Typically, the issues that seem to earn this designation of "dominant" among many conservative pro-life Catholics are then limited to abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and homosexual unions. While I favor equal rights for homosexuals, I agree with cultural conservatives that these five issues are critically important. I do not agree with these same Catholics when they speak of these five issues as "non-negotiable" and limit the political discourse to only these five issues. While our values and principles are non-negotiable, our politics must be negotiated. There are many more issues than just these five to weigh for both political and theological reasons.
In the election cycles since November of 2002, it seems clear to me that American Catholics must consider the possibility that voting for the pro-choice candidates might be morally equal to or preferable to voting for the candidate who favors greater restrictions on abortion. In the immediate near term, very little can be done to change the laws on abortion. Yet, much might be done to continue reducing the abortion rate, paving the way for changes in the law at a later time. Those very same initiatives that might reduce abortion rates may involve action consistent with other moral imperatives of the Church's overall social justice teaching. The absolute ideal state might be unobtainable in a pluralistic democracy, at least in our life-time. There are also other moral issues involving the sanctity of life to consider, such as the use of military force and our overall foreign policy. It seems clear to me that while neither party is perfect, one can seriously argue that the Democratic positions in recent years have been as pro-life overall as the Republican Party is reputed to be, if not more so.
Friday, October 10, 2008
Can Pro-Life Catholics Vote for Obama and Other Democrats
Friday, October 03, 2008
If you believe faith influences our politics, and people of faith have a contribution to make to the secular common good, Obama is the change we need.
McCain calls Christian leaders agents of intolerance.
If you worry about losing your home, Obama is the change we need.
McCain thinks the fundamentals of our economy are strong.
If you make less than $250,000 per year, and feel your taxes are too high, Obama is the change we need.
McCain thinks the rich deserve more tax breaks than Reagan gave them.
If you believe in balanced budgets, Obama is the change we need.
McCain would only cut 18 billion of pork out of our budgets, with no increases in taxes.
If you are an investor worried about economic growth in the United States over the next four years, Obama is the change we need.
McCain believes the fundamentals of our economy are strong.
If you believe our children are our future, and want to invest in their education, Obama is the change we need.
McCain has nothing to say about education.
If you want to reduce the influence of corporate lobbyist and cut out wasteful government spending, Obama is the change we need.
McCain is strong on this issue, but Obama has never disagreed or been less passionate on the subject.
If you are tired of decisive partisan politics and scorched earth negative campaigning, Obama is the change we need.
One word: Palin!
If you believe that climate change is caused by human activity, Obama is the change we need.
Or, you can drill, baby, drill.
If you want American energy Independence, Obama is the change we need.
Or, you can drill, baby, drill.
If you worry about the potential of another terrorist attack on the United States, Obama is the change we need.
McCain wants to keep rattling sabers at the world.
If you think the invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a mistake, Obama is the change we need.
MCain does want to reduce the violence, but also wants our troops in Iraq like they sit in Korea.
If you think cowboy diplomacy and unilateralism has isolated America too much, Obama is the change we need.
McCain doesn't even believe in talking to people.
If you are not impressed by political stunts and gimmicks, Obama is the change we need.
One word: Palin!
If you dislike political spin, lies, deception and manipulation, Obama is the change we need.
One word: Palin!
If you want to do something to undo the legacy of slavery and racism in America, Obama is the change we need.
Need I say anything?
I you are pro-life, and want to do something to reduce abortion rates, Obama is the change we need.
Obama is committed to reducing abortion, and has reached out to pro-lifers more than any Democrat since 1973!
If you are pro-choice, and worry that Roe might be overturned, Obama is the change we need.
Obama reaches out to pro-lifers, but consistently upholds Roe. Intrigued? Read the Audacity of Hope.
If you want to see the advancement of women in society, Obama is the change we need.
Hillary didn't win, but Obama is more feminist than Palin.
If you feel that sustaining heterosexual marriage is difficult in today's culture, Obama is the change we need.
See the Audacity of Hope for details.
If you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, and you feel that you are denied your human rights, Obama is the change we need.
Look at the candidates' record.
If you think eight years of Bush were eight years too many, Obama is the change we need.
Obama in 2008. He's the best candidate!