A Guide for Catholic Voters

Abortion Is Not the Only Issue


The 2004 presidential election saw a handful of U.S. Catholic bishops involve themselves in partisan politics in an extraordinary way. They admonished Catholic candidates publicly for their views and in some cases advocated refusing Communion to prochoice politicians and those who voted for them. Now, two years later-and weeks before a midterm election-the question of how Catholics should approach the challenge of voting remains a contentious one. Republican partisans within the church have typically zeroed in on four controversial issues: gay marriage, euthanasia, stem-cell research, and abortion. Of these four, abortion provides the most fuel for political advocacy and action. On gay marriage, the parties don’t differ all that much; the Democratic Party’s most recent platform, for example, stops well short of endorsing homosexual nuptials. On stem-cell research, Republicans generally oppose federal funding while Democrats typically support it, but there are dissenters in both parties, neither of which has called for its outright prohibition. Finally, physician-assisted suicide has been legalized in only one state and is more of a cultural bogeyman than a live political issue. That leaves abortion to do the heavy lifting for Republican activists who are trying to capture the Catholic vote. On that score, the logic of Republican Party apologists is as follows. The issues where traditionally Democratic policy positions have tended to reflect church teaching-economic justice, the death penalty, war, environmental protection, and others-are issues for which the church’s positions are flexible, making policy disagreements permissible even among those who accept Catholic principles. The intrinsic immorality of abortion, on the other hand, allows for no dissent, and a vote for a prochoice candidate is therefore a vote for someone whose views are unquestionably opposed to what is right and good. The handful of bishops who explicitly went after prochoice politicians based their actions almost entirely on the legal status of abortion-an issue so important, they suggested, that voting for a candidate who supported legalized abortion was unacceptable, irrespective of that candidate’s conformity with Catholic teaching on other issues. As Princeton political philosopher Robert George and Notre Dame law professor Gerald Bradley suggested in an opinion piece published by National Review Online before the 2004 election: To vote for a prochoice candidate is to cooperate in evil of an unspeakable magnitude-the intentional killing of over a million human beings a year. Faithful Catholics, they implied, must vote Republican. This argument actually combines two very different points. First, it asserts that Catholic teachings on abortion are unambiguous in a way that is not true of the church’s teaching on issues such as just war or our collective responsibilities to the poor. Yet certain aspects of the church’s just-war doctrine as well as what we are taught about the evil of poverty are in fact just as unambiguous as the condemnation of abortion. Taken at face value, the George/Bradley argument would render irrelevant the entire breadth of the church’s social teaching. In fact, the argument goes much further than George and Bradley even recognize. After all, if abortion is the moral equivalent of mass murder, Republican and Democrat alike should be condemned for failing to endorse radical action to stop women from having abortions. The intentional slaughter of millions of children would justify almost any form of resistance, arguably including violence. Indeed, if legal access to abortion were truly the unquestionable, all-consuming moral emergency that rendered all other considerations trivial, George W. Bush’s failure to take extraordinary steps during his six years in office to put an immediate end to the slaughter makes him nearly as culpable as prochoice politicians. If mass murder is going on every day in this country, shouldn’t President Bush halt all other government business in order to force through a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion? His failure to lead the charge for even minimally militant action to put an immediate stop to the practice of abortion makes him appear to be a feckless Neville Chamberlain, unable to appreciate the gravity of the moral crisis over which he presides. And yet Bush’s Catholic supporters do not condemn the president in these harsh terms. Their willingness to work patiently through the political system to change abortion law suggests that they know that simply equating abortion with mass murder ignores the complexity of the issue and elides the most vexing aspect of the problem: as long as women themselves seek abortions, the law will only have limited control over the practice. Moreover, while the church’s teaching on the immorality of abortion itself might be unambiguous, the morality of a vote for one candidate or another is rarely as clear cut. For example, since abortion is a fundamental constitutional right protected by the courts, the election of antiabortion politicians is not likely to have a tremendous effect on the number of abortions performed. Even more tenuous is the argument that Catholics should vote Republican because Republicans will appoint antiabortion justices to the Supreme Court. No one can predict when Supreme Court justices will retire and a president will thereby have the opportunity to nominate a candidate. And, as the first President Bush learned from his appointment of Justice David Souter, it can be difficult to predict how a justice will vote on any given issue once he is on the Court. Even if Roe v. Wade were overturned, however, outlawing abortion nationwide would require a federal law or a constitutional amendment, neither of which is likely to be forthcoming. And, as noted above, even if such laws were enacted, abortion’s illegality would hardly be the end of the complex moral dilemma abortion presents. As Latin America demonstrates, abortions can be illegal and still widely performed. In fact, according to the Guttmacher Institute, the 39 percent of women who live in countries where abortion is restricted or prohibited by law account for a disproportionate number of the 46 million abortions performed worldwide each year. So there are a number of reasons to question the often common assumption that voting Republican will significantly impact the practice of abortion in the United States. For one, the number of abortions actually increased under the antiabortion Reagan administration, then dropped dramatically under the prochoice Clinton administration. Interestingly, this drop then slowed during the first two years of George W. Bush’s presidency (the most recent years for which comprehensive data is available). On the other side of the ledger, the argument that Catholics should vote Republican because of abortion substantially understates the certainty of the church’s teachings on other moral issues. The party in control of the White House or Congress possesses a foreseeable and immediate impact on many of the issues-other than abortion-that those concerned with Catholic social teaching should pay attention to. In this regard, the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress have time and again made decisions that run directly counter to that teaching. War It is true that Catholic just-war doctrine sanctions the use of military force by the state under limited circumstances. Whether a particular war is justified is always a complex prudential calculation. At the same time, the same doctrine categorically bars wars of aggression. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church [2308] puts it, “governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed,” but “all citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.” The obvious implication is that a war undertaken for any purpose other than self-defense is immoral, like all other taking of innocent human life (including abortion), and its immorality is not a matter of prudential judgment. Substantial evidence now indicates that the Bush administration took this country to war with Iraq on false pretenses, in full knowledge that the evidence of an imminent Iraqi threat was at best questionable and at worst fraudulent. If this is true, the war is categorically unjust, and Bush and his supporters in Congress are personally responsible for the needless deaths of thousands of American soldiers and perhaps as many as one hundred thousand Iraqi soldiers and civilians. Catholic just-war doctrine also insists on the humane treatment of prisoners of war and noncombatants, and prohibits the use of torture. But according to the New York Times, “prisoners have been abused, tortured, and even killed....American agents ‘disappear’ people, some entirely innocent, and send them off to torture chambers in distant lands. Hundreds of innocent men have been jailed at Guantánamo Bay without charges or rudimentary rights.” Far from disclaiming these abuses, administration lawyers have sought to legalize them by defining “torture” in an artificially narrow way. The Bush administration’s treatment of prisoners therefore scandalously contradicts church teaching, which condemns any “physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred.” The question that remains, of course, is how best to extricate the United States from the situation in Iraq without causing more harm than necessary. Even those who accept the basic outlines of Catholic just-war doctrine might disagree on what the responsibilities of the United States are now in Iraq. In the absence of a viable Iraqi government, immediate withdrawal of American troops might make a bad situation even worse. Republican policymakers continue to focus, however, on justifying their past mistakes, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did in his stridently upbeat testimony to Congress in August. Yet owning up to one’s failures is a precondition necessary for even asking the right questions about the future. Economic Justice Catholic social teaching does not prescribe any one economic system or policy. Still, it does provide unambiguous guidance concerning the values by which economic decisions must be made, offering clear instructions as to which factors must be given the greatest weight. For example, the church’s social doctrine condemns economic policymaking aimed narrowly at improving the situation of the already rich without regard for the poor. Indeed, the church’s teachings instruct policymakers in no uncertain terms to place the material well-being of the poor above that of the wealthy. As John Paul II put it, “the whole tradition of the church bears witness” to a “love of preference for the poor,” a preference that must inform the “decisions to be made concerning the ownership and use of goods” and mark “our decisions in the political and economic fields.” This broad Catholic concern for the poor is consistent with many different economic policies, provided-and this is crucial-that such policies be undertaken first with an eye toward their impact on the poorest. For example, a failure to raise the minimum wage, by itself, might not contradict the church’s social teachings, just as a decision to cut taxes for the rich, by itself, might not violate those teachings. Will raising the minimum wage increase the earnings of the poor, or merely lead to the destruction of job opportunities? Will cutting taxes for the rich stimulate economic growth that “lifts all boats”? Reasonable people might disagree-though perhaps not as much as Republican apologists like to claim. Nevertheless, intentions matter. Indeed, given the considerable uncertainty surrounding the effects of economic policymaking, the Catholic focus on the intentions of policymakers may be the church’s most substantive contribution to economic justice. It must be said that the consistent pattern of Republican policies favoring the rich strongly suggests that, far from reflecting prudential judgments about the best ways to help the poor, Bush administration economic policymaking is being formulated without regard for the poor at all. One would have to be incredibly naive, or perhaps willfully blind, to believe that higher levels of poverty, stagnant real wages for the middle class, and dramatic increases in the well-being of the richest of the rich over the last six years are all part of some master plan designed to bear fruit for the poorest Americans. Instead, the most reasonable inference to draw is that the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress simply do not accept the broad preference for the poor that underlies Catholic thinking about economic decision making. Racism Catholic social teaching rejects racism categorically. As the U.S. Catholic bishops put it in 1979, “racism is a sin; a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.” Since the civil rights movement, however, the Republican Party has notoriously courted the white racist vote through the self-conscious use of subtle (and, at times, not-so-subtle) racist language and symbolism. In 1980, for example, Ronald Reagan shamed himself by making his first major campaign appearance in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the infamous civil-rights murders, where he demanded greater respect for “states’ rights.” In the 1988 election, the first President Bush ran his famous Willie Horton ad. In the 2000 presidential primary, his son won votes in South Carolina by visiting racist (and anti-Catholic) Bob Jones University, and by conducting a push poll suggesting that John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. And just this summer, Republican Senator (and presidential hopeful) George Allen referred to the Indian-American member of his opponent’s campaign staff as “Macaca,” a French racial slur referring to Arabs and North Africans that also happens to be used as a synonym for “nigger” on American white supremacist Web sites. (Interestingly, Allen’s French mother grew up in North Africa.) Obviously, most Republicans are not racists, but there are ample grounds to conclude that the conscious courtship of the racist vote by some in the Republican Party, including some of its most prominent candidates, is flatly inconsistent with the unambiguous Catholic condemnation of racial hatred. The Environment Concern for the environment is a relatively undeveloped aspect of Catholic social teaching, but its importance is growing and the moral imperative of environmental stewardship has made its way into some recent documents. In Centesimus annus, for example, John Paul II decried the human tendency to “make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to [our] will.” He instructed us to “be conscious of [our] duties and obligations toward future generations.” In contrast with this broad mandate to care for the environment and preserve it for future generations, the Bush administration has relentlessly pursued policies that, in the words of former EPA head Carol Browner, make it the “most anti-environmental [administration] in history.” Environmental policymaking has been outsourced to industry lobbyists, and, confronted with a scientific consensus on the need to take action to ward off the impending crisis of global climate change, the Bush White House and the Republicans in Congress have done almost nothing. Indeed, prominent Republican officials, including Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, continue to press the demonstrably false argument that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by environmental extremists. Continued Republican control of the federal government guarantees that the increasingly urgent Catholic call for environmental stewardship will go unheeded. In the end, the advice of the U.S. Catholic bishops in their 2004 document, Faithful Citizenship, urging Catholic voters to take into account the full panoply of issues that concern the church better reflects the richness of the Catholic moral tradition than does the narrow fixation on abortion seen in the last election. The best Catholic voters can hope to do is consider thoughtfully the entire range of issues, then cast their ballots as their consciences (rather than certain bishops) guide them.

Published in the 2006-09-22 issue: 

Eduardo M. Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. The views expressed in the piece are his own, and should not be attributed to Cornell University or Cornell Law School.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads