The Barack-ing Point?

The other day Tim Staples emailed me an article regarding Barack Obama’s address this past summer to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. In his speech, Senator Obama attacked the Supreme Court decision that upheld the federal partial-birth abortion law, as well as the nomination of Supreme Court justices who favor overturning Roe v. Wade.  In the speech the senator said, “There will always be people, many of goodwill, who do not share my view on the issue of choice. On this fundamental issue, I will not yield and Planned Parenthood will not yield.”

With apologies to Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee, let’s get real for a minute and admit that we are looking at an Obama vs. McCain election. I’m sure the “Catholic vote” will be addressed in all its at-times frustrating complexity over the coming months. But right now, I want to throw out a question to all Catholics of goodwill (and it’s nice to see that Senator Obama considers “many” of us to be of goodwill).

During the last presidential cycle, Pope Benedict XVI, while still serving as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a memorandum to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, then-Archbishop of Washington. The memorandum contained this statement:

“A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”

To call Senator Obama’s position on abortion “permissive” is certainly an understatement. He is entrenched on the “other side” of the issue, as his address to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund shows. Clearly a Catholic may not vote for him because of his position on abortion, but may do so for other reasons if they are “proportionate.”

The concept of “proportionate reasons” has been discussed ever since Senator Kerry’s unsuccessful bid for the White House. But now it’s time to set aside all the hypotheticals and apply the principle to an Obama vs. McCain campaign.

Let me be clear as to my own approach. I am not looking at this from the perspective of Democrat vs. Republican. Further, I disagree with Senator McCain on some fairly significant issues. But my question is: Are there any “proportionate reasons” that could possibly justify a Catholic supporting Senator Obama in the general election? I don’t think there are. 

Recently I read a disgusting article by liberal Catholic Joe Feuerherd in the Washington Post, chiding the Church for allegedly saying that he (and other Maryland voters) would go to hell for voting for Obama.  Feuerherd has long been a dissident voice in the Catholic press, and in the political arena he is perhaps best remembered for his vicious hit piece on Deal Hudson for the National Catholic Reporter. His Washington Post piece was satisfactorily addressed by Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review Online.

There are going to be commentators like Feuerherd who are not going to take seriously the need for “proportionate reasons” to support a candidate of Senator Obama’s stripe. And, in fairness, there are some people on the other extreme (albeit not as many) who are more “Republican” than they are Catholic.

My desire is that all Catholics, whatever our political inclinations might be, think with the Church as we exercise the awesome privilege and responsibility to elect the next Commander-in-Chief. So, to all you Catholics of goodwill out there, please tell me how one could in conscience support Barack Obama, or why you think Catholics cannot morally support Obama.

Stay tuned for more commentary on the upcoming 2008 election from a Catholic perspective.

12 responses

  1. This is an important topic right now, obviously. I’m glad you’ve raised it. Although this issue has been discussed in the past, it is important to re-apply the general teaching to each new circumstance.

    I have to admit that I, too, am not thrilled with either candidate. John McCain is not someone I would have picked, if the choice were entirely mine. Unfortunately, we are left with two less than stellar major candidates.

    I’ve written about such scenarios in the past, in particular, with George W. Bush vs. Gore or Kerry.

    In my opinion, the differences on the “non-negotiables” between Bush and Gore/Kerry were somewhat greater than those between McCain and Obama. Although, I admittedly need to read more about John McCain to more fully ascertain what his true positions and voting record are. A great deal is “out there” that proves to be false and so, we need to be careful. Nevertheless, it is becoming more difficult to continue to lean on the “lesser of two evils” approach for me. At some point, a point which is not as black and white as a few extremists have tried to make it, it is no longer proper to choose one over the other.

    I’m not saying that we have reached a point where one can no longer reasonably choose McCain in order to oppose Obama, only that it is becoming more difficult to continue to use the “lesser of two evils” approach.

    Perhaps an illustration will make the point clearer: if Rudy Giuliani had won the Republican nomination and Hillary had won the Democrat nomination, is Giuliani probably better than Hillary Clinton? Yes, I think he would do less damage in regard to the “non-negotiables” while in office than she.

    But I couldn’t bring myself to vote for him because I believe it would force me to compromise too heavily. Furthermore, I believe it would harm the conservative moral potential of the Republican party – and let’s be candid, at least at this point, the idea of a “conservative moral potential” for the Democrat party is almost oxymoronic – I would rather the Republicans lose and thereby hopefully push them to return to more conservative moral principles than help them to become the Rockefeller Republican Party, so to speak.

    Back to the current situation: I believe one could reasonably opt for a third party candidate for president. And it seems to me that a Catholic could reasonably choose John McCain (in order to oppose Obama). But it is not reasonable for a Catholic to vote for Barack Obama, in my opinion.

    Truthfully, I am tiring of the way that some hold the Church’s 501(c)3 status over her head. It’s a bogus argument. But if it comes down to it, I think the Church would be better off to jettison the charitable status in order to remove this ridiculous muzzle. And then, perhaps, she could speak more freely about these matters and exert more moral influence in the parties or perhaps, even, encourage the beginning of a new party that is more in line with Catholic teaching.

    Thanks for bringing this out and encouraging discussion!

  2. While there aren’t any good reasons for a Catholic to vote Obama, one could ask the same question for McCain.

    I think support for McCain is a vote to end any remaining influence of the social conservatives in the GOP. But I would be just about happy to see the GOP completely disbanded right about now. They serve so little function.

  3. Good comments, guys. Also, one email correspondent rightly noted that while Feuerherd accuses the Church of saying that people who vote for Sen. Obama are going to hell, the Church doesn’t actually make such statements.

    Michael uses terminology that I’ve heard several solid Catholic commentators use in recent years, namely “lesser of two evils,” when it comes to supporting a less-than-stellar candidate over an even less desirable candidate. I think this terminology is completely understandable and, understood properly, most applicable to this situation.

    However, as we know from moral theology, we can never choose evil so that good may come from it. Yet, the implication of the “lesser of two evils” approach is that voting for one candidate rather than another is still an “evil” choice.

    And at the same time, the Church urges our participation in the political process as part of our “faithful citizenship.”

    I think any time we vote for anybody or anything, we are exercising an ability to do good. It may not be the greatest good, and in fact it may be largely the prevention of greater evil, but even that is a “good.”

    For example, those who voted for President Bush can point to quality Supreme Court justices like Alito and Roberts and say “we did that” by supporting Bush rather than a candidate committed to the appointment of aggressively pro-abortion jurists. Surely that’s a “good” that we did through our vote.

    The fact of the matter is that there are probably “good” reasons to vote for either candidate, as well as for any third-party candidate that might come along. The challenge–and really my question–involves proportionality: Can anyone make a case that any forseeable “good” that could conceivably come from an Obama presidency would be substantial enough under Card. Ratzinger’s “proportionality test” (which really seems to be an application of double effect principles) so as to overcome his staunch support of abortion? Surely Obama’s energy and activism would be experienced acutely in this area. In fact, one might even say that a vote for Sen. McCain would be “good” precisely because it would help our nation avoid an Obama presidency.

    Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics and outlook, but I think we need a godly optimism when it comes to the good we can and must do through the political process, even though surely the necessary cultural renewal must go much deeper.

  4. I don’t trust either party on abortion, and I trust even those politicians who don the pro-life mantle. Here’s why:

    It is often said that the president affects abortion really only in the judges that he appoints, but this is not the case. The president (and indeed members of Congress) have the opportunity to speak to the nation daily. President Bush has used this opportunity persistently to try to persuade the American public of the rightness of our cause in Iraq and other war related topics.

    He has not given priority to convincing the nation that abortion is an evil. Sure, he’s has statements here and there, but nothing compared to the speeches he’s given to sell his war.

    When a presidential candidate shows that he or she will make persuading the public about abortion a high priority, perhaps then I’ll shed my skepticism.

  5. Leon,

    You make a good point about Feuerherd’s gross exaggeration.

    And I understand the distinction you are after in regard to what I referred to as the “lesser of two evils.” I agree we are saying the same thing in different ways. So it is basically matter of semantics. And I also appreciate your desire to approach things as positively as possible. That’s a perfectly good and godly intention…it can be easy to become cynical.

    However – and I do not profess to be an expert – I don’t believe it’s inaccurate or unacceptable to use such terminology (lesser of two evils) even from the perspective of Catholic moral theology. I researched this very issue before helping to write an article about voting, approximately 3-4 years ago.

    For example, here is what Fr. Heribert Jone writes in “Moral Theology” regarding “evil” legislation or unworthy candidates. Jone’s book is currently in it’s 18th edition, having been written in 1961, receiving an imprimatur and nihil obstat back during an era when these were perhaps more significant than they are now.

    Fr. Jone, Moral Theology:

    Chapter II, Civic Duties: 1) Section II, Subsection 3: Co-operation in evil legislation is sinful. The only exception admitted is the case in which such representatives might avoid a greater evil by their co-operation (Cf 144, 147) in such cases; however, they must make clear their position.

    2) Section III, subsection 3: Election of good representatives. Voting is a civic duty which would seem to bind at least under venial sin whenever a good candidate has an unworthy opponent. It might even be a mortal sin if one’s refusal to vote would result in the election of an unworthy candidate. One may vote for an unworthy candidate only when this is necessary to prevent a still less worthy candidate from obtaining office; but in such a case one should explain the reason for his action if this is possible…

    From both of these sections, a general rule is laid out: It is permissible to “choose” or “cooperate” with something that is evil in this limited context (or “someone” who sanctions the evil) *but only if the alternative is an even greater evil.* This is not a matter of actually, actively “doing” evil so that good may come, not a matter of the “ends justifying the means.” These are two different things.

    Jone also adds something else that is crucial: one who votes for something that is evil on balance or someone who sanctions evil, has a moral responsibility to express his objection to the evil itself and explain to those who witness such a vote that his support was only given in order to avoid an even more serious evil. I think this is important. In my work with the pro-life movement, I have sometimes been uncomfortable with the way that certain pro-life organizations give unequivocal endorsements or so accentuate the “good” that they ignore the evil in “their guy”.

    Getting back to your central point, however, I don’t think a proportional reason exists which would justify a vote for Obama. And this is the key.

    However, there *are* some Catholics who feel so strongly about the war in Iraq that they believe his desire to end the war would be sufficient to justify the vote. I don’t agree. But they seem to believe it quite strongly, nonetheless.

  6. For what it’s worth, I agree with Kyle that president Bush could have – should have – done more in speaking out against abortion.

    But if the implication is that it would have made little difference if Gore or Kerry had been elected instead? I don’t agree with that.

    Is there anyone in the country who doesn’t know where President Bush stands on abortion? I doubt it. Is there any doubt about the kind of judges Gore and Kerry would have appointed? Do we remember the Mexico City policy on abortion?

    I have been out on the front lines of the “life” issue and I can tell you in no uncertain terms that the pro-abortion forces understand that president Bush is anything but their friend.

    Is Bush perfect on the “non-negotiables”? No. But I think we have to be careful not to fall into the error of perfectionism. There are some very good lessons to be learned from the Civil War. Lincoln was far from perfect on slavery and various other issues. In fact, he even said some things about slavery that today would be considered downright unacceptable. He was not the best candidate available in terms of opposing slavery. And the North was also far from perfect and pure in its aims and intentions.

    In the previous “Bush-W.” elections, some opted for a third party candidate who had absolutely no chance to win. Was this wrong or sinful? No. They were well within their rights. But more than a few went so far as cast aspersions on those who voted for Bush, deeming such a vote immoral. I have wondered if such people would have sat out the Civil War or the Lincoln-Douglas election, perhaps stubbornly supporting an irrelevant tiny minority that was more perfectly correct and pure.

    Am I saying that president Bush is an Abraham Lincoln? No. But he might have been. It’s easy to Monday-morning quarterback. Yet, perhaps he may one day be seen in the same light as past presidents who at least held the line against Communism until it eventually fell.

    One can well imagine that the Soviet Union would still be intact had Adlai Stevenson won, or the other candidates who supported unilateral disarmament. It was a long war fought by a string of presidents who generally kept the pressure on the Soviets…a pressure which caused cracks and eventual disintegration.

    I’m certainly praying for another Lincoln or Reagan-type who will grow into his role as a passionate voice against abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, “gay marriage”, etc. But in the meantime, a string of Trumans, Eisenhowers, Kennedys (John F., not Ted!), Fords and Reagans might also bring about the ultimate victory.

    Please, God.

  7. Michael,

    While it doesn’t mean everything, a fact to consider in evaluating President Bush and the Republicans on abortion is that from 2000 until 2005, when Republican’s dominated the White House and the Congress, government funding of Planned Parenthood inceased each and every year.

    I don’t think it is at all clear where President Bush stands on the abortion issue. Consider this as well: for good or ill, President Bush has focused his entire presidency on responding to the murder of 3000 Americans. No matter what his approval ratings, he’s stayed the course. Now, if Bush really believes that millions of innocent human persons die each year in the USA from abortion, why has he not committed even a fraction of what he puts into his war on terror into an effort to opens hearts and minds on abortion and outlaw the barbaric procedure?

    My guess is that ending abortion is not a priority for him. His choice in judges may have more to do with his war-related projects. That would explain Harriet Myers. Besides, we have yet to see how Roberts and Alito will vote on overturning Roe v. Wade.

    BTW, I’m not here implying that the Dems would be better on abortion.

  8. Dear Kyle,

    I don’t agree with your assessment that President Bush has focused his entire presidency on the murder of 3,000 Americans. That’s an unfair characterization.

    He has repeatedly made it very plain that his intention is to keep the terrorists focused and engaged over *there* so that we are not engaging them *here* on our soil. It is about preventing *future attacks* on hundreds of millions of living U.S. citizens, not avenging a past attack that killed 3,000.

    And the fact is, we have not had another terrorist attack on our soil for almost 7 years now. Is it entirely because of this strategy? I can’t say for certain. It appears as though there are probably plusses and minuses to the strategy. But one cannot simply dismiss the possibility that, on balance, this strategy has played an important role in protecting the United States. And one should not mischaracterize the publicly stated aims of the president in this regard.

    Also, I don’t agree with your line of argument vis a vis funding for Planned Parenthood. I’ve heard it bandied about by Peroutka supporters. But the president of the United States doesn’t have a line item veto. Therefore, he cannot simply excise what he does not like from appropriations bills. As such, the president would have to continually veto the entire budget presented to him – which also contains many good and critical things – entirely over increased funding for Planned Parenthood.

    I don’t consider it fair to say that Bush is for Planned Parenthood and abortion. Neither would it be fair to say that pro-lifers who vote for Bush therefore support Planned Parenthood and abortion.

    This is one of the inherent limitations of democracy.

    Here you will find a history of President Bush and the pro-life cause only as of 2004. This list doesn’t include Supremes Roberts or Alito, etc. And there is no question that neither Gore nor Kerry would have done these things:

    And again, one of the best ways to tell where a man stands is by his enemies. They know that Bush is not their friend. They can’t stand him. And I know why that is so.

    Let me repeat, I agree with you that President Bush could have and should have done more. But in my opinion, your view is too perfectionist.

    Did you vote for Peroutka? If so, that’s perfectly within your rights and it’s a defensible position, imo. I know and greatly respect several people who made exactly this choice.

    But I still personally hold that a vote for Peroutka by someone who opposes abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia and homosexual “marriage” (such as you) worked primarily to the benefit of Gore/Kerry…both of whom are undeniable and zealous opponents of the Catholic position. I don’t see the positive fruit of that protest vote. Did the GOP move in a more conservative direction after 2004? No, the apparent GOP candidate is more liberal. The DNC? No, again, if anything, the apparent candidate (Obama) is even more liberal.

    Is the Constitution Party more viable this year? Has it gained momentum? Not that I have seen. So, what demonstrable change was accomplished by this vote? None that I can see.

    Conversely, I can (and did) provide you with a large list of positive, pro-life things that were undeniably accomplished precisely because George W. Bush was elected instead of Gore or Kerry.

    That being said, I do recognize a role for the “protest vote.” In fact, had Giuliani won the GOP nomination, I would not have voted for him. At that point, I believe it would have been better for the GOP to lose as a result of defections – or abstentions – from its base. And there is good reason to believe that this is precisely what would have happened based on polling data. The effect would tend to push the party back to the right on the life/social issues. Candidates would likely have learned that they cannot be so liberal and actually win.

    So, in the end, this is certainly a judgment call. And I respect that. Whether I will vote for McCain or not? I haven’t yet decided. I need to learn more about his actual voting record. But my initial impression is that this decision will be more difficult than the last two elections.

  9. It’s the Supreme Court, stupid! We can survive a bad administration, but not a bad Supreme Court –temporary versus quasi-permanent effects. It’s the difference between scorching the fields, which will recover, and poisoning the well from which they’re irrigated.

    McCain has promised and will deliver justices who respect the Constitution and the right to life and Obama has promised the exact opposite. This is the bottom line. Everything else is details.

  10. Justices who “respect the Constitution”? Are you serious?

    Under Bush (and earlier Republicans) we’ve gained Justices who: interceeded in Bush v Gore when it was a state’s rights issue as defined by the Constitution; who have ruled American contractors who commit crimes (including rape) are immune from prosecution there AND here in the U.S., while simultaneously declaring that access to a civil lawsuit is also barred by “binding 3rd party arbitration”; who’ve ruled that anytime the FDA declares a product safe (even if the company is later shown to have changed the product to make it unsafe), the corporation is immune from torts; and now, in today’s paper, its expected later this year the USSC will rule the same way with regard to drug companies (even though its been proven that drug companies often fail to share ALL research and safety documentation with the FDA prior to approval); and, they’ve ruled people have no right to sue to prevent illegal and unwarranted spying on the American people en masse!
    Somehow, I seriously doubt the Founders would consider these extremist Justices to be “respectful” of the Constitution they worked so hard to create!

    FYI – if seeking an answer as to why or why not vote McCain…How about his active seeking of an endorsement from a man who regularly calls the Church a “cult”, “apostate”, and accuses the Church of actively working with the Nazis? An endorsement McCain asked for, got, and refuses to renounce (as opposed to Obama’s Farrakhan endorsement, which he did not solicit, refuses to accept, and where he’s repeatedly denounced Farrakhan’s bigoted views)…Seems to me, many Catholics are trying hard to ignore McCain’s bad choices here…

  11. Michael,

    Thanks for the link.

    You wrote:

    “I don’t agree with your assessment that President Bush has focused his entire presidency on the murder of 3,000 Americans. That’s an unfair characterization.”

    What I said is that President Bush has focused his presidency on responding to the attacks of 9/11. I didn’t say that the response was one of vengeance. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think we’d be engaged as we are in a “war on terror” had 9/11 not occurred. While Bush has done things beyond fight terrorists, the hallmark of his administration has been, as he says, keeping us safe. That was my point, perhaps poorly stated.

    “He has repeatedly made it very plain that his intention is to keep the terrorists focused and engaged over *there* so that we are not engaging them *here* on our soil.”

    This is fallacious thinking on his part. Nothing we’re doing “over there” prevents terrorist attacks at home. Also, keeping the fight “over there” may be nice for us, but “over there” is home to many innocent people whose lives are being torn apart. It’s “here” for them.

    “I don’t consider it fair to say that Bush is for Planned Parenthood and abortion. Neither would it be fair to say that pro-lifers who vote for Bush therefore support Planned Parenthood and abortion.”

    I didn’t say he was. I said I’m skeptical, doubtful that ending abortion is a priority for him. And, I agree, it wouldn’t be fair to say that pro-lifers who vote for Bush therefore support Planned Parenthood and abortion. Did I imply otherwise?

    “As such, the president would have to continually veto the entire budget presented to him – which also contains many good and critical things – entirely over increased funding for Planned Parenthood.”

    So what? Then Congress would have to either override the veto or revise the budget. Bush has threatened the veto on lots of bills of late for such things he didn’t like as timelines for withdrawal, immunity for phone companies, and bans on torture. Why not for funding Planned Parenthood?

    “Let me repeat, I agree with you that President Bush could have and should have done more. But in my opinion, your view is too perfectionist.”

    I’m not asking for perfection. I just think he could have built a case for ending abortion in the way he made public cases for the wars: by making a persistent effort to persuade the public. Perfection is not a prerequisite for that!

    BTW, the Constitution Party is really not my thing.

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