Tag Archives: Catholicism

Notre Dame For The Win

I’m not a Catholic, so I’m loath to comment on the Obama-Notre Dame controversy. That said, I’m dully impressed by the names of the student groups assembled to oppose Obama’s commencement address:

The Irish Rover Student Newspaper
The University of Notre Dame Anscombe Society
Militia of the Immaculata
Children of Mary
Orestes Brownson Council
Notre Dame Law School Right to Life
Notre Dame Law St Thomas More Society

Definitely a lot cooler-sounding than your average college clubs.

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Catholics for Obama?

I liked William Gould’s thoughtful take on politics and Catholicism. He echoes a sentiment I’ve expressed on several different occasions – namely, that a holistic assessment of the candidates’ positions is the best way to vote for the sanctity of human life. Here’s Gould:

The second reason I find Kmiec’s position helpful is that, while clearly speaking from within the prolife movement, he provides much-needed correctives to two unfortunate tendencies within that movement. The first is the propensity of many prolifers—including many church leaders—to attach so much significance to opposing abortion that they end up effectively dismissing every other issue as unimportant or of minimal importance. (Indeed, in a recent pastoral letter, Bishop Martino approvingly quoted the view of his predecessor, Bishop Timlin, that “abortion is the issue this year and every year in every campaign.”) While opposition to abortion is surely an important part of Catholic teaching, it does not begin to exhaust the riches of the Catholic social tradition. On the contrary, there are many other important matters—issues of foreign policy (including questions of war and peace), health care, whether and how we are going to meet our obligations to the poor, just to name a few—on which the Catholic social tradition has much wisdom and insight to contribute. To reduce Catholic teaching to opposing abortion, which many bishops are very close to doing, is to present a truncated version of the Catholic tradition, and Kmiec is to be commended for pointing that out.

I don’t think this approach precludes Catholics (or other people of faith) from voting for McCain. In my view, Gould isn’t arguing that religious voters must accept the superiority of Obama’s approach to foreign policy or social justice. Simply that Catholic voters should embrace a more nuanced decision-making calculus when it comes to presidential politics.

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George Weigel’s Most Catholic Decision-Making Calculus

After thoroughly demolishing the pro-life case for Obama, George Weigel goes on to explain why abortion is an a priori issue for Catholic voters:

As Cardinal George’s letter indicated, the Catholic Church’s teaching on the intrinsic evil of abortion involves a first principle of justice that can be known by reason, that’s one of the building blocks of a just society, and that ought never be compromised—which is why, for example, Catholic legislators were morally obliged to oppose legal segregation (another practice once upheld by a Supreme Court decision that denied human beings the full protection of the laws). Questions of war and peace, social-welfare policy, environmental policy and economic policy, on the other hand, are matters of prudential judgment on which people who affirm the same principles of Catholic social doctrine can reasonably differ. The pro-life, pro-Obama Catholics are thus putting the full weigh of their moral argument on contingent prudential judgments that, by definition, cannot bear that weight.

This paragraph is a remarkably lucid account of how a Catholic should vote. I have a few quibbles, however:

  1. The Church has unambiguously condemned the Iraq War. The initiation and implementation of that war are profoundly indicative of our society’s stance towards the protection of human life. Granted, I’m unfamiliar with the nuances of Catholic theology, but the implications of abortion and a bloody, unjust war seem to operate on the same moral level.
  2. The Administration’s decision to systematically torture detainee combatants is another issue that implicates the sanctity of human life. Again, the Church’s position on this issue is quite unambiguous. It should also be noted that McCain’s opposition to detainee mistreatment has diminished significantly of late.

I do agree with Weigel that issues of social justice and the economy are subject to good-faith disagreements. But the Church’s teachings on torture and war are as clear as its condemnation of state-sanctioned abortion. Furthermore, one might argue that an Obama Administration is more likely to withdraw from Iraq and end our mistreatment of detainees than a McCain Administration is to outlaw abortion. You may quibble with my interpretation of the candidates’ respective approaches to each issue, but I’m left wondering why Weigel erects an artificial barrier between abortion and other moral questions. Isn’t a more holistic assessment of the candidates’ positions called for?

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More on Catholicism

Douglas Kmiec has penned a frustrating LA Times op-ed on abortion and Obama:

So can Catholics vote for a pro-choice candidate? The answer is yes, but as I found when I publicly endorsed Obama, you’ve then got “some ‘splain’n’ to do.” It’s a matter of conscience, but had Obama proclaimed himself to be pro-choice and said nothing more, it would have been problematic. But there are those additional words about appropriate education as well as adoption and assistance for mothers who choose to keep their baby.

This is not just debate posturing. It is consistent with Obama’s successful effort to add language to the Democratic platform affirming the choice of a mother to keep her child by pledging pre- and post-natal care, funded maternity leave and income support for poor women who, studies show, are four times more likely to pursue an abortion absent some tangible assistance.

Some might ask, isn’t John McCain, the self-proclaimed “pro-lifer,” still a morally superior choice for Catholics? Not necessarily. McCain’s commitment, as he stressed in the debate, is to try to reverse Roe vs. Wade. But Republicans have been after this for decades, and the effort has not saved a single child. Even if Roe were reversed — unlikely, in my judgment — it merely transfers the question to the states, most of which are not expected to ban abortion. A Catholic serious about preserving life could reasonably find Obama’s educational and material assistance to mothers the practical, stronger alternative.

What I find most interesting about the article is that Kmiec implicitly accepts Professor George’s formulation: for whatever reason, abortion as a political issue is considered separately from the economy, war, civil liberties, and social welfare. Not only does this put Kmiec at an argumentative disadvantage – he’s left attempting to convince us (himself?) that an Obama Administration will do more than McCain ever would to reduce abortions – it’s also surprisingly blinkered. Clearly, a more considered approach to war and peace says something about the value we assign human life. Why shouldn’t other moral issues weigh against the number of abortions each candidate is likely to condone?

It’s entirely possible that McCain, by virtue of his realist inclinations and high-profile opposition to torture, is a better across-the-board candidate for protecting the sanctity of human life. But I’m left wondering why Kmiec doesn’t endorse a more holistic assessment of the candidates. If nothing else, it would make his arguments a lot more persuasive.

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I am not a Catholic

But I find Catholic political thought simultaneously interesting and infuriating. Take this op-ed from Robert P. George, a member of the President’s Bioethics Council and a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University:

Barack Obama and John McCain differ on many important issues about which reasonable people of goodwill, including pro-life Americans of every faith, disagree: how best to fight international terrorism, how to restore economic growth and prosperity, how to distribute the tax burden and reduce poverty, etc.

But on abortion and the industrial creation of embryos for destructive research, there is a profound difference of moral principle, not just prudence. These questions reveal the character and judgment of each man. Barack Obama is deeply committed to the belief that members of an entire class of human beings have no rights that others must respect. Across the spectrum of pro-life concerns for the unborn, he would deny these small and vulnerable members of the human family the basic protection of the laws. Over the next four to eight years, as many as five or even six U.S. Supreme Court justices could retire. Obama enthusiastically supports Roe v. Wade and would appoint judges who would protect that morally and constitutionally disastrous decision and even expand its scope. Indeed, in an interview in Glamour magazine, he made it clear that he would apply a litmus test for Supreme Court nominations: jurists who do not support Roe will not be considered for appointment by Obama. John McCain, by contrast, opposes Roe and would appoint judges likely to overturn it. This would not make abortion illegal, but it would return the issue to the forums of democratic deliberation, where pro-life Americans could engage in a fair debate to persuade fellow citizens that killing the unborn is no way to address the problems of pregnant women in need.

Granted, George is undoubtedly a lot smarter than I am. But I’m struck by the way he frames the dispute. The candidates’ stances on abortion are considered separately from issues of war and peace, economics, poverty, and terrorism. Why is that? Why can’t a faithful Catholic take a more holistic approach to politics? Shouldn’t issues like war and civil liberties – issues that also implicate the value our society assigns human life – have some effect on a religious voter’s decision-making process?

Having long ago jettisoned my high school-era “militant atheist” pose, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of religious belief in the public square. This was crystallized by the response of many religious conservatives to torture and the Iraq War. While liberals equivocated, religious institutions and people of faith from across the political spectrum condemned the Bush Administration’s callous disregard for human life. When this same standard is applied to abortion, it’s dismissed as dogma. But having faced up to issues like torture and war, I’ve come to understand the importance of moral certainty.

Now that I’ve established my bona fides as a sympathetic observer of religion in politics, I’m still confused by Professor George’s decision-making calculus. For the sake of argument, let’s say Catholic ‘X’ concludes that the Iraq War was conducted under false pretenses. Both its initiation and implementation are thought to have demonstrated an incredibly cavalier approach towards the preservation of human life. Now Catholic ‘X’ is faced with a political choice: Does he vote for John McCain, whose ability to overturn Roe is significantly constrained by political circumstances but will undoubtedly continue the occupation of Iraq? Or does he vote for Obama, whose tenure will have a very limited impact on abortion rates but is significantly more likely to withdraw our troops? Shouldn’t Catholic ‘X’ weigh the human impact of the candidates’ policies from a consequentialist perspective? Surely McCain’s approach to human life in contexts other than abortion says something important about his fundamental moral character? I’m afraid I don’t understand why the totemic value of McCain’s opposition to abortion should override pragmatic concerns about the effects of his actual policies. Is there some moral dimension to abortion I’m completely missing?

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