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?