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 denying Communion to pro-choice politicians and those who voted for them. Now, two years later, 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, and neither party has advocated 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 pro-choice candidate is therefore a vote for someone whose views are unquestionably opposed to what is right and good. Moreover, to vote for a pro-choice candidate, according to this logic, is to cooperate in evil of an unspeakable magnitude, the intentional killing of over a million human beings a year. Because the issue of abortion is so important, voting for a candidate who supports legalized abortion is unacceptable, irrespective of that candidate’s conformity with Catholic teaching on other issues. Bush Hasn't Stopped Abortion
The overriding importance this argument attributes to the abortion issue, however, is inconsistent with the actual behavior of most pro-life activists, and, indeed, with their evaluation of the policies of the current administration. After all, if 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 pro-choice politicians. Moreover, while the church’s teaching on the immorality of abortion itself might be unambiguous, the decision whether to vote for one candidate or another is rarely as clear-cut. This is because there is no easily predictable connection between the election of a particular candidate, even a candidate for president, and substantive progress on the abortion front. In fact, the number of abortions actually increased under the anti-abortion Reagan administration, then dropped dramatically under the pro-choice Clinton administration. 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, issues over which the party in control of the White House or Congress possesses a more foreseeable and immediate impact than is the case with abortion. On many of these issues, the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress have time and again made decisions that run directly counter to clear Catholic teaching.
When War Isn't Just
War: It is true that Catholic just-war doctrine sanctions the use of military force by the state under limited circumstances. At the same time, the same doctrine categorically bars wars of aggression. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “all citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.” The obvious implication is that a war undertaken except as a last resort and for any purpose other than self-defense is immoral, 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.
Catholic just-war doctrine unambiguously 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 environment: Concern for the environment is a relatively undeveloped aspect of Catholic social teaching, but the moral imperative of environmental stewardship has made its way into some recent documents. 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.”
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 nothing.
No Regard for the Poor
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.
The Bush administration's economic policies are being formulated without regard for the poor at all. One would have to be incredibly naive, or perhaps willfully blind, to believe that its policies, which consistently favor the rich, are all part of some master plan designed to bear fruit for the poorest Americans.
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. Obviously, most Republicans are not racists, but there are ample grounds to conclude that the intentional courtship of the racist vote by some in the Republican Party is flatly inconsistent with the unambiguous Catholic condemnation of racial hatred.
In the end, the collective advice of the U.S. Catholic bishops in their 2004 document, Faithful Citizenship--which urged 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 individual bishops) guide them.