Catholics And Pro-Abortion Candidates
My Theology professor — Dr. Randall Smith — asked that I share this.
“Catholics are Being Lied To About the Permissibility of Voting for Pro-Abortion Candidates”
There is a famous scene at the beginning of the movie “High Noon” when town marshall Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, goes to the local church to ask for help against a group of gunmen who are coming to kill him. The arguments go back and forth, with some, mostly women, expressing disbelief that the men in the town should even be considering not standing up for the marshall in his time of need, while others, mostly men, complain about being put in a difficult position and having to make a difficult choice.
The final knife thrust comes in a speech masterfully delivered by veteran supporting actor Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy in “It’s a Wonderful Life”), who plays Jonas Henderson, town mayor and ostensibly one of Marshall Kane’s best friends. Although Henderson’s speech begins reassuringly with, “No one can deny the debt this town owes this man,” after a remarkable bit of verbal sophistry, he manages to convince everyone in the church that it would be better for the marshall and, not unimportantly, better for the economy of the town, if they do not fight for their friend. How a man can convince a group of relatively intelligent, good-willed, “church-going” citizens that the best way to help a man facing an assault on his life is by not helping him remains one of the great mysteries of the human condition. It should also serve as a constant reminder of how dangerous it can be when people employ complex rationalizations to avoid carrying out the moral duty staring them right in the face.
I’ve been thinking about that scene recently while listening to several Catholic intellectuals trying to make the case, based on serious misrepresentations the U. S. Bishop’s document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” that the Catholic Church’s enduring and uncompromising teaching against voting in favor of abortion would in no way prohibit a Catholic from voting in good conscience for a candidate such as Barack Obama who has repeatedly made clear his intention to vote in favor of abortion, up to and including support of partial birth abortions and federal funding for abortions. It takes a really smart and sophisticated thinker to convince himself of something so profoundly contrary to common sense, but then again, it took the smartest man in town (although by no means the bravest) to convince everyone in “High Noon” that not helping a man in danger was really the best way of helping him. Soon guns were blazing and people dying in the streets, and Mayor Jonas Henderson had neither saved the town from violence nor protected his friend. The movie doesn’t give us a chance to re-interview the characters who had rationalized their way out of helping a man whose life was clearly in danger, so it’s impossible to know what they would have said about their previous decisions. But I’m wondering what our own Jonas Hendersons will say when Barack Obama begins appointing justices willy-nilly to the Supreme Court and to the federal judiciary who support extending the abortion license and oppose any waiting periods or restrictions? How will they rationalize their choice when Obama passes legislation through the Democratically-controlled Congress to rescind the ban against partial-birth abortions and to commence the federal funding of abortions? What can they say? “I didn’t know”? “I didn’t think this would happen”? Such claims of ignorance will certainly ring hollow given that Barack Obama has repeatedly made clear his intention to do precisely these things.
It certainly takes a remarkable bit of intellectual sophistry to convince oneself that voting for someone who has repeatedly announced his intention to support what the Catholic Church says is a “grave moral evil” is not itself a morally evil act. Such arguments have tended to come in one of two forms, both of which are patent falsifications of what the Catholic Church actually teaches. The first of these is the claim that one can in good conscience and in accord with the dictates of the Catholic Church vote for a candidate who supports abortion, as long as he or she is not voting for that candidate because of his or her support for abortion. The rationale would go something like this: “I didn’t vote for him because of his stance on abortion, I voted for him for other reasons; therefore, it’s okay.”
Really? What would we be likely to say today about a person living in pre-Civil War America who had voted for a pro-slavery, anti-abolition candidate using the same moral reasoning? Most of us would likely say that this person was on the wrong side of the major moral issue of his day. Indeed, almost no one looks back two hundred years later at the Lincoln-Douglas debates and asks: “What was Douglas’s position on taxes?” “What did he say about health care?” “What was his position on the industrial economy?” In retrospect, there’s only one thing we really care about: What was his position on slavery? Lincoln was in favor of restricting it; Douglas was inclined to allow it. That’s pretty much anyone cares about. We tend not to say things like: “Well, yes, Douglas was in favor of slavery, but his tax policies were much fairer.” And I don’t think we would find it very morally convincing if we found someone who at the time had tried to argue: “Yes, I am seriously concerned about ending slavery, but I’m still voting for Douglas because (A) his tax policies are so much fairer, and (B) he is so much less likely to get us into a war.” I think we’d pretty much all be convinced – admittedly with the clarity that comes with hind-sight – that this man was lying about his “serious concern” regarding slavery, either to us or merely to himself, and that he had accomplished this feat with some pretty convoluted sophistry.
Nor do I think we would be inclined to look back favorably upon a Catholic voter in 1938 Germany who had voted for a Nazi candidate, especially one who had announced his intention to take part in “The Final Solution,” even if we thought the Nazi candidate’s tax policies were fairer or his attitudes toward the poor and disadvantaged were more sympathetic or his running of the economy would make Germany better off. The only thing we would care about – the only way we would judge the candidate and the voters who supported him or not – would be by asking this question: Were they voting for candidates who supported Hitler’s treatment of the Jews or against them? In all the discussions I’ve had over the years about the moral choices made by Catholics in Germany in the 1930s – and there have been many such discussions – it has never once occurred to anyone to try to get Catholics off the hook by claiming that a good Catholic could have licitly voted for a Nazi, as long as he was voting for him not because of his explicit anti-Semitic policies. Quite the contrary. Every single person has always argued – usually quite vigorously – that a vote for a Nazi was a vote to harm Jews, just as everyone pretty much has always understood that a vote for a pro-slavery candidate before the Civil War was in effect a vote for slavery, and a vote for a pro-segregation candidate during the Civil Rights Era was a vote for segregation.
How we’ve convinced ourselves all of a sudden that a vote for a radically pro-abortion candidate isn’t really a vote for abortion simply beggars the imagination. It suggests a group of people who haven’t learned the lessons of history. Or perhaps a group of people who don’t really take abortion that seriously – who aren’t really convinced that abortion is the killing of innocents; that abortion doesn’t really cause the deaths of nearly 1.5 million people per year. No, isn’t it the case that deep down, where it really counts, we’re talking about people who think, “they’re just fetuses, not real, living human beings”? Because, of course, if one were, like the Catholic Church (and modern science), convinced that these so-called “fetuses” were in fact human beings – human beings who were guilty of nothing other than being at an early stage of development – then it would be hard to understand how one could not take every step possible to decrease, diminish, or discontinue the practice of terminating their lives.
This brings us to the second bit of sophistry being circulated currently around the Catholic world: namely that one can vote for a pro-abortion candidate if his other positions give sufficient “proportionate reasons” to outweigh his support of abortion. This is a complete falsification of what the Catholic bishops actually say, but it would be hard to understand how anyone could even dare to suggest that some sort of “proportionality” would actually allow someone to vote for a radically pro-abortion candidate, given the unbelievable number of abortions in the United States: 1.5 million every year, 40 million since 1972. Add up every death to every soldier and every civilian in Iraq over the past six years, whether U.S., Iraqi, civilian, or terrorist: it would equal approximately six days worth of abortions in America. Add up every death from every military engagement in which the United States has engaged during the entire eight years of George Bush’s presidency, it still wouldn’t come close to even two weeks worth of abortions. Now I’m no “proportionalist” (and neither is the Catholic Church, by the way; just read Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis splendor), thus I believe that it is never licit to vote in favor of an intrinsically immoral act. But even if I did share the current misbegotten notion of “proportionate reasons,” it still wouldn’t add up. It still couldn’t justify support of a person who had pledged to continue and expand the practice of abortion, up to and including federal funding for abortion.
Indeed, in “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U. S. Bishops decry the sort of “moral equivalence” that “makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity.” The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death, they state unequivocally, “is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.” What is it about the statements “it is not just one issue among many” and “it must always be opposed” that some Catholics aren’t getting?
The best statement I have seen clarifying the possible confusions surrounding this issue of “proportionate” reasons appeared in a joint statement from the Catholic bishops of Dallas and Fort-Worth, who declared the following:
“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, in paragraphs 34?37, addresses the question of whether it is morally permissible for a Catholic to vote for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil ? even when the voter does not agree with the candidate’s position on that evil. The only moral possibilities for a Catholic to be able to vote in good conscience for a candidate who supports this intrinsic evil are the following:
a. If both candidates running for office support abortion or “abortion rights,” a Catholic would be forced to then look at the other important issues and through their vote try to limit the evil done; or,
b. If another intrinsic evil outweighs the evil of abortion. While this is sound moral reasoning, there are no “truly grave moral” or “proportionate” reasons, singularly or combined, that could outweigh the millions of innocent human lives that are directly killed by legal abortion each year.
To vote for a candidate who supports the intrinsic evil of abortion or “abortion rights” when there is a morally acceptable alternative would be to cooperate in the evil ? and, therefore, morally impermissible. (http://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/1107/Voting_as_Faithful_Citizens.html)
As of this writing, nearly 85 bishops around the country have issued statements refuting the various sophistries mentioned above and attempting to clarify the Church’s prohibition against voting for a candidate for who favors abortion. Bishop Robert Hermann of St. Louis writes:
“The Catholic Church teaches, in its catechism, in the works of Pope John Paul II and in the writings of Pope Benedict XVI, that the issue of life is the most basic issue and must be given priority over the issue of the economy, the issue of war or any other issue.” (October 17th, 2008: http://www.stlouisreview.com/article.php?id=16247)
“This life issue is the overriding issue facing each of us in this coming election. All other issues, including the economy, have to take second place to the issue of life… How can a so-called good Catholic vote for a candidate that supports laws that take the life of innocent children?”
(October 10th, 2008: http://www.stlreview.com/article.php?id=16208)
Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St Joseph:
“Can a Catholic vote, in good conscience, for a candidate who supports abortion?… A candidate who asks us to add our weight to such a destructive momentum in our society, asks us to be participants in their own gravely immoral act. This is something which, in good conscience, we can never justify. Despite hardship, beyond partisanship, for the sake of our eternal salvation: This we should never do.” (October 14th, 2008: http://catholickey.blogspot.com/2008/10/can-catholic-vote-in-support-of.html)
Bishop Martino of Scranton, Pennsylvania:
Being “right” on taxes, education, health care, immigration, and the economy fails to make up for the error of disregarding the value of a human life…. Abortion is the issue this year and every year in every campaign. Catholics may not turn away from the moral challenge that abortion poses for those who seek to obey God’s commands. They are wrong when they assert that abortion does not concern them, or that it is only one of a multitude of issues of equal importance. No, the taking of innocent human life is so heinous, so horribly evil, and so absolutely opposite to the law of Almighty God that abortion must take precedence over every other issue. I repeat. It is the single most important issue confronting not only Catholics, but the entire electorate.
And finally, Archbishop Charles Chaput, Denver:
“I believe that Senator Obama, whatever his other talents, is the most committed ‘abortion-rights’ presidential candidate of either major party since the Roe v. Wade abortion decision in 1973…. I do not know any proportionate reason that could outweigh more than 40 million unborn children killed by abortion and the many millions of women deeply wounded by the loss and regret abortion creates. The truth is that for some Catholics, the abortion issue has never been a comfortable cause. It’s embarrassing. It’s not the kind of social justice they like to talk about. It interferes with their natural political alliances…. The cornerstone of Catholic social teaching is protecting human life from conception to natural death…. Every other human right depends on the right to life.” (Oct 17, 2008: http://www.zenit.org/article-23965?l=english)
Given such statements and the many others coming from bishops around the country, there is simply no longer any excuse for ignorance. The Church’s teaching is clear. The lying and misrepresentations must stop. To vote for a candidate who supports the intrinsic evil of abortion or “abortion rights” when there is a morally acceptable alternative is morally impermissible.
There is, however, another rather ingenious bit of sophistry being circulated among Catholics, one that purports to take seriously the need to reduce the number of abortions in America. The argument goes something like this: Yes, Barack Obama is radically pro-abortion, but even so, if the economy gets better under an Obama presidency, then the number of abortions might actually decrease. This argument involves any number of foolish assumptions, not the least of which is its absurd and insulting claim that women have abortions for largely economic reasons. But apart from the extraordinarily difficult question of what drives women to terminate the lives of their own un-born children, there is the more obvious difficulty of trying to judge the morality of an action by its possible long-term consequences – by trying to map out a scenario under which, given the right concatenation of marvelous events, abortions might actually decrease under the administration of a candidate favoring abortion. Ignoring the obvious short-term evil of one’s choice in favor of a possible long-term benefit is a fool’s bargain. It’s a little like arguing that not helping a person whose life is in danger is the best way of helping him. It is also a way of empowering evil-doers.
Accepting such an argument would be like convincing yourself in the pre-Civil War south that that treatment of blacks would actually be better if you voted for a pro-slavery candidate. Such arguments were made, of course. They generally went like this: Southerner slave-holders are more likely to be angered by the election of an anti-slavery candidate and thus more likely to lynch more black men. Thus it would be better to vote for a pro-slavery candidate. Or: the pro-slavery candidate’s economic policies are more favorable to the poor, and since more blacks are poor, blacks would be better off in the long run with the pro-slavery candidate in office. Yes, it is certainly true that the struggle to abolish evil laws and practices often brings with it concomitant evils: increased lynching of black men, greater economic depravation, more anger and unrest in the streets. In the case of the 1860 presidential election, voting for Lincoln brought with it the very real threat of war. But to fail to vote against a manifest evil because there might be bad consequences otherwise is to empower the doers of evil. It is a Faustian bargain at best. Circumstances might improve for a time (and I emphasize might), but in the long run, you’ve still sold your soul to the devil who will devour you – or, as in the case of abortion, your children. Should one feel at all safe and secure, for example, that such a pro-abortion candidate would not eventually seek to enforce (or appoint federal judges who would seek to enforce) “abortion rights” on Catholic hospitals, just as certain liberal judges in the states of Massachusetts and California have succeeded in enforcing the rights of homosexual couples on Catholic archdiocese and Catholic Charities? Not in the slightest.
People are of course free to vote as they wish. They always have been. Plenty of Catholics have in the past voted for radically pro-abortion candidates, just as plenty of Catholics have in the past voted for Nazi candidates in pre-World War II Germany and for pro-slavery candidates before the Civil War. Men and women have throughout history repeatedly made judgments and voted contrary to the moral teachings of their Church. This is to be expected in a world of illusory goods and difficult moral decisions. But Catholics, along with all men and women of good will, are called upon to form their consciences. They are called upon to listen to the prophetic moral teaching being proclaimed by the Church. “Listening faithfully” in this case would mean not trying to twist the words of the Catholic bishops into an argument for doing something that the Catholic Church expressly forbids. When Catholics vote in ways that are entirely contrary to the spirit and letter of their Church’s moral teachings, they should at least have the decency not to claim the support of the Church whose teachings they are renouncing. Catholics who try to convince themselves and others that it would be permissible to vote for a radically pro-abortion candidate in this case, because of the other wonderful qualities of this special candidate, are simply lying to themselves and to others. They are guilty of the sort of sophistry on display in Thomas Mitchell’s famous speech before the “good people” of the town in “High Noon.” It shows merely that some people will grasp at any excuse and concoct the most complex rationalizations not to do the obvious moral duty that’s staring them right in the face.