There have been a number of denunciations directed at Catholics who endorsed Obama in the Catholic blogosphere lately. Not being a particular fan of President-elect Obama, I empathize with those who are doing the denouncing. However, in many cases I think this has gone too far.
There are (many) legitimate criticisms to be made both of President-elect Obama, and of the arguments that lead many Catholics to vote for him. Some Catholics who supported Obama barely made arguments at all; others made statements that sounded more like a plea for counseling than a political endorsement; still others appeared to be acting in bad faith.
But I think it may be helpful to clarify the scope of the disagreement by quickly reviewing some of the guidance the Church provided this past election:
The Catechism suggests that we have a duty to vote:
35. There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.
36. When all candidates hold a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.
37. In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions. These decisions should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue. [ed. Emphasis mine]
My reading of the preceding paragraphs suggests the following guidelines:
1) Given a choice between a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil and one who does not, one should vote for the candidate who does not support an intrinsic evil.
2) Once it is established that all of the candidates support an intrinsic evil (e.g. McCain’s support for ESCR and/or abortion in some cases), the voter should be guided by the following considerations:
a) “The candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.”
b) “All issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions. These decisions should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue.”
These guidelines suggest to me that a reasonable case could be made for an Obama vote. For instance, one could have believed that McCain: 1) Supported intrinsic evils (e.g. ESCR, abortion in some cases), and 2) that McCain was insincere/uncommitted to pro-life issues or that he would be unable to influence pro-life issues significantly with a Democratic Congress. Given either of these premises, it seems to me that a Catholic in good faith could believe that Obama was more likely to pursue various “other authentic human goods,” such as health care reform, environmental regulation, a less militaristic approach to foreign policy, expanded safety nets for the poorest, etc.
To say that this position could be held in good faith does not mean that I agree with it. I do not. Among other disagreements, I think it is wrong-headed to view intrinsic evils (e.g. abortion) as a sort of ‘on-off’ switch, rather than a spectrum in which McCain was dramatically better than Senator Obama. And I think there will be significant budgetary constraints on the Obama administration over the next four years, meaning most of the other goals will be unattainable.
Nevertheless, I think stating that this opinion could be held in good faith is important because it clarifies what is at stake: it is a disagreement. It is not a battle of honest, intelligent people versus dishonest (excluding Kmiec) and/or unintelligent people. It is not a battle between good Catholics and bad Catholics. To paraphrase Chesterton, every Catholic is a bad Catholic. These disagreements may be serious, and we may use strong language to articulate them. But we are Catholics first and political participants second; a candid appraisal of our own rhetoric suggests this line sometimes gets blurry. There certainly are culture wars in the U.S., and abortion is the most significant fault line. But Catholics who felt that Obama was the lesser of two evils are not the enemy; they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and our disagreements with them should reflect that recognition. It would certainly be nice if the favor was returned more frequently, and there is certainly room for sharply worded disagreement, but writing people out of the debate for the next four years because of their conclusions about Obama is neither the right thing to do nor is it likely to be very productive.