National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 30, 2004

Politics, piety and the Catholic vote

Assume for the moment that John Kerry’s Catholic critics are correct. That a Catholic legislator, or would-be president, cannot embrace abortion rights (or embryonic stem cell research, or gay rights or you name it) and be a “good Catholic.”

It’s an interesting debate, one in which even some “good Catholics” -- those who would pass these narrow litmus tests -- might disagree.

But that discussion has nothing -- zero -- to do with whether John Kerry should be president of the United States.

Kerry might be a “bad Catholic” (or a “good” one for that matter) and still be an exemplary president; or a failed one. Personal piety and religious observance are not prerequisites of national leadership.

Were Jefferson and Lincoln good Deists? Hoover and Nixon exemplary Quakers? Kennedy a committed Catholic? George H.W. Bush a first-rate Episcopalian? Clinton a quality Baptist? George W. Bush a pious Methodist?

Who cares?

History judges these men not on their religious zeal, but on their performance in office. How God judges them is for God to decide.

No, what should engage us as citizens is not the quality of a candidate’s religious commitment -- but the quality of that person’s vision for this country and the individual voter’s analysis of the candidate’s ability to implement that vision.

Which brings us to abortion.

There are those among the Catholic laity and hierarchy -- the list is long, but now includes Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput -- who argue that abortion trumps all other issues in the upcoming election.

“Candidates who claim to be ‘Catholic’ but who publicly ignore Catholic teaching about the sanctity of human life are offering a dishonest public witness,” writes Chaput. “They may try to look Catholic and sound Catholic, but unless they act Catholic in their public service and political choices, they’re really a very different kind of creature.”

And then the zinger: “And real Catholics should vote accordingly.”

There’s so much wrong with this statement that it is hard to know where to begin.

Does Chaput really believe that Catholic voters should invoke a religious test -- is the candidate a “real Catholic”? -- before voting for one politician over another? Apparently, he does.

“Abortion, immigration law, international trade policy, the death penalty and housing for the poor are all vitally important issues. But no amount of calculating can make them equal in gravity,” writes Chaput. “The right to life comes first.”

It’s odd, by the way, that the archbishop apparently does not consider “the death penalty” a “right to life” issue, though the Catechism of the Catholic Church groups all these issues under a Fifth Commandment heading -- “Thou Shall Not Kill.” Further, the catechism says state-sanctioned killing should be restricted to those cases, nonexistent in the United States, where it is necessary to “protect public order and the safety of persons.”

Chaput, in fact, steps right up to the line of saying that a “good Catholic” cannot vote for John Kerry. Those pesky Internal Revenue Service regulations are something of a stop sign for even the most partisan prelates.

But assume, yet again, that Chaput is correct, that the right to life as he defines it is a trump issue for “good Catholics.”

Which leads us to George W. Bush, who, one is left to conclude, is the only legitimately “right to life” candidate in this race.

It is true that the president talks a good antiabortion game. His rhetorical winks and nods to Catholics (he constantly invokes “the culture of life”) are skillful. And, through appointments and private meetings, he’s nice to the bishops, who can use all the friends they can get these days and who are correctly seen as this nation’s leading opponents of legal abortion.

But even if Bush is sincere in his pro-life convictions, he is engaged in a cynical political game. (Though perhaps not as cynical as that of his father, a one-time Planned Parenthood stalwart whose support for the population control agenda was such that, as a member of Congress, he was dubbed “Rubbers” by a colleague. Bush I converted to the pro-life cause the day Ronald Reagan chose him as a vice presidential candidate.)

If the 1 million-plus annual abortions in this country are the abomination the bishops say they are, and if George W. Bush agrees with that analysis, when will he deliver the Oval Office speech decrying the practice? When will he push the logic of Roe v. Wade (which allows for regulation of late-term abortions except where the life or health of the mother is endangered) and call on state legislatures to explicitly ban third-trimester abortions? Why is the president not leading the charge for a Constitutional amendment to ban elective abortion? Given the gravity of the situation, why isn’t abortion the president’s number one legislative priority?

Ah, say the president’s pro-life supporters, but he has signed the ban on partial-birth abortions and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, recent legislation that treats an unborn child as a victim when a pregnant mother is killed in the commission of a federal crime.

How many fewer abortions will there be as a result of those pieces of legislation? Exactly zero. None. For in the former case, doctors performing late-term abortions will simply use a different procedure; and the latter piece of legislation is, however welcome, pure symbolism.

In fact, in his only Oval Office speech in which he addressed right-to-life issues, our Solomonesque president metaphorically split the baby in half. Rather than ban federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, the president chose -- contrary to Catholic teaching -- to allow research on existing stem cell lines. Bush’s Health and Human Services Secretary, Tommy Thompson, the antiabortion Catholic who must administer the policy, told NCR: “I have to minister to the needs of all Americans, not just Catholics.” Said Thompson, “I can’t do my job, carrying out the policies of this administration and previous administrations, by solely relying on Catholic teachings.”

Meanwhile, the president supports other policies (the welfare bill currently in the Senate being a notable example) that could well force more low-income women to abort their babies.

Which is where the cynicism comes in: Whatever the motivations, the president’s policies and rhetoric are pleasing to the antiabortion base of the Republican Party (including some Catholic bishops), but not so much so that they scare away those who see opposition to abortion as a manifestation of intolerance. Like other Republican presidents before him (Nixon, Reagan, Bush I), George W. Bush talks the talk, but he doesn’t walk the walk.

Chaput and other religious leaders who see abortion as a trump issue have been bought off too easily.

So we’re left with a president whose rhetoric inspires but whose actions are incommensurate with the evil he says he opposes.

What then, of John Kerry, whose enthusiasm for “choice” (abortion-rights advocates learned long ago that the “A” word is a loser) knows few bounds? One need only recall the embarrassing spectacle of the Democratic presidential candidates, in pre-primary mode, swearing utter allegiance to the NARAL Pro-Choice America agenda, to understand who has influence in today’s Democratic Party. A Democratic candidate for national office is compelled to take the most extreme position on abortion. Even one-time pro-life stalwart Dennis Kucinich flip-flopped on the issue just as he announced his quixotic presidential bid.

Kerry, who sees nuance and subtlety behind most every corner, sees none when it comes to the question of whether the country with the most liberal abortion laws in the world should take legislative and judicial steps to curtail the practice, which now competes with laser eye surgery for the distinction of being the single most common surgical procedure performed in the United States. It’s a sad state of affairs for a party with a history of defending the innocent and expanding the cause of civil rights.

But it doesn’t change the bottom line, which is this: The legality of abortion will not change under either a second Bush administration or a Kerry administration. Republicans have paid lip service -- and sometimes more -- to the idea of overturning Roe v. Wade through antiabortion Supreme Court nominees. They were wrong about Sandra Day O’Connor, wrong about Anthony Kennedy, and wrong about David Souter -- Republican Supreme Court nominees who have supported Roe. This Charlie Brown-and-the-football routine notwithstanding, the notion that an anti-Roe nominee would make it through the Senate confirmation process, or that Bush would even nominate such a person, is an extreme long shot.

Even the president’s conservative lower court nominees now regularly tell the Senate Judiciary Committee that Roe is “settled law.” And the idea that turning abortion back to the states, the result if Roe were overturned, would substantially reduce abortion rates in this country is, at best, naive.

In fact, it is conceivable -- though certainly not verifiable -- that a Kerry administration, which would spend more on the kind of social programs that reduce the number of abortions in other developed nations, would oversee a decline in abortion rates of the kind that took place during the pro-choice Clinton administration.

So what’s more important, rhetoric or results? Fewer abortions or the pie-in-the-sky hope (how many terminated pregnancies later?) that U.S. laws will someday reflect an antiabortion mindset?

And then there are other issues -- war and peace, immigration, tax cuts, housing, the death penalty, economic justice, welfare reform, the federal deficit, civil liberties, education, health care, crime, and on and on. Are we permitted to consider these right-to-life issues?

These issues -- it seems strange to have to say it -- matter too. In this election, in fact, they matter more than abortion, which is not on the table in any significant way.

So George W. Bush is “pro-life” and John Kerry is “pro-choice.” The labels are substantively meaningless. Nothing, as it relates to abortion in this country, is going to change in any significant way anytime soon. It is clearly a matter of prudential judgment for the electorate as to which candidate’s election would result in fewer abortions -- and fewer assaults on life in general.

In our two-party system, we are frequently presented with less-than-perfect choices. This year is no exception.

It is clear to us, if not to everyone, that Catholics can, in good conscience, vote for either George W. Bush or John F. Kerry. Whatever differences we have with the president (and we’ve got more than a few) don’t make it an occasion of sin for those who generally support his policies to vote for the incumbent. Voters have a choice to make, and as Americans they should make it.

Likewise, Catholics, including those who abhor abortion and would like to see it legally restricted, can, in good conscience, vote for Kerry. It’s a complicated world and there are a lot of issues that matter.

Is John Kerry, in Chaput’s phrase, a “good Catholic”? Perhaps not. But then few of us, including members of the hierarchy, are the type of Catholics that Christ would have us be.

Fact is, even a “bad Catholic” might be a good president.

National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: