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Issue Date:  October 22, 2004

Catholic election follies continue

The election follies continue. Three cases in point:

  • In the opening paragraphs of his Oct. 1 pastoral letter “On Our Civic Responsibility for the Common Good,” St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke compares today’s United States to Nazi Germany.
  • Writing on the Web site of National Review magazine Oct. 12, Robert George, director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, and Gerard Bradley, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, argue that “to vote for John Kerry in 2004 would be far worse … than to have voted against Lincoln and for his Democratic opponent in 1860. Stephen Douglas at least supported allowing states that opposed slavery to ban it. And he did not favor federal funding or subsidies for slavery. John Kerry takes the opposite view on both points when it comes to abortion. On the great evil of his own day, Senator Douglas was merely John Kerry-lite.”
  • “If you vote this way,” meaning for a pro-choice candidate, “are you cooperating in evil?” Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput asked The New York Times Oct. 9. “And if you know you are cooperating in evil, should you go to confession? The answer is yes.”

So, there you have it. Kerry-supporting Catholics are Nazi-like appeasers of evil, anti-freedom and need to go to confession on Nov. 3.

What to make of this hyperbole?

A few thoughts:

However much they stretch it (and, God knows, with the talk of Nazis and slavery and voters committing sinful acts, they are pushing the limits of civil discourse), Burke, George, Bradley and Chaput have a good point. Kerry says he “believes” that life begins at conception, but that he can’t “take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn’t” agree. It’s a wholly unsatisfactory answer.

Articles of faith and matters of morality (“Thou shall not kill” and “ Love thy neighbor as thyself” being good examples) are, in fact, legislated all the time. No one is suggesting that Kerry force non-Christians to, for example, accept the doctrine of the Trinity or the incarnation. No, he’s being asked about serious public policy questions -- abortion and stem cell research -- that are also questions of morality.

In the Oct. 13 debate, Kerry said that “everything you do in public life has to be guided by your faith, affected by your faith.” He continued, “That’s why I fight against poverty. That’s why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this earth. That’s why I fight for equality and justice. All of those things come out of that fundamental teaching and belief of faith.”

Fair enough. But there is no indication, none, that Catholic teaching has had any impact on how Kerry views abortion. Forget questions of law for the moment; he doesn’t even make the case that the domestic policies he favors will result in fewer abortions.

Kerry says he accepts Catholic teaching on abortion. Well, the teaching is pretty clear: Procured abortion is the taking of an innocent human life. Anyone who truly believes that, especially someone in an elected position, is compelled to take some action to limit the practice or mitigate its impact. Instead, the ever-nuanced Kerry sees no shades of gray on this issue, has never voted to limit the practice, and gives no indication that he ever will.

Here’s the reality: Whatever John Kerry truly believes about abortion is irrelevant from a political point of view. A Democrat who hopes to be his party’s nominee must, must, endorse the United States’ liberal abortion regime. There’s no room for rational discussion of the topic in the party of Jefferson, Jackson, Roosevelt, Carter and Clinton. Columnist Mark Shields notes that there are two nonnegotiable items for those who seek leadership of their party. For Republicans, it’s tax cuts. For Democrats, it’s abortion.

He’s right. It is a sad reality.

Which leads to the question: What are we voters, those who think abortion is an issue we should factor into our decisions, to do?

For Burke and Chaput and a relatively small number of their cohorts in the U.S. hierarchy, it’s a no-brainer. The inescapable conclusion reached after reading what they have written is that a conscientious Catholic cannot vote for John Kerry. In fact, to do so is an occasion of sin.

Burke, for example, says it is wrong to compare war and the death penalty to abortion, because the latter is “intrinsically evil” and the former are not, which, in the abstract, is classic Catholic theology.

But what about this war? Can’t a conscientious Catholic, fully informed of what has transpired in Iraq over the past 18 months, conclude that the U.S. invasion was disproportionate to the threat posed? That the policy of preemption is inherently immoral, intrinsically evil even? That all means were not exhausted prior to the U.S. attack? That, in fact, U.S. war planners knew that thousands of innocent Iraqis (and their unborn children) would die as a result of the assault?

If, in fact, a conscientious Catholic arrives at these conclusions (and many of us have), a vote for Bush might, under the Burke/Chaput criteria, be yet another occasion of sin. Maybe that’s why they don’t take up the question.

Likewise, Burke and Chaput and their like-minded brethren make no allowances for the complexity of the political system. They have a perfect syllogism: Bush opposes abortion, the church opposes abortion, therefore as a Catholic I am compelled to support Bush.

But it just doesn’t add up. Will there be fewer abortions in this country if George W. Bush is elected? That is, at best, a debatable question. There are indications, in fact, that the abortion rate, which reached post-Roe v. Wade lows during the pro-choice presidency of Bill Clinton, has increased during Bush’s term of office.

During the Oct. 13 debate, Bush was given an opportunity -- a big fat one right over the plate -- to say that he would work to overturn Roe v. Wade. He consciously and willfully ducked the question, refused to answer it. There are at least two reasons for this. One, Bush doesn’t want to appear intolerant to the majority of Americans who support the right of a woman to choose abortion over childbirth. Next, he knows the political reality: Roe is not going to be reversed.

But following the Burke, Chaput et al logic, U.S. Catholics will, at risk of their eternal salvation, have to vote for the candidate who says the right thing about abortion (and embryonic stem cell research and gay marriage) until the day these practices are made illegal. It’s good enough, it seems, for the president to repeat his “culture of life” mantra.

This, of course, makes the vote of individual Catholics symbolic, an action that stands for principle, but has no impact. Now, symbolic voting has its place -- just ask the millions of people who voted for Ross Perot in 1992 or Ralph Nader in 2000.

But it is folly for church leaders to compel the faithful to throw away their vote, and it is obnoxious and insulting that they do so crying “Nazi,” “slavery” and sin, sin, sin.

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 2004

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