For Catholics, the election of Barack Obama presents certain challenges. His devotion to abortion rights exceeds that of any previous candidate for the presidency. Yet the exit polls indicate that he received a majority of the votes of white Catholics, though not of Catholics who attend Mass weekly.
Since attendance at Sunday Mass is one of the precepts of the Church, weekly Mass-goers are, by definition, more faithful Catholics, and they may well have been more open to instruction from their bishops. During the weeks leading up to the election (according to a post on JimmyAkin.org) "over a third of the U.S. bishops emphasized the exceptional weight of abortion and other fundamental life issues as not just one set of issues among many."
Of course, as I explained in a number of blog posts and articles here, that cut both ways. John McCain has consistently supported embryonic stem-cell research, and he has been inconsistent in his opposition to abortion. And on other issues, such as the war in Iraq, he has gone against the judgment of two successive popes.
In other words, while Obama's stand on abortion should have prevented faithful Catholics from voting for him, McCain's positions might well have convinced such Catholics that they could not vote for him, either. (That was the decision I made, and I voted for a third-party candidate who unequivocally opposed abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and the war in Iraq.)
How did we end up in a situation where neither major-party candidate for president was fully satisfactory from the standpoint of Catholic teaching? And, more importantly, where do we go from here?
A friend of mine from graduate school, Fr. Rob Johansen, offered some penetrating thoughts on these questions in "Our Faustian Bargain: Catholics Caught Between Parties." Published on InsideCatholic.com (now crisismagazine.com) on Election Day, the article was not an attempt to sway the Catholic vote in 2008 but an acknowledgment of the problem and a discussion of how to act in the future.
As Father Johansen notes, "Catholics are identifying and aligning themselves with the candidates and parties in question," rather than demanding that candidates and parties align themselves with the moral truths that the Catholic Church teaches. That means that:
In essence, faithful Catholics are forced to accept whatever bones the major parties and candidates throw us: If we think the Democrats offer more compassionate social policies and the prospect of ending the war in Iraq, we must tolerate their embrace of abortion and same-sex unions. If we think the Republicans offer the best hope of eliminating abortion-on-demand and defending marriage, we have to be willing to tolerate their embrace of "preventive" war and so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. Catholics, it would seem, are being forced to make Faustian bargains every time they enter the voting booth.
But if we continue to act this way, from a Catholic standpoint, politics in America will get worse, not better. "The teaching of the Church and of our bishops," Father Johansen writes, "instructs us to take our faith as our starting point and build our politics around that." In order to do that, however, we cannot let any political party count on our votes:
What if Catholic Democrats, tired of having to choose between social policy and defending the right to life, said, "We're going to withhold our votes until the leadership takes our life-issue concerns seriously. When the national party is ready to countenance a legislative initiative that will meaningfully restrict the abortion license, we'll give you our support"?
And what if Catholic Republicans said, "For 30 years you have taken our support for granted on life issues. Unless you seriously rein in foreign adventurism and reject the Guantanamo-and-rendition assaults on human rights, we will withhold our support"? Eventually, political necessity would force them to pay attention (or if they didn't, we'd at least have our integrity).
Father Johansen ends his article by noting that "Catholics make up some 25 percent of the population, but we exercise an influence far smaller than our numbers." If we approached politics in the light of our Catholic Faith, instead of approaching our Faith as Democrats or Republicans, we would be a tremendous force for change in this country.
It's something to think about, especially now that both the White House and Congress will, come January, be firmly in the hands of those who oppose Church teaching on abortion and homosexual marriage. Take a few minutes to read, thoughtfully and prayerfully, Father Johansen's article. Then please leave your thoughts in the comments.