Over the weekend, a number of folks on Twitter began posting tweets inspired by the Obama administration's release of Bush-era memos regarding torture. I saw several variations on the theme, but the one I noticed first read:
Sad2 think R president is against pouring water on terrorists but supports sucking the brain out of an infant! #catholic
I saw that tweet when Patrick Madrid retweeted it. Patrick is the publisher of Envoy magazine and one of the most dynamic Catholic apologists practicing today, and he's a man I greatly admire and respect. If you're not reading his blog daily and following him on Twitter, you should be. But the retweet, it seemed to me, was out of character, and I responded to Patrick:
One could be opposed to both, as John Paul II was.
It seemed to me that the original tweet's use of "pouring water on" as a euphemism for "waterboarding" was meant to minimize the moral atrocity of torture, which Pope John Paul II had described in paragraph 80 of his encyclical Veritatis splendor as an "intrinsically evil" act—like abortion. "Pouring water on" isn't an accurate description of waterboarding; indeed, as I told Patrick, it sounds more like what we do in Baptism.
Patrick believed that I was reading too much into the original tweet, and perhaps he's right. (Though, since I have read other statements by the person whom Patrick was retweeting, I don't think I read too much into this one.) But what concerned me about Patrick's retweet, and the dozens of other tweets and retweets expressing a similar sentiment that I saw from other Catholics I admire, is that they seem to encapsulate a common theme I often see among conservative Catholics: Abortion is the ultimate moral evil, so we can, and perhaps even must, excuse or minimize lesser evils wrought or supported by those who don't support abortion.
Or, as I characterized it to Patrick:
What's a little waterboarding between friends, when we have abortion?
Please note: I'm not suggesting that Patrick holds this view; on the contrary, it's the fact that I'm certain he doesn't that made his retweet so surprising to me. And his puzzlement at my surprise is, I think, simply more proof that he himself hasn't fallen into this trap, so he finds it hard to believe that others have.
Yet so many Catholics do—not only those of us on the political right, but those on the political left. Indeed, we on the right see it clearly when those on the left fall into it. During the 2008 U.S. presidential election, I wrote at great length here on the Catholicism guidesite about why Catholics can never support a political candidate who supports abortion for the purpose of supporting abortion; and, moreover, can only support a political candidate who supports abortion when there is a proportionate reason for doing so. But since abortion is a grave moral evil, it is hard (if not impossible) to imagine what such a proportionate reason might be.
Many readers took this to mean that I was saying that they had to vote for a candidate (John McCain) who supported a war that two consecutive pontiffs opposed, because his opponent (Barack Obama) was, objectively speaking, the most pro-abortion candidate ever to run for the presidency of the United States. But, as I repeatedly explained, my point was otherwise: As Catholics, we did not have to vote for either major-party candidate.
If we believed that Barack Obama's actions as president would increase the number of abortions in the United States (and there was indeed reason to believe so), we could vote for John McCain even if we believed (along with John Paul II and Benedict XVI) that the war McCain supported was unjust. But we did not have to.
This, I think, is the crux of the issue: Too many Catholics, on both sides of the political spectrum, try to figure out which major political party best fits their understanding of Catholic moral teaching. Then, having made up their minds, they all too easily assent to, or at least gloss over, those positions that their chosen party holds that violate Catholic teaching.
Indeed, they sometimes even fall into the trap of excusing the actions of political leaders they like, even when Catholic teaching raises grave doubts about such actions. That, it seems to me, is happening right now among Catholics in the United States who are politically conservative.
Some simply disagree with John Paul II's statement in Veritatis splendor that torture is intrinsically evil; others are willing to grant it, but say that we need further definition of what constitutes torture; while still others (and I think this is the largest group, simply based on my observation) grant that torture is intrinsically evil but believe that we have to support those who support it because abortion is an even greater evil.
But what if there is another option?
Shortly after the 2008 election, I discussed an article by an old friend of mine, Fr. Rob Johansen, entitled "Our Faustian Bargain: Catholics Caught Between Parties" (see my post, "Where Do We Go From Here?"). His argument, in a nutshell, is that "Catholics make up some 25 percent of the population, but we exercise an influence far smaller than our numbers." The answer to increasing our influence is to follow "The teaching of the Church and of our bishops," which, as Father Johansen writes, "instructs us to take our faith as our starting point and build our politics around that."
Practically speaking, that would mean withholding our votes from both major political parties until they began to conform their political platforms to the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.
Imagine if, in 2004, all Catholics on both the left and right had told John Kerry that they would not vote for him because of his stand on abortion and on embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR), while also telling George W. Bush that they would not vote for him because his "compromise" on ESCR was still wrong and he was prosecuting a war that Pope John Paul II had warned was unjust and that had led Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to declare that "The concept of pre-emptive war does not appear in the Catechism." What would the effect have been?
Obviously, one of the two men would still have been elected, so the short-term effect might well have been minimal. But between November 2004 and November 2008, the effect would have been dramatic, as both parties hustled to try to win back the Catholic vote.
Instead, Democratic operatives spent those four years trying to convince Catholics that they could vote for a politician who advocates sucking the brains out of infants and letting children who survive abortion die unattended. Meanwhile, Republican operatives worked hard to explain that it didn't matter that their candidate held essentially the same position on ESCR as the Democratic one did, or that he had stated numerous times in his political career that he didn't want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, or that he, too, had supported the war that President Bush had waged.
In other words, both parties asked us to accept half a loaf—or, one might say, a mess of pottage. And the result was that we ended up with the most pro-abortion president in the history of the United States, expanded funding for ESCR, and the continuation of the war in Iraq.
Obviously, my imaginary scenario—all American Catholics withhold their votes until one or both parties come around to our way of thinking—is a pipe dream. But the broader principle is not. How many Catholics would it take to make a difference—to make one or both parties start taking Catholic moral teaching seriously? Ten percent of the Catholic voting population? Five percent?
We'll never know until we try.
But to try, we must first quit excusing the evil—yes, evil—acts of our preferred set of political leaders just because someone else's preferred set of political leaders engages in even greater evil. We need to quit trying to explain away the words of a papal encyclical or a council document or the Catechism of the Catholic Church just because those words might indict people with whom we otherwise agree.
In other words, we need to put the Faith first, and politics a distant second. And that may mean that, for a time at least, we refuse to play the two-party game.