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Scott P. Richert

Where Faith and Politics Intersect, Part II

By May 4, 2009

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If we say that torture is intrinsically wrong, or that a particular war does not seem to meet the criteria for being a just war, does that somehow minimize the moral gravity of abortion? If we say that a Catholic not only cannot support abortion but can never vote for a candidate who supports abortion unless there is a proportionate reason, and then point out that it seems impossible to imagine what a proportionate reason would be, does that amount to an endorsement of a politician who supports an unjust war or torture, so long as he is pro-life and his opponent is not?

I think that the answer to both of these questions is a resounding "no." But a number of my readers disagree, and they said so in the comments on "Where Faith and Politics Intersect" and in private e-mails about the post. They deserve a response, and they are going to get two: In this post, I will address the question of whether a consistent opposition to evil somehow minimizes the gravest of evils facing us today (namely, abortion); and in Part III, I will explain why those who are opposed to the war in Iraq and torture not only should not but cannot use those concerns as an excuse to vote for politicians who support abortion.

And so, as King Harry cried, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more."

Abortion: A Grave Moral Evil, or the Gravest of Moral Evils?

In one of the most thoughtful comments, Matthew Warner of Fallible Blogma and the founder of flockNote and TweetCatholic, argued that it is easy for Catholics to come to the wrong conclusion about my argument because I "directly compare issues like torture, war, etc. with issues like abortion." He points out that "Morally, these are fundamentally different when they come to the teachings of the Church."

On the question of war, we are completely in agreement, and even though I (following the judgments of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI) opposed the war in Iraq, I repeatedly noted in my coverage of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign that a Catholic could vote for someone who supported the war, while he could not vote for someone who supported abortion. In fact, I'm not sure how I could be any more clear on this point, but I don't think it is a lack of clarity on my part that is causing the problem. Rather, those who have objected to my pointing out that we as Catholics should take the opposition of two consecutive pontiffs to the war quite seriously have been supporters of the war. What bothers them is my opposition to the war, not my imaginary lack of opposition to abortion.

Likewise with the question of torture, but here there is a twist: As I pointed out to Matthew, if John Paul II was correct when he wrote in Veritatis splendor that torture is “intrinsically evil,” then torture and abortion are closer together than either is to, say, war or capital punishment, neither of which the Church regards as intrinsically evil. It is true that there may still be a definitional question regarding torture, but we should not be approaching the definitional question by trying to figure out just how far we can go before we cross the line into torture, any more than two teenagers should approach a physical relationship by trying to figure out just how far they can go before they commit a mortal sin.

Here's a good rule of thumb, in torture as in sex: If you have to ask how far is too far, you've probably already gone too far.

But even on the question of torture, given the definitional problem, there's no comparison between torture and abortion: Abortion, as the slaughter of innocents, is the gravest moral evil currently practiced in the modern world. Once again, I'm not sure how I could be any more clear on this point.

But here's where the problem comes in: To say that abortion is the gravest moral evil currently practiced in the modern world does not mean that it is the only moral evil. There is, for instance, torture (according to Veritatis splendor, Gaudium et Spes, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church) and unjust war (of which the war in Iraq, in my opinion and in the opinion of two consecutive pontiffs, is just one example).

The Single-Issue Solution to Abortion

Still, if abortion is the gravest moral evil that we face today, doesn't it make sense, as Matthew suggests, simply to become single-issue voters on abortion? Might Matthew be right that:

If all Catholics voted for the candidate (not the party) that supported the unborn for ONE election cycle, no major party would ever put a pro-choice candidate up for election ever again. Because it would be impossible for them to win. . . . Then we move on to the next gravest issue.

Maybe, but I doubt it. Why? Because many voters (myself included) voted that way consistently for years. And what did it get us?

Not a whole heck of a lot.

Why? First, in an increasing number of races, all candidates are pro-abortion; and second, abortion has often been used simply as a political tool by nominally pro-life politicians who did little or nothing to try to end it when they were elected.

Lessons From (Recent) History: David Souter and Sam Brownback

Last week, Justice David Souter announced his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court. Did George H.W. Bush—who favored abortion until it was politically inconvenient to do so (as did Ronald Reagan)—know that Souter would not vote to overturn Roe v. Wade? Almost certainly. At the very least, there was no excuse for him not to know; many of us who had voted for Bush in 1988 had no doubt what his nomination of Souter meant—and we were right.

Also last week, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a convert to Catholicism who ran as a pro-life candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, voted to confirm Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services, despite Sebelius's support for abortion and the extensive blood money that she had received over the years from late-term abortionist George Tiller.

So voting for pro-life candidates alone does not do the trick, since we pro-life voters never insist that they actually follow through. Instead, in the next election, we simply make excuses for them—because, of course, their opponent again is pro-abortion.

Who's Downplaying Abortion Now? The Strange Case of Arlen Specter

But the dilemma may go beyond even that: What if those who become "sure votes" for politicians and political parties who claim to be pro-life are the ones who end up downplaying the moral gravity of abortion, when the politicians they support also support unjust wars and torture?

This isn't a hypothetical question, as another political announcement last week makes clear. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania declared on April 28 that he was leaving the Republican Party and would run for reelection in 2010 as a Democrat.

"Good riddance!" shouted pro-lifers (myself included). Specter has been an ardent supporter of abortion; indeed, his opposition to President Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court was the main factor in the defeat of that nomination. If Bork had made it onto the Court, Roe v. Wade might have been overturned in 1989. Instead, we got Anthony Kennedy and the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision (1992), which upheld Roe.

One would think that Specter's support for abortion and treachery on Bork would have made him a marked man in a party whose platform long included a commitment to overturning Roe v. Wade. But in 2004, when Specter faced a serious challenge in the Republican primary from Congressman Pat Toomey, a pro-life Catholic, he was endorsed by two pro-life icons: President George W. Bush and fellow Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum.

Why? Because for both President Bush and Senator Santorum, Specter's support for the war in Iraq was more important than his decades-long support for the slaughter of innocent children. Bush and Santorum thought that their pro-life credentials could convince pro-life voters to hold their noses and vote for Specter over Toomey.

They were right.

And four years later, what did it get us? The pro-life Santorum lost his Senate seat in 2006, in large part because of his support for Specter. And now the most pro-abortion President in the history of the United States has another Democratic senator to support his abortion agenda.

Is There Another Way?

Could things have been different? Certainly. What if the Catholic Senator Santorum and the Catholic voters of Pennsylvania had taken their cues from Pope John Paul II and opposed the war in Iraq, as well as abortion? Then they wouldn't have succumbed to the temptation to support their pro-life president when he asked them to support a pro-abortion senator for the sake of the war in Iraq.

Of course, if all the Catholics in Pennsylvania had done as Matthew Warner suggests and voted solely on the question of abortion, then they wouldn't have let their pro-life president and their pro-life senator talk them into voting for Specter, either, and Toomey would have won the nomination.

But they didn't, and he didn't, and there's the rub: Pro-life voters followed their pro-life leaders in voting for a pro-abortion senator because they had come to accept, as James Hitchcock wrote in an article in the Spring 2007 issue of Human Life Review, that "involvement in political action necessarily brings with it the moral ambiguities inherent in all politics."

Moral Compromise and Pro-Life Failure

Interestingly, Hitchcock was attacking conservative Catholics such as Joe Sobran and the editors of the national Catholic weekly The Wanderer (and, in a follow-up article, me) who were both pro-life and against the war in Iraq. Yet his piece explains perfectly why allowing abortion to override every other concern has failed to advance the pro-life cause:

Abortion as a political issue brought the pro-life movement into a somewhat unexpected alliance with the Republican Party, an alliance that has made many formerly Democratic pro-lifers uncomfortable. Such an alliance necessarily places voters in the situation of in effect having to buy a whole political package. Public officials have to take positions on a wide range of issues, so that, in supporting Republicans, pro-lifers are implicated in everything that party does.

In Hitchcock's mind, that's simply the price we have to pay. The paramount importance of abortion requires pro-life Catholics to accept those positions of the Republican Party that may contradict Church teaching or the prudential judgments of pontiffs:

History seldom moves in a straight line. Plans are often upset by unforeseen events and, as it turned out, the pro-life movement was at least temporarily derailed in 2006 by the strong public backlash against the war in Iraq. By no means all pro-lifers support the war, but support for pro-life Republicans has in many cases amounted to a vote for the war, or is seen as such.

In other words, according to Hitchcock, who supported the war in Iraq, the backlash against the war hurt the pro-life cause. What Hitchcock glosses over, however, is that such a backlash would (by definition) not have occurred if President Bush had listened to the pleas of Pope John Paul II and not prosecuted that war.

Rejecting the Faustian Bargain

This is precisely why I think my old friend Fr. Rob Johansen is right when he argues that Catholics need to reject the Faustian bargain offered by our two-party system. We need to vote against candidates who support abortion, but that cannot mean blindly voting for candidates who are pro-life, without seriously considering where they stand on other issues. Otherwise, we too easily get trapped, forced "to buy a whole political package," which includes other things that, as Catholics, we might very well oppose.

And despite our best intentions, that does nothing to advance the pro-life cause, as the case of Arlen Specter, now Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, demonstrates.

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May 5, 2009 at 1:47 pm
(1) Tom Piatak says:

An excellent analysis.

May 6, 2009 at 1:46 am
(2) Ken Jones says:

“We need to vote against candidates who support abortion, but that cannot mean blindly voting for candidates who are pro-life, without seriously considering where they stand on other issues.”
But we don’t vote against anyone, ever. The best we do is vote for the other guy, or not vote at all. There will be no notice of the Catholic Vote unless it is cast. Not voting (witholding) is like not speaking or not doing. (All that is necessary for evil…)

So beyond writing in the name “Authentic Catholic Candidate” or some other recognizable evidence of intent, how do we demonstrably indicate our displeasure with the popular candidate in an election?

Maybe it’s time to forego tax-exemption and join this battle as a worthy competitor.

May 6, 2009 at 7:56 am
(3) Scott P. Richert says:

There will be no notice of the Catholic Vote unless it is cast.

Everyone assumes that, but where is the evidence? I discussed this in my latest response to Matthew Warner on Part I of this series. In brief, by becoming “sure votes” for pro-life candidates, even when those pro-life candidates don’t follow through with their promises, then we remove any reason for pro-abortion candidates to reconsider their position.

The usual response is that we simply need to hold pro-life candidates accountable. But we never do. Why? Because even when they fail to live up to their promises, we make excuses for them in the next election, since the other guy is pro-abortion. “You’ve got to vote for someone, and you can’t vote for the pro-abort.”

But if we Catholics are in play—if we’re willing to go to the mat and withhold our votes from both major parties—then Democratic candidates have a real reason to reconsider their support for abortion. And Republican candidates have a real reason to make sure that, if elected, they actually follow through.

May 6, 2009 at 11:53 pm
(4) Ken Jones says:

“Everyone assumes that, but where is the evidence?” Scott, there is no evidence to be found, I maintain, because this is an attempt to prove a negative. I suggest that to withhold your vote for any reason at all has the sole effect of reducing the total votes cast. Since we do not vote against candidates in the USA, but only for them or not at all, no clear reason is seen. Conjecture might abound, and your story is as good as mine in that arena.

To be a positive force, one must first be recognized as existing. In my opinion, not voting doesn’t do anything to further our recognition because the reason isn’t tracked.

Ten thousand votes for Benedict Sixteenth might raise a few eyebrows, though.

May 7, 2009 at 10:42 am
(5) Scott P. Richert says:

I think, Ken, that we desire the same thing. I’m approaching this not only as a Catholic but as someone whose degree is in political science. Trust me—politicians do indeed take note of the “undervote,” as it is known, and pollsters go to great lengths to try to determine why people do not vote.

I’m all in favor, as I’ve noted above, of voting for third-party candidates if they are closer to Catholic moral teaching than either of the major-party candidates. Write-ins are a bit more problematic, though, because in most jurisdictions, write-in votes are only counted if the person whose name is being written in has declared himself a write-in candidate.

Thus, 10,000 votes for Benedict XVI will likely do nothing, because they won’t even be tallied, so they’ll never be brought to the attention of the politicians at whom they are aimed.

Politicians and pollsters do recognize nonvoters as existing. In fact, in some ways, they pay more attention to them than they do to “sure votes.” When creating electoral strategies, they start by determining how many votes they likely will win without much effort, and then they build coalitions from there.

If a significant number of Catholics made it clear that, to win our votes, politicians need to begin to pay attention to the moral teachings of the Catholic Church, then politicians looking to create a winning coalition might actually attempt to address us on the issues.

And, if elected, they might actually follow through, because they will know that we could indeed drop out again.

May 11, 2009 at 12:44 pm
(6) Matthew Warner says:

Hey Scott – thanks for the follow up post and the great thoughts. I went ahead and posted a response on my blog if anyone is interested:


August 11, 2012 at 9:32 pm
(7) Mary Ellen says:

OK…I’m confused. We withhold our vote from both candidates either not voting for the office at all or voting for someone we know will NOT win: One of the two major candidates wins anyway. Will this make the Catholic vote inconsequential all around, as in “Who cares how the Catholics vote since it doesn’t make any difference to us anyway? I am not for or against this—I’m trying to understand how what I (and other like-minded people) do during an election can make everyone in the process sit up and take notice.

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