Over the past two weeks, in "Where Faith and Politics Intersect" and "Where Faith and Politics Intersect, Part II," I have examined the situation in which Catholic voters in the United States find themselves. On the national level, neither of the two major parties reflects the moral and social teaching of the Catholic Church completely. Indeed, sometimes through the positions they have adopted and sometimes simply through compromise, both parties fall significantly short of what Catholics should expect in their political leaders.
That means that voting is almost always a compromise, as long as one is voting for a candidate from one of the two major parties. Many Catholics, myself included (at least in the past), have decided that the better compromise to make is to vote for candidates who are pro-life, even if they do not adhere to Church teaching on other issues, because abortion is the gravest moral evil that we face everyday in the modern world.
But the problem, as I explained in Part II, is that voting in that manner has led to us becoming "sure votes" for those who say they oppose abortion (which means, in most cases, Republicans), even if they do not follow through. As long as a putatively pro-life candidate is facing an opponent who is pro-abortion, he or she can count on our votes, election after election.
And the result is that Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land, and we now have the most pro-abortion President the United States has ever seen.
Other Catholics have made a different (and equally flawed) choice. I'm not talking here about Catholics who defy Church teaching on abortion, or those who claim that they are "personally opposed, but . . . " I mean Catholics who honestly oppose abortion but who see a stalemate developing on the issue, largely because politicians elected on pro-life platforms don't follow through.
The Failure of the "Seamless Garment" Approach
Many of these Catholics end up adopting what used to be called the "seamless garment" approach. I've written before about the reasons why this approach does not work well in practice, since too many of those who espouse it end up lowering abortion to the level of other evils, rather than simply adding moral weight to evils other than abortion. (See "The Practical Effects of the Seamless Garment.")
And that, I think, is happening again. Barack Obama won the Catholic vote in the 2008 election. Moreover, he won a significant percentage of self-identified pro-life Catholics (though by no means a majority). In other words, some pro-life Catholics voted for the most pro-abortion candidate ever fielded by either party.
There Is No Evil Today Proportionate to Abortion
Many pro-life Catholics find it hard to believe that anyone who is sincerely pro-life might have voted for Barack Obama. If the U.S. bishops have been clear on one thing over the past four years, it is that Catholics cannot vote for a candidate who supports abortion unless there is a proportionate reason to do so. And whatever you think of the war in Iraq or the Bush administration's use of torture (and I opposed both), neither is a proportionate reason. Both are dwarfed by the destruction of 4,000 innocent human lives every day of every week of every month of every year since 1973.
Why Did Some Pro-Life Catholics Vote for Barack Obama?
Still, trapped by the common belief that you have to vote for one of the two major-party candidates, and not liking the war that Republican candidate John McCain had supported (and perhaps even having doubts about McCain's commitment to life, because of his flip-flopping over the years on abortion and his support for embryonic-stem cell research), some pro-life Catholics managed to convince themselves that they had a proportionate reason. It seems clear to me that they are wrong, but I think it is equally clear that simply repeating that "A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who supports abortion without a proportionate reason" is not going to convince them that they are wrong.
Nor is telling them that they have to vote for a candidate who supports a war that two consecutive popes opposed because that candidate may be more pro-life than the one who opposes the war. The war is a lesser evil than abortion, but if John Paul II and Benedict XVI are right in their judgments, then the war is still an evil.
The Problem of Predictability
Would it be great if all Catholics voted only for pro-life candidates? Of course. But would it change the political landscape? Of that, I'm far less convinced. In practical terms, it would mean that Catholics would become a voting bloc for Republicans akin to the voting bloc of blacks that the Democratic Party can rely on. And if anyone believe that becoming "sure votes" for the Democrats has benefitted blacks, then I've got a bridge in Tuscaloosa to sell you.
Becoming "sure votes" means that we Catholics lessen our political influence rather than increase it, because we have no way of ensuring that the putatively pro-life politicians that we elect actually follow through. The only way we can make sure that they act upon their campaign promises is if they seriously believe they might lose their next election if they do not.
But if we insist that "the only way to make our voices heard" is to vote for the Republican candidate or for the Democratic one, then we're effectively silencing ourselves, because the Democratic one, at least at the national level, is almost certainly going to favor abortion. And that means that, by default, we cannot vote for the Democrat. And that means that, by default, we end up voting for the Republican. And that means the Republican has no reason (other than true conviction, something lacking in all too many national politicians) to follow through.
Trapped in the Two-Party System
So how do we break out of this conundrum? By looking for alternatives. In the first piece in this series, I talked about Fr. Rob Johansen's proposal for withholding our votes from the two major parties until they come around on Catholic moral and social teaching. Many people assumed that I meant not voting. That is one option, in a race in which there are only two candidates; but in races with third-party candidates, we can and should cast a vote if the third-party candidate is better than the other two.
I think the reason that so many people assumed that I was counseling complete withdrawal from voting is because they are trapped in the two-party system. There's no reason why we have to be. As Catholics, our allegiance isn't to a political party, but to the truths of the Faith. And as Americans, our allegiance is to our country, not to a two-party duopoly that is not part of our Constitution.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Father Johansen outlined two choices: We can start from the artificial constraints of the two-party system and work backward to find out which of the two major-party candidates in any race best fits Catholic moral teaching. Or we can start from Catholic moral teaching and judge all candidates in light of it, even if that might mean that we find all of them wanting.
We know what the result of the former behavior is: 45 million unborn children dead, with no end in sight. That in itself seems to me reason enough to consider the latter.