Back in the early 1990's, when I was doing my graduate work in the Department of Politics at the Catholic University of America, one of my professors was Stephen Schneck. A sometime chairman of our department, Dr. Schneck was bright, young, soft-spoken, and well liked by students. He's still three of those things today, but then none of us are quite as young as we used to be.
Now the director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at CUA and a board member of Democrats for Life, Dr. Schneck has made a name for himself as a vocally pro-life Catholic who continues to identify as a Democrat and to fight against the national Democratic Party's pro-abortion stand. While there are many Democratic candidates at the local level, particularly in the Midwest and the South, who remain pro-life, such voices have been virtually shut out at the national level, and Dr. Schneck is determined to try to change that.
In the meantime, however, Dr. Schneck continues to support Democratic candidates at the national level who are pro-abortion, including President Barack Obama. While that seems in conflict with statements from the U.S. Catholic bishops that voters cannot support candidates who support intrinsic evils such as abortion, Dr. Schneck, to his credit, does not try (as some Catholic supporters of the President do) to claim that Barack Obama is not pro-abortion. Instead, his argument is subtler and worthy of consideration—even if, in the end, it does not adequately address the question of support for an intrinsic evil.
Earlier this month, during the Democratic National Convention, Dr. Schneck appeared on EWTN's The World Over with Raymond Arroyo. You can watch the episode on YouTube here; Dr. Schneck's portion begins at the 9:45 mark. The crux of his argument is this: While President Obama and other national Democrats are pro-abortion, national Republican elected officials who are putatively pro-life have done little to curtail, much less end, abortion. And, he contends (and I think he is correct on this point), that is not likely to change in the coming years. Abortion, for both the Democratic and Republican parties, is a potent electoral issue, and both benefit from maintaining the status quo.
If, for instance, Roe v. Wade were ever overturned and the question of abortion were returned to the states, neither party would any longer be able to use the issue effectively at the national level. That would allow a reshuffling of voters at the national level, as (for instance) more libertarian types who favor abortion might quit voting for Democratic candidates and start voting for Republicans instead, while (for instance) Catholics who have been voting for Republicans because of their pro-life stance might return to their traditional home in the Democratic Party.
Dr. Schneck's argument is that, in the absence of any evidence that pro-life Republicans will actually advance policies that will curtail or end abortion, voters should consider what effect particular policies advanced by each party might have on the abortion rate. He contends that the expansion of insurance under ObamaCare will provide better prenatal coverage and reduced costs for bringing children to term, and therefore reduce the economic pressures that contribute to the decision to abort.
In the abstract, such an argument makes some sense, and it is generally true that abortion rates fall during times of prosperity and rise during periods of austerity. But the elephant in the room (and, no, I don't mean the GOP) is the fact that voting for candidates who support such policies yet also support abortion on demand means voting for candidates who support an intrinsic evil.
That the actions (rather than the rhetoric) of both of the two major national parties indicate that neither wishes to change the status quo on abortion does not mean that we are no longer morally required to consider whether a particular candidate supports an intrinsic evil such as abortion. What it may mean is that neither candidate in a particular race is worthy of Catholic support. Dr. Schneck does not address this in his interview, but I suspect that he would say that if Catholics wish to have political influence in the United States, they have to work within the two-party system. And that, as longtime readers of this site know, is where he and I disagree.
In the wake of the 2008 presidential election, prompted in part by a provocative article by my old friend Fr. Robert Johansen (another CUA graduate), I outlined an alternative by which Catholics who are serious about increasing their influence on national politics could hold both parties' feet to the fire by refusing to vote for any candidate who departs too far from Catholic moral and social teaching. (See "Where Faith and Politics Intersect.") That would mean, in practice, sometimes not voting for any candidate in a particular race. Far from marginalizing Catholics, such a strategy would make serious Catholics one of the most sought-after voting blocs in any national election.
The greatest stumbling block to such a strategy comes from the fact that too many American Catholics place their loyalty to the Democratic or Republican Party above their commitment to the moral and social teachings of the Catholic Church. And another large group of American Catholics have bought into the idea that not voting, even as part of a larger strategy to increase Catholic political influence, is somehow un-American or—and I wish I were making this up—a sin. Breaking out of those mindsets is necessary if we wish to increase Catholic influence on national politics. More Catholics today (it seems to me) are less in thrall to the parties than they were four years ago, but the idea that we must cast a vote in every race still holds sway.
As the November election approaches, this is a discussion Catholics need to quit avoiding. The current strategy—voting for the lesser of two evils, even when the lesser evil is unlikely to do what we think he ought to do—is not working. Is Steve Schneck right? Can we ignore a candidate's support for intrinsic evil if we think his other policies might reduce abortion? Is my idea—holding all candidates' feet to the fire on every issue that concerns Catholics—worth a try? Watch Dr. Schneck's interview, and read my article, and leave your thoughts in the comments.