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Issue Date:  October 1, 2004

Partisans try to narrow Catholics’ choices

Roughly 25 million Catholics will vote in the upcoming presidential election. Approximately half -- give or take a few hundred thousand -- will cast their ballots for George W. Bush; the other 12.5 million or so for John Kerry. The latter, say a handful of bishops and a group of Catholic pundits, are sinners.

Last May, Colorado Springs, Colo., Bishop Michael Sheridan issued a pastoral letter in which he said that Catholics who vote for pro-abortion rights candidates (or those who favor euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research or gay marriage) should refrain from receiving Communion until they confess their sin. He was taking the matter well beyond the original question of whether Kerry should be welcomed at Communion.

While his approach seemed to many a little eccentric and not-too-subtly partisan, the Sheridan formulation is gaining momentum.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal Sept. 17 (itself an interesting venue, given its pro-choice editorial position and support for Darwinian economics), Newark Archbishop John Myers made the case. Myers quoted a recent Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith memorandum that addressed the topic. Given the intrinsic evil of abortion, wrote the head of the congregation, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a Catholic could only support a pro-choice candidate “in the presence of proportionate reasons.”

“Certainly,” wrote Myers, “policies on issues such as welfare, national security, the war in Iraq, Social Security or taxes, taken singly or in any combination do not provide a ‘proportionate reason’ to vote for a pro-abortion candidate.” Catholics, continued Myers, “may not legitimately abandon the victims [of abortion and embryonic stem cell research] by supporting those who would further their victimization.”

Therefore … well, therefore what? Myers, perhaps mindful of the Newark archdiocese’s tax-exempt status, doesn’t say. But the implication could not be clearer.

* * *

Just prior to Myers’ op-ed, leading Catholic conservatives speaking at an Ave Maria Law School conference in Washington argued that conscientious Catholics cannot vote for a pro-choice candidate. Among those making the case were Princeton University professor Robert George, Notre Dame Law School professor Gerard Bradley, and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things.

Papal biographer George Weigel furthered the argument in his syndicated column.

“What would possibly be the ‘proportionate reasons’ that would cause a Catholic to vote, with a clear and well-formed conscience, for a candidate who is terribly wrong-sided on the great civil rights issue of the day?” asked Weigel. “Because you agree with that candidate on the minimum wage? On the appropriate level of Medicare premiums? On whether the highest federal tax rate should be 36 percent or 38 percent or 40 percent?”

He continued, “The ‘proportionate reasons’ for pro-life Catholics to support pro-abortion candidates must be very, very weighty indeed. Catholics considering a vote for pro-abortion candidates … must define what those reasons would be. Theirs is a difficult task.”

Myers and Weigel resort to an old writer’s trick: Set up a straw man (Social Security or marginal income tax rates compared to abortion) and then knock it down. Nonetheless, the argument is worthy of refutation.

Here’s a not-so-hypothetical: There are two candidates for president. Candidate A, the incumbent, opposes legal abortion. Candidate B, the challenger, supports it. Candidate A also supports preemptive war as a national strategy and, given Congress’ abdication of its constitutional responsibilities, asserts his right as commander-in-chief to implement that policy unilaterally. He does so with an arsenal that includes the largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction on Earth. Candidate A also supports creation of a new generation of first-strike-capable nuclear weapons.

Candidate B, meanwhile, opposes preemptive war and argues that the best means to establish a peaceful world order is through a combination of diplomatic and military means.

For all of Candidate A’s opposition to abortion, he has not made the issue a genuine priority (as he has the strategy of preemptive war or tax cuts for the wealthy) and there is no likelihood that the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy will be abrogated anytime in the foreseeable future. Likewise, Candidate B’s support for abortion rights will have minimal, if any, impact on how the practice is regulated in the United States. Further, Candidate B’s support for more enlightened social policies holds out the prospect that the abortion rate will drop if he is elected, as it did during the term of the last president of his party.

Given this set of circumstances the question is not whether a conscientious Catholic could vote for a pro-choice candidate, but whether the voter could support Candidate A. And the answer to that is, of course, yes. The world is complicated, facts and circumstances matter, as does a thoughtful Catholic’s right to interpret the world and the issues.

* * *

There is a larger issue unfolding here -- a deliberate and decided attempt to delegitimize the Democratic Party in the eyes of American Catholic voters.

If that seems an extreme assertion, consider the speech of Princeton’s George during the Ave Maria conference. “The same concern underlies the discussion of what church leaders did and failed to do during the Holocaust,” he said. He recalled Archbishop Joseph Rummel, the New Orleans prelate who excommunicated Louisiana elected officials who opposed desegregation of Catholic schools in the 1960s, and St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, who has famously led the charge against John Kerry’s right to receive Communion.

“No serious person suggests that the German bishops or Vatican officials actively supported the Nazis’ murderous policies. The suggestion, rather, is that by their [alleged] failure to denounce those policies and to excommunicate those Nazi leaders who had Catholic backgrounds, church officials signaled that Catholics could legitimately support Nazi policies without peril to their souls or to their standing in the church. Critics of those church leaders suppose precisely what Archbishops Rummel and Burke suppose: If the church is to be in solidarity with victims of injustice, bishops must not permit those Catholics who commit or abet the injustices to pretend to be Catholics fully in communion with the church.”

It should be said, first, that the writings of some German bishops of the era would strongly suggest that they were complicit with the Nazi agenda and not merely silent bystanders; and, second, that as far as we know, no one in the U.S. government is requiring anyone to have an abortion.

But George would have us believe there is no moral difference between American Catholics who support the predominantly pro-choice party, the Democrats, and those who supported Hitler or the vicious racists of the 1960s American South.

Perhaps another view will prevail, one that sees a complex dynamic at work, not a black-and-white, cookie-cutter, Democrats-equal-Nazis landscape. Speaking at the same conference George addressed, Jesuit Fr. John Langan, professor of Catholic social thought at Georgetown University, offered a more tempered view of the imperfect political order. “If I vote for a candidate who professes to be strongly pro-life but is either unable or unwilling to reduce or eliminate abortions, then I have not succeeded in achieving my pro-life objective,” said Langan. He continued, “Politics is not merely the expression of values; it is social action shaped by many discordant forces over time. Moral principles are profoundly important in political life, but they are enveloped within a larger and less well ordered and unprincipled reality.”

Not since the late 1950s and early ’60s has the question of the role of the church and its relationship with its most visible public figures so dominated the American church. And never has such a small band of ideological partisans attempted to make their narrow reading of a political race the undisputed view of the church. There is a lot at stake.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 2004

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