Issue Date: November 3, 2006
Sorting through imperfect choices
In the early 1970s, when antiwar activist and stalwart liberal Allard K. Lowenstein was running for Congress against a nondescript Republican incumbent from Long Island, N.Y., he received the endorsement of conservative pundit William F. Buckley. Buckleys rationale: As long as the House of Representatives was going to be dominated by liberals (remember those days?) it might as well have a smart one in the bunch.
Another anecdote from that era: The second choice of the 41 percent of New Hampshire primary voters who supported Eugene McCarthy and forced LBJs withdrawal from the 1968 presidential race was none other than segregationist pro-war Alabama Gov. George Corley Wallace. New Hampshirites, it seems, were more interested in sending a message than in the messenger.
Voting, it seems, is a complex act.
So what is a conscientious Catholic to do this year? Theres plenty of advice out there.
The U.S. bishops document, Faithful Citizenship, offers a sound approach. It is a voters responsibility, say the bishops, to measure all candidates, policies, parties and platforms by how they protect or undermine the life, dignity and rights of the human person, whether they protect the poor and vulnerable and advance the common good.
It can be found at www.usccb.org/faithfulcitizenship.
More recently, a new kid on the block, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, issued its voter guide, Voting for the Common Good. It strikes the right chord, noting that There is no Catholic voting formula, and there is rarely, if ever, a perfect candidate for Catholic voters. That voter guide can be found at thecatholicalliance.org.
Unfortunately, the guide that has drawn the most media attention in the past is from the conservative group Catholic Answers, which has reissued its Voters Guide for Serious Catholics. It is essentially the same pamphlet describing the nonnegotiable issues the group distributed, to much publicity, in 2004. To Catholic Answers, voting is an equation: If Candidate A is closer to Catholic teaching on the nonnegotiable issues than Candidate B, the serious Catholic should vote for A. The nonnegotiable issues are abortion, embryonic stem cell research, gay marriage, euthanasia and human cloning.
In fact, its hard to take the Voters Guide for Serious Catholics very seriously. For starters, it takes candidates assertions (I oppose abortion) as statements of purpose.
In Tempting Faith, his new book describing his experience in the Bush White House, David Kuo recalls a spat conservative icon William Bennett had with James Dobson, founder of the influential Focus on the Family. If a pro-choice candidate of exemplary character used the bully pulpit to talk about, say, teen abstinence, adoption, crisis pregnancy centers, individual moral code -- and did this well -- he could have a profoundly positive impact on the nations cultural condition, Bennett told Dobson in a letter. And he could do more to lower the number of abortions than a presidential candidate who supports a constitutional ban but does nothing more than pay lip service to the pro-life constituency.
Check and mate.
Next, the Serious Catholics voting guide leaves out some equally nonnegotiable issues like, say, torture, which, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity. Clearly a nonnegotiable issue.
Its perfectly reasonable -- an inescapable conclusion we think -- to conclude that a large number of candidates bidding for office this year actually support torture. Sure, they call it something else (harsh interrogation techniques) but its clear that some lawmakers and would-be lawmakers believe that water-boarding, for example, is a good way to get information from would-be terrorists.
Or maybe the war in Iraq is on a voters mind. One doesnt have to accept the conclusions of the recent Johns Hopkins study, which estimated Iraqi war deaths as high as 655,000 (more than died in the U.S. Civil War), to conclude that both the initial decision to invade that country and the continuing military effort are counter to the churchs teaching on just war. Sure, its debatable, and, yes, Catholics can come to different conclusions, but a serious Catholic is surely free to determine that this is the overriding issue of this election and vote accordingly.
Or maybe theres a gubernatorial election where one candidate supports the death penalty and another opposes it. According to the catechism, capital punishment is justified only and exclusively when society has no other means of protecting itself from a heinous criminal. Thats not the situation in the United States, where we employ the electric chair as a deterrent and, according to those who support the practice, as a tool of justice. Those are certainly debatable points, but they have nothing to do with Catholic teaching. To support the death penalty for reasons other than the protection of society makes one a dissenter from, here it comes, a nonnegotiable issue.
Pennsylvanias Senate contest provides a concrete test for the conscientious Catholic. Republican Rick Santorum is the strongest and most effective antiabortion voice in Washington. No doubt about it. Further, Santorum has voiced reservations about the death penalty (though hes voted for legislation that includes the ultimate punishment).
Democrat Bob Casey, son of a politician who bucked his party on abortion and paid the price for his dissent from the political orthodoxy, says he, too, is pro-life. Yet he supports the over-the-counter availability of the morning-after pill and is a strong proponent of the death penalty. Yes, Casey will vote to ban partial-birth abortion, but he wont put a litmus test on judges who might stray from the antiabortion line.
Santorum supports the war in Iraq; Casey would likely side with Democrats working to end U.S. involvement in the quagmire. Casey supports civil unions, Santorum speaks harshly about gays and opposes same-sex marriage.
Whats a conscientious Pennsylvania Catholic to do?
Heres a suggestion: If opposition to abortion or gay marriage is the issue that a Pennsylvania voter has determined is paramount, the most important in the current context, then he or she probably should vote for Santorum. Hes clearly someone who will continue to make these issues a priority.
If, however, a pro-life Keystone State voter thinks there is more at stake in this election than abortion and gay marriage -- the war, economic opportunity, social justice, tolerance for those who are different -- then that Keystone State voter should probably pull the lever for Casey.
An imperfect choice? Certainly. It always is.
Democracy aint easy. Thats why were fortunate Gods given us brains and a conscience. Use them well.
Voting, indeed, is a complicated act.
National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2006
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