This week's stories | Home Page
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. Buckley’s 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 LBJ’s 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? There’s plenty of advice out there.

The U.S. bishops’ document, “Faithful Citizenship,” offers a sound approach. It is a voter’s 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 “Voter’s 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, it’s hard to take the “Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics” very seriously. For starters, it takes candidate’s 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 nation’s 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.

It’s 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 it’s 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 voter’s mind. One doesn’t 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 church’s teaching on just war. Sure, it’s 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 there’s 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. That’s 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.

Pennsylvania’s 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 he’s 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 won’t 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.

What’s a conscientious Pennsylvania Catholic to do?

Here’s 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. He’s 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 ain’t easy. That’s why we’re fortunate God’s given us brains and a conscience. Use them well.

Voting, indeed, is a complicated act.

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to:  webkeeper@natcath.org