SDG here (not Jimmy).
In my previous post I said "There are good reasons not to be thrilled with either of the two major candidates." I want to reiterate that. I don’t see the election this year as a holy crusade of Good Guys Against Bad Guys.
Specifically, I don’t see any Good Guys in this race, or even among the also-rans of the primaries. I’m skeptical of all the candidates — and of the judgment of anyone who isn’t. At this point, I believe any sensible person ought to be profoundly uneasy about all possible outcomes. I don’t begin to understand the much-mocked quasi-messianic euphoria on the one side, and on the other side, despite some energizing of the base after the VP pick, there is still plenty of room for misgivings.
The story of the hour, of course, is the historic financial crisis and the federal takeover of Fannie and Freddie. Fingers are pointing in all directions. Proposed narratives that lay all the blame on a single doorstep — the Administration or the GOP generally, the Congress or the Dems generally, Wall Street — strike me as dubious. Narratives that blame the abuse of money and power by all of the above, not necessarily in equal degree, seem much more plausible. I won’t muddy the waters with whatever ignorant notions I might have about how much guilt to assign where.
More to the point, it seems likely to me that there is no persuasive sense that either ticket necessarily represents the obviously right team to deal with the crisis. Any effort to cast the financial crisis as an obviously compelling reason to vote one way or the other would seem to suggest either extraordinary insight or else conjectural special pleading. Until I have reason to believe otherwise, my money (whatever that turns out to be worth next week) will be on the latter.
There are undoubtedly serious issues to be explored (and obfuscated) here. How much power does the executive branch actually need here? How much will they get? How may it be used or misused? How badly and unnecessarily may taxpayers be shafted, and what if anything can or will be done to minimize this? How egregiously have the rich and powerful abused their influence to their own advantage over the years, and what if anything can or will be done about that?
These are complex questions, and Catholic teaching, rooted in divine revelation, emphasizes that the enormity of the perennial abuse of the poor by the rich. There is also a long, sad track record suggesting that the practical answers are unlikely to approximate justice to any great extent. Rail against this by all means. Just don’t suppose that either ticket represents the white hats here to save us.
Other important problems loom. Ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq pose serious issues. Was it right to go to Iraq in the first place? How much unnecessary harm has been caused by bad or wrong decisions, including treatment of prisoners? What is the best course of action now? What approach to health care is best? How can we best care for the environment? What about other conflicts and crises around the globe? What about energy? And so on, and on.
With all these legitimate and pressing concerns, it may be understandable that some may look with fatigue at seemingly long-unchanging battle lines between well-entrenched sides in an issue like abortion, where too often candidates and politicians have offered lip service rather than leadership, and conclude that, in the absence of real hope for change on this subject, the political contest ought to be about other things.
After all — the style of thinking goes — has any pro-life candidate of either party at any level of government ever made enough of a difference on abortion to warrant hope that the outcome of this election might matter too? In this presidential election, how much will it really matter with regard to the unborn which party takes the White House? What about the argument of Catholics like Douglas Kmiec and Morning’s Minion who suggest that Obama’s overall agenda is either unlikely to affect abortion numbers, or might even help reduce abortion rates more than any pro-life action from McCain?
This style of thinking is understandable. It is also, I submit, fundamentally flawed and contrary to authentic Catholic principles.
Let’s review some basic considerations.
We all know that in Catholic moral and social thinking not all moral issues are of equal weight, nor do all involve moral absolutes. For example, in an oft-quoted passage from his 2004 memo to Cardinal McCarrick, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, contrasted the grave and intrinsic evils of abortion and euthanasia with the less black-and-white issues surrounding capital punishment and waging war:
Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not, however, with regard to abortion and euthanasia.
In this passage Ratzinger is addressing moral principles in the context of worthiness to receive communion, and while he excludes the possibility of a diversity of opinion on the morality of abortion and euthanasia, he does not specifically address the question of support for or opposition to laws legitimizing or proscribing abortion and euthanasia.
However, in his landmark encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), which develops the ideas of the "culture of life" and the "culture of death," Pope John Paul II argues that the right to life is "the fundamental right and source of all other rights," and that the "first and most immediate application" of the connection between civil law and moral law absolutely excludes "laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia":
Now the first and most immediate application of this teaching concerns a human law which disregards the fundamental right and source of all other rights which is the right to life, a right belonging to every individual. Consequently, laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual … In this way the State contributes to lessening respect for life and opens the door to ways of acting which are destructive of trust in relations between people. Laws which authorize and promote abortion and euthanasia are therefore radically opposed not only to the good of the individual but also to the common good; as such they are completely lacking in authentic juridical validity. (EV 72)
Because the right to life is the ground of all other rights, efforts to seek or pursue the "common good" while denying or undermining the right to life are fundamentally fraudulent:
It is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop. A society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized. Only respect for life can be the foundation and guarantee of the most precious and essential goods of society, such as democracy and peace. (EV 101)
Again, from John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici (The Lay Faithful):
The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture — is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination. (CL 38)
The US bishops pastoral statement Faithful Citizenship concurs:
There are some things we must never do, as individuals or as a society … A prime example is the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia. In our nation, "abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others" (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 5). It is a mistake with grave consequences to treat the destruction of innocent human life merely as a matter of individual choice. A legal system that violates the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is fundamentally flawed. (FC 22)
Faithful Citizenship concludes: "The direct and intentional destruction of human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed" (FC 28).
It is not enough, then, to hold that abortion and euthanasia are intrinsic evils. Catholics must also regard laws legitimizing them as intrinsic evils antithetical to the foundational principles of civil society and law. A culture in which intrinsically evil acts attacking life itself are claimed as basic human freedoms — a legal system in which such acts are protected (and even funded) as basic human rights — is corrupted and poisoned at the very root. It is a society "without foundations," a house built on sand. Such a society can only represent a culture of death.
This is the crucial flaw in Kmiec’s approach. Here is Kmiec’s pitch:
Obama does not advocate the reversal of Roe vs. Wade, and orthodox Catholics do. We do for the very clear reason given by [Cardinal Francis] George in a Sept. 2 letter — namely, "one cannot favor the legal status quo on abortion and also be working for the common good."
That’s exactly right, but what’s wrong is for Republican partisans to claim this to be Obama’s position. It’s not. Rather, Obama believes there are alternative ways to promote the "culture of life," even given the law’s sanction of abortion. …
Both reasonable extrapolations from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics and a recent Catholic in Alliance for the Common Good study find that improving the economic well-being of the average family in general, and of the women facing the abortion decision in particular, can save unborn lives.
In these brief sentences, Kmiec radically distorts both Obama’s agenda and Catholic teaching. Technically, it is true that Obama does not merely "favor the legal status quo on abortion." Rather, he is firmly committed to further solidifying and advancing the legal status of abortion by signing the Freedom of Choice Act, which would apparently eradicate various limitations on abortion allowed by post-Roe Supreme Court decisions. He would also expand public funding for abortion (e.g., rescinding the Mexico City policy), and would surely seek to liberalize access to abortion in other ways.
More fundamentally, though, talk of "alternative ways to promote the ‘culture of life’" while actively promoting abortion is rank contradiction. It is not enough merely "not to favor the legal status quo on abortion." As John Paul II wrote, "It is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life." Kmiec’s argument seems downright disingenuous.
Even on a pragmatic level, the calculus of concluding that this pro-abortion candidate’s overall agenda might possibly impact abortion numbers more positively than that anti-abortion candidate’s overall agenda is dubious enough. Admittedly, if it were really true, and known to be true, it might be considered a knotty issue. Certainly the sheer scale of abortion numbers — millions of guiltless human lives legally snuffed out every year — dwarfs the enormity of other even other per se equally grave issues like euthanasia and ESCR, as well as serious issues of non-intrinsic evil such as the death penalty and the war in Iraq. Anything that reduces the incidence of abortion is obviously to that extent a good thing.
However, in the first place, the argument assumes what is at best unknowable, if not outright dubious. Who really knows what will happen to the abortion rate in the next four or eight years even regardless which party is in office, or what effect any particular administration’s policies will or won’t have on it? If we can’t even say for sure why abortion rates have behaved as they have in the recent past, how can we claim to plot varying trajectories going into the future? If it’s all about actual outcomes, who knows how a candidate’s stated agenda will affect his performance in office — or how successful he will be at implementing his agenda?
It may be true, as Kmiec argues, that "improving the economic well-being of the average family in general, and of the women facing the abortion decision in particular, can save unborn lives." Of course, it’s also true that the "economic well-being of the average family in general" rests at least significantly on factors beyond any president’s control, even assuming that Obama would pursue the right policies successfully while McCain would not.
More pointedly, actions like rescinding the Mexico City policy (which Obama would certainly do) and signing the Freedom of Choice Act (which he is determined to do, and which he may well have at least as much chance of succeeding at doing as "improving the economic well-being of the average family in general") would cost unborn lives. How exactly does Kmiec’s calculus account for that?
In the end, though, what makes Kmiec’s reasoning not just dubious but finally indefensible is that the root issue is not merely numbers, but the radical corruption of the first principle of justice in law. Even if, theoretically, a pro-choice candidate’s agenda were to reduce the incidence of abortion, it would be gains built on sand as long as the law continues to call evil good and good evil. It is the first and most fundamental responsibility of civil society to safeguard the right to life of every member of the community. The law must recognize this first and most fundamental duty before it can begin to fulfill it.
In our society today, the juridical fiat, functioning as law, that the right to end innocent human life is guaranteed in our nation’s foundational legal document subverts the whole basis of civil law and jurisprudence more critically than any other injustice we face. This is not to elevate abortion above other life issues in terms of moral gravity; it’s just that we are not (yet) burdened by a Supreme Court decision positing iron-clad constitutional warrant for, say, the right to "die with dignity." In American rule of law as we know it today, the fiction of the "right to choose" is the knife in the heart of justice. Or the scissors in the back of the skull.
Just as the culture of death is not simply a matter of numbers, it is also not simply a matter of existing pro-abortion legislation and jurisprudence. Political advocacy from candidates and politicians militating against the right to life, including advocacy of abortion, euthanasia, ESCR and therapeutic cloning, is also a taproot of the culture of death. Above and beyond the policies they implement, simply by espousing abortion and euthanasia as "rights" — by defining freedom in the public square in terms of "freedom" to end human life — candidates and politicians actively foster and advance the culture of death. Such advocacy is to political life what pro-abortion legislation and jurisprudence is in the legal sphere — a cancer at the root.
For reasons to be discussed later, we can’t write in stone that a politician who advocates an intrinsically immoral policy, even legalized abortion, must always be opposed by all Catholics. (If nothing else, I will argue that a pro-choice politician may always legitimately be supported over a more pro-choice politician, even if in particular cases other courses of action may be judged preferable. A less cancerous root is preferable to a more cancerous one.)
However, one cannot glibly reason that abortion numbers are likely to be unchanged or even improved by a candidate’s overall agenda, and so his pro-abortion advocacy doesn’t matter. It matters gravely. It is worse than having a hate-spewing racist or a pornographer in office. It is poisonous. A candidate who advocates legalized abortion, euthanasia, ESCR or human cloning gravely disqualifies himself for public service, not just for what he or she may do but for what he or she stands for.
Thus the Vatican’s Archbishop Raymond Burke, recently named Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura (roughly the Vatican equivalent of the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice):
We cannot accept for ourselves a political leadership which does not safeguard the inviolable dignity of human life. Are there other issues? Of course there are, but the primary issue has to be the question of human life.
Does this mean that we should settle for lip service? Is it enough that candidates tell us what we want to hear once every four years and then go their merry way till the next election? For that matter, doesn’t McCain support ESCR?
No, we shouldn’t, and no, it isn’t, and yes, he does, or at least he has, though with qualifications, and there are signs that McCain may be shifting on ESCR (again, more later). I’m not now making the case for McCain, but the case against Obama (or any candidate with an Obama-like agenda). It is enough for now to note that while McCain’s qualified support of ESCR is a serious strike against him, Obama’s unqualified support is even more serious. On every issue touching directly on the most fundamental right and the source of all other rights, Obama’s stance is diametrically opposed to the foundations of the culture of life.
Very simply, Obama is the candidate of the culture of death. He’s probably the purest culture-of-death presidential candidate in American history.
Does that mean Catholics can or should support McCain simply because he’s not Obama? For now, let’s just say: It’s a start. I have more to say about this, and will continue when I can.