Monday, October 02, 2006

The Proliferation of Catholic Voting Guides

The Catholic Answers group started it. As discussed here and here, they put out a voter's guide that listed 5 issues as non-negotiable from a Catholic perspective: abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, stem cell research, and human cloning. Catholics are told to "find out where each candidate stands on each of these issues. Eliminate from consideration any candidate who is wrong on any of the five issues. Vote for one of the remaining candidates." How were the issues chosen? Because "involve principles that never admit of exceptions and because they are currently being debated in U.S. politics".

The suspicion from the start was that these issues were chosen precisely to urge Catholics to vote Republican. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, but nothing overt. Of course, the veil came down with the torture issue, which is both non-negotiable, and being currently debated in U.S. politics.

Now another group has issued a competing voting guide, the Catholic Alliance's Voting for the common Good. This takes a broader approach, and notes that the obligation is to promote the common good, which cannot be accomplished by simple litmus tests. It begins from the premise that there is "no Catholic voting formula, and there is rarely, if ever, a perfect candidate." Following from this, it urges voters to consider the length and breadth and depth of Catholic social teaching, encompassing such issues as abortion, the death penalty, discrimination, the environment, euthanasia, genocide, the global arms trade, human rights, immigration, jobs, marriage, the minimum wage, nuclear disarmament, poverty, religious freedom, stem-cell research, war, and worker's rights.

So far so good. But, predictably, this new guide has been roundly attacked by the denizens of the right.

The first wave in the assault comes from the fact that the group is associated with somebody who acted as religion advisor to John Kerry. If she was associated with Kerry, then it must be a nefarious Democratic ploy to trick Catholics! Let's ignore the many Republican activists who claim their own Catholic magisterium. How about Deal Hudson, publisher of the conservative Crisis magazine, in charge of the Republican National Committee's "Catholic Outreach" effort, who tried to bully the bishops into denouncing Kerry before he himself was forced to step down after allegations of improper sexual conduct with his students? Ouch.

The second wave in the assault is a tad more sophisticated. The claim is that the voter guide is engaging in a form of moral equivalence, putting issues like abortion on par with issues of lesser importance. In his typical obnoxious manner, our old friend William Donohue from the Catholic League pontificates: "the moral equivalency: it's okay for a Catholic politician to give a green light to a practice that kills a baby who is 80-percent born, just so long as he's against trans fats." He concludes, what is practically a summary of conventional wisdom on the right: "Despite what Catholics in Alliance says, there is a moral hierarchy of issues, and as important as ending poverty is, it does not rival the right of a child to be born." And, on queue, Fr. Joseph Fessio: "Some issues are disqualifying issues. You don't vote for someone who kills babies. You don't vote for someone who destroys the family by supporting homosexual marriage." Finally, conservative Austin Ruse called the guide "a blatant attempt to convince Catholics that they can vote for candidates who are wrong on the primary human rights issue of our time, which is abortion."

How do we respond to this criticism? Well, in a number of ways. First, note that it is a basic straw man argument. Nobody is proposing assigning an equal weight to all issues, and the Catholic Alliance voting guide says as much, noting that issues that affect life and human dignity "demand our most urgent attention". Indeed, people on the right seem more enamored with the notion of a utilitarian calculuas assigning weights to the issues, and adding up the result. That is far from the idea of the common good dating back to St. Thomas Aquinas, which is far more holistic in nature.

What about moral equivalency?

Well, for starters, setting down a number of "non-negotiable" principles is by definition arbitrary. I've already noted that the choice of Catholic Answers is a not-so-subtle nod in the direction of the Republican party. And, as I've pointed out before, even these five issues are not equal. Sure, defenders can appeal to the protection of life as the most important principle. But in this case, why gay marriage? Why does this make the cut when other aspects of social teaching do not? (for my take on the gay marriage issue, go here). Again, defenders will argue that the gay marriage teaching brooks no dissent. But neither does torture, as I've explained over and over, and yet we do not see Catholic Answers scrambling to add torture as their sixth non-negotiable principle.

Many teachings do allow for a substantial degree of prudential judgment (war, poverty, employment etc). But they also reflect a consistent ethic of life that should not be so easily dismissed. And when those on the right callously disregard these teachings simply because they are "prudential", it begs the question whether they are not using this as a convenient smokescreen to block out the Catholic social teachings they don't like. It's just too convenient.

Let's now address the non-negotiable teachings. This simply means there are indeed teachings over which no dissent is possibly. But, even so, translating them into public policy calls for a great deal of prudence. Take the classic abortion issue. As noted in an earlier post, people can differ on how to go about reducing or eliminating abortion. Will repealing Roe v. Wade lead to a dimunition of the abortion rate? Should the pro-life movement be satisfied with this goal, or push on for complete bans in every state? And would this even reduce abortion by much (think the extremely high abortion rates in Latin American countries where it is illegal). How much of a role does economics play in the decision (given that abortion rates declined most steeply under Clinton, and are far lower in western European countries with lower poverty rates and a more equal distribution of income)? These are all questions in the domain of prudential judgment.

There is a big difference between opposing a non-negotiable principle and voting for somebody who does not share this view. A person is not voting for more or less abortion; it's not that simple. There is no "on-off switch" that gives you abortion if you vote A and no abortion (or even less abortion) if you vote B. In this sense, Fr. Fessio's rhetoric is nonsense: if it not a matter of voting for somebody who kills babies or who doesn't kill babies (that would make the decision somewhat easier, but life is just a little bit more complicated than conservative fantasy land!). But this kind of rhetoric has a way of obscuring the truth.

In his famous letter to Cardinal McCarrick in 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that abortion is evil, and that "it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil." What does this mean? Stephen Bainbridge provides a good definition:
"Formal cooperation is when a person (the cooperator) first of all gives consent to the evil action of another (the actor). Here the cooperator shares the same intention as the actor. The cooperator also joins in the actual performance of the evil action or supplies the actor with the means of performing it. Essentially, he consents to and helps enact the sin."
The first question is ask is, in the context of the Unites States, is a so-called pro-choice politician guilty of formal cooperation in evil? The "right" to abortion comes from the Supreme Court. Do these politicians really "supply the actors with the means of performing" abortions? Do they "help enact" it? Sure, they share the intention, but this does have any practical effect? How culpable are they? This is all debatable.

And when we come to the level of the voter, the culpability in the abortion decision is even more distant, and may be practically non-existant. As Cardinal Ratzinger noted:

"A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate's permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate's stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons."
And Stephen Bainbridge argues:

"A Catholic who has good reason to support a pro-"choice" candidate despite the candidate's views on abortion thus does not commit formal cooperation with evil and, accordingly, is free to do so without violating any moral precept of the Church."
Some on the right will argue these proportionate reasons are only applicable when bother candidates are pro-abortion, but that makes no sense. For a start, under their terms, the issue is either non-negotiable or not. But this argument is just letting prudential reasoning in through the back door and undercutting their entire philosophy.

Just consider the example of Bush. At the time of the last election, Bishop Rene Henry Gracida, of Corpus Christi, Texas argued that if Bush favored limited abortion and Kerry supported abortion-on-demand, then "the Catholic voter has a proportionate reason to vote for Bush, since his vote might help to ensure the defeat of Kerry and might result in the saving of some innocent human lives." There's something a little distateful about that, after 100,000 dead Iraqis, legalized torture, and no change in abortion rates.

This is exactly why we need a more encompassing view of the common good. Why voter guides (if they should exist at all) should appeal to broad principles. The Catholic Alliance's document is a good start, although it does not make these kinds of subtle distinctions clear enough, thus providing too much ammunition to the rigid right.

1 comment:

decker2003 said...

There is a recent discussion of this at I think you will see a discussion there that focuses on some of the very criticisms of the Catholic Answers guide which you are raising. Look for a discussion from approximately 1-2 weeks ago.