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What's wrong with Catholic voters, Continued: answering readers' arguments

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles ) | Dec 04, 2008

Nearly a month ago, immediately after the US presidential elections, I wrote a column in this space lamenting the failure of Catholic voters to unite in opposition to the "culture of death." That column--What's wrong with Catholic voters? What's wrong with Catholics?"--drew more responses from readers than anything else I have ever written online.

Just to refresh memories, let me quote the last few lines of that November 6 column:

To restore the integrity of the Catholic vote, we must first restore the integrity of the Catholic faith, and rebuild the foundations of a Catholic culture.
That will be my goal-- my crusade-- in coming years. I hope and pray you'll join me.

Evidently I touched some nerves with my call for a restoration of an authentic Catholic culture in the homes of the American faithful. It's always gratifying to know that one's writing has stirred such excitement among readers. I'm especially grateful to all those who expressed an interest in joining my "crusade," and I'm sorry that, because of the sheer number of responses, I couldn't answer all those replies personally. Rest assured that I haven't forgotten that promise. Far from it; I'm still thinking about the most effective way to launch that crusade, and you'll be hearing more-- right here on the Catholic Culture site-- very soon.

For today, however, I have a more modest objective. Most of the readers who responded to my little essay were friendly and supportive, even enthusiastic. But some were critical, and-- since even in that category the number of responses overwhelmed me-- I wanted to respond to those criticisms. Most of the arguments against my thesis could be placed into three categories, as follows.

Criticism #1: The Catholic Culture site shouldn't be recruiting voters for the Republican party. If my objective had been to help the GOP, I would have written my column before the election, not after it. My goal in that piece was to analyze the results, not to affect them.

Both before and after Election Day, I did my best to distinguish between the non-negotiable moral issues, on which all Catholics should agree, and the prudential judgments that form most political decisions. There are times, I believe, when Church teaching makes it clear that we can not vote for a particular candidate, because of his support for policies that are intrinsically immoral. There are very few times, if any, when Church teaching indicates that we must vote for a particular candidate.

I do not believe that it is tenable to argue that Catholic Americans were morally obligated to vote for Senator McCain. As a matter of fact, I had my own disagreements with the McCain platform-- on foreign policy, on economics, and even on life issues, such as his support from embryonic stem-cell research. Far from acting as a McCain campaign operative, I didn't vote for the GOP candidate myself! (Remember that I live in Massachusetts, where the results are easy to predict, and I can cast a 3rd-party ballot without worrying that my vote will sway the outcome.)

Criticism #2: Abortion was not the only important moral issue in this year's campaign. True. Catholic voters should also have been concerned about embryo research, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. On all those issues the Obama campaign was at best suspect, and at worst clearly in league with the culture of death.

Several readers pointed out that the Catechism of the Catholic Church now clearly calls for an end to the use of the death penalty. Again, true. But the Church has always taught, and the Catechism still teaches, that the state has the right to execute criminals in some cases, even if those cases are now exceedingly rare. Thus execution is not intrinsically wrong, as deliberate abortion is.

Other readers cited the war in Iraq, saying that the death and destruction in that conflict is comparable to the death toll from abortion. It is possible to argue that the war in Iraq was wrongly conceived; certainly the Vatican lobbied heavily against the first US assault. But even those who argue that the war cannot be justified in terms of classic Catholic moral teaching should agree on two points: First, the case is debatable; the arguments for and against military action rested on prudential decisions, and could not be decided with the same apodictic force as the argument against deliberate killing of the innocent unborn. Second, the situation has changed in the years since that original assault, and immediate withdrawal of US forces would precipitate chaos. The Vatican has agreed that US forces should stay long enough to ensure the security of Iraq. Although McCain and Obama disagreed on the handling of the war, neither candidate promised an instant end to the fighting.

Some readers suggested that world poverty causes more deaths than abortion. Yes, it does. But both candidates promised to combat poverty. They differed on how that combat should be waged, but again their differences involved prudential judgments, on which reasonable people can and do differ.

Criticism #3: The Church should stay out of politics. Every election year, conservatives complain that liberal pastors are meddling in partisan politics, and liberals complain that conservative pastors are guilty of the same offense. No doubt there are some indiscretions on both sides. But who is to set the limits? Who should decide when a clergyman has overstepped his proper authority and made an inappropriate foray into the political world?

When bishops and priests tell their people that they should reject the culture of death, they are not engaging in partisan politics; they are promoting the unalloyed teaching of the Catholic Church. (And if they taught more energetically during off-years, maybe they would not need to make special efforts during campaign seasons.) When a bishop tells a prominent public figure that he should not receive Communion because he is guilty of manifest grave sin, that bishop is doing his pastoral duty; he should not shirk that duty out of fear that his statement might bring adverse political consequences. If the government sets limits on what clergymen can say (and who else but the government could set those limits?) then the political world is defining the proper role of the Church: a clear violation of religious freedom.

This is not merely an academic point. In the coming years we may see more aggressive efforts by government leaders to limit religious speech. We have already seen an effort to require health-care personnel to cooperate in abortion and euthanasia, even if they find those practices morally repugnant. We have seen requirements that pharmacists provide patients with abortifacient pills. We have seen Christian leaders accused of "hate speech" because they hold steadfast to Biblical teachings on the immorality of homosexual acts. We have seen hints that the Catholic Church engages in unjust discrimination by restricting the priesthood to men. If the government sets the rules in such matters, religious freedom is doomed. Educated Catholic voters should recognize the urgent need to protect the precious sphere of religious liberty.

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