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DOUG KMIEC: Catholic Reasons for Hope in the General Election

By Douglas W. Kmiec
June 7th, 2008
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

"As a matter of Catholic teaching, who’s right? None of us. Who’s wrong? Also, none of us. Catholic teaching simply does not supply a single, definitive answer."

MALIBU, CA (Catholic Online) - Now that the two major parties have identified their nominees for President, Catholics must undertake the serious task of discerning whether there are faith-based reasons to support one candidate over another.

Deacon Keith Fournier has written that he cannot endorse either Senator Obama or Senator McCain at this point. I have endorsed Senator Obama. The distinguished Catholic politics scholar, Robert George of Princeton, has endorsed Senator McCain.

As a matter of Catholic teaching, who’s right? None of us. Who’s wrong? Also, none of us. Catholic teaching simply does not supply a single, definitive answer.

The Catholic Church does not presume to tell citizens how to vote, or endorse particular candidates, but it does outline important moral considerations, including the admonition that no Catholic can choose a candidate for the purpose of advancing a moral evil such as abortion or racism. A Catholic without that intent is free to support either Senator Obama or McCain or anyone.

Deacon Keith Fournier observes that even though Senator Obama “has regularly spoken of and demonstrated in his public interest work a concern for the poor,” he needs “to expand his message of hope to include giving the hope of birth to our littlest neighbors.” From a Catholic perspective, this is sound advice.

Likewise, Deacon Fournier notes in relation to the “support [of] deadly research and experimentation on human embryonic life[,] Senator McCain tries to justify this barbarism with reference to the fact that these human embryos will inevitably die in this unethical research, calling them ‘spare embryos’. We need to help him see the error of that position.” Amen to that as well.

However, in raising “other considerations,” Deacon Fournier comments that “the next occupant of the White House will choose at least one Supreme Court Justice. That choice will, at least in this Constitutional lawyers mind, determine whether the current ‘culture of death’ hiding under the profane precedent of Roe v Wade will take another generation of our children before they are able to breathe our air and be welcomed into our family.”

Those are heart-felt words, but for the reasons discussed below, they assume – mistakenly – what the overturning of Roe would actually mean. Given that abortion is an intrinsic evil without justification, thinking the overturning of Roe “solves” the abortion problem, when it does not, can mislead Catholics into the erroneous conclusion that any candidate unwilling to pledge reversal of Roe is categorically unworthy of support. I suspect that this is why the Deacon “dreads” the beginning of the campaign since both of the major candidates fall short of the Catholic ideal on the issue of the protection of human life.

So let’s examine the nettlesome tragedy of abortion and the insufficient approaches of both candidates to date. Senator Obama’s position accepts the existing legal regime which leaves the abortion decision with the mother as a “constitutional right.” Senator McCain's position would leave the decision with the individual states. Neither position is fully pro-life, both are pro-choice, with the former focused on the individual and the latter focused on the right of the states. Senator McCain's position is sometimes described as pro-life, but in truth, it is merely pro-federalism (states being free under the McCain position to decide to permit or disallow abortion as they see fit).

Independent of my Catholic faith, as a constitutional law teacher, I respectfully disagree with both Senator Obama and Senator McCain since the Constitution was intended as a means to enforce and guarantee the unalienable right to life recited in the Declaration of Independence, where of course it is explicitly traced to our Creator. Since neither candidate presents a position fully compatible with Catholic teaching recognizing abortion for the intrinsic evil that it is, Catholic teaching asks us to work for the reduction of the incidence of abortion through the most prudent way possible.

There is no single answer on the most effective manner to reduce abortion either. My experience, and that of others whom I greatly respect for their tireless efforts in parish work and with Project Rachel and Catholic pregnancy centers, suggest that Senator Obama’s emphasis on personal responsibility (conveying especially to young people the need to understand the maturity and commitment needed for sexual intimacy) is the course most likely to make a difference.

I respect the views of my fellow Catholics who would place greater emphasis upon new legal prohibition or restriction, but my experience is that the more effective way to actually protect life is to work directly face to face with someone facing the awful thought of taking an innocent life. This is imperfect I know, but this path calls upon us – personally – to meet as best one is able the social and economic and religious reassurance needed by the individual children of God (mother and unborn child) that touch our lives.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver rightly reminds Catholics that whether we favor personal or legal efforts to reduce abortion or some combination, our efforts must be more than just talk and that Catholics must "keep lobbying their party and their representatives to change their pro-abortion views and protect the unborn"? Again, sound advice. All Catholics regardless of party or preferred candidate are instructed by Evangelium Vitae to work for greater recognition and respect for the culture of life.

Since neither of the major political parties have acceptable positions, lobbying -- and a good deal of prayer -- is required to be directed for them both.

Again, it is my own conclusion that Senator Obama would be more open to these considerations since he is more dedicated toward reducing the partisanship of the past, has very responsibly and very consistently called upon our better natures, and has articulated -- long before he sought the presidency -- a genuine appreciation for the importance of faith in the public square. Others will find greater potential in Senator McCain’s personal life experience as an adoptive father. Obama or McCain, Catholics must always give each other the benefit of the doubt that in reaching our conclusion, we stand upon the common ground of deepening the protection of human life.

Which ever candidate ultimately merits our approval, we should break out of the complacency of the past that seems to be inspired by thinking that we are merely one vote away from protecting life if only the right candidate “controls” the composition of the Supreme Court.

First, I think it's wrong to understand court appointments in this fashion as it indulges the pernicious notion of the rule of men rather than the rule of law. But, putting that law teacher's objection to one side, in truth, there is not a single member of the present Court willing to affirm the unalienable right to life from the moment of conception, as opposed to merely reversing a single court decision such as Roe, which, as best as I can tell, would directly save no unborn life.

Thus, we are actually nine votes away from the Catholic position, and that in itself is enough to convince me that change on the Supreme Court, after 20-some long years of working for and praying for such change, cannot be the only way in which respect for life is expressed.

So why then be filled with hope, rather than dread, as the general campaign begins in earnest? Because intelligently informed writing on this site and more widely between pro-life Republicans and pro-life Democrats is occurring at an unprecedented and civilized level.

My unfortunate experience of being denied communion by a well-meaning, but theologically mistaken, college chaplain is the exception, not the rule. The present thoughtful discussion has been inspired most directly by the American Catholic bishops and their very helpful discussion in a “Call for Faithful Citizenship,” which is recommended reading for all Catholics in the United States before they exercise the franchise.

This document building upon the teaching of Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, reminds us that our obligation as Catholics extends well beyond any single issue, even as there are some, like abortion and racism that we can never accept.

The bishops’ discussion reveals that it is possible to understand that there is often more than one way to address, and reduce the incidence of, an intrinsic moral evil without in any way endorsing that evil.

The on-going intelligent and civil discussion also allows us to grasp how no candidate who merely checks a pro-life box in a superficial way should be permitted to blind us from the balance of Catholic social teaching, including the strengthening of the family with a family wage and tax structure that is responsive to the needs of the average family; the ending of an unjust and disproportionate war; the care and stewardship of the human environment; and the structuring of society to look after the most vulnerable among us, including especially the elderly, the poor, and of course those whose voice can only be heard through ours.

May God bless our efforts and our nation, as our founders said in settling this land, “so long as we keep His covenant.”


Doug Kmiec, Chair and Professor of Constitutional Law, Pepperdine University; former Dean and St. Thomas More Professor, The Catholic University of America

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