Yes You Can: Why Catholics Don't Have to Vote Republican

Article excerpt

Republicans often use overheated and oversimplified rhetoric regarding the affinity between Catholic teaching and their platform. As a result, many people mistakenly assume that a Catholic must vote Republican. David Carlin, former Democratic Rhode Island senator, seems to have fallen prey to this fallacy ("Two Cheers for John McCain," Commonweal, May 9).

Like many other well-meaning Catholics, Carlin argues that "there is no logical way to vote for the presidential candidate of a party committed to the preservation and extension of abortion rights." He maligns "Catholic in name only" types who resort to intellectual chicanery to justify voting for candidates who support "the slaughter of innocents." In this context, it is interesting to ponder why so many distinguished Catholic public servants, activists, and theologians have endorsed Barack Obama, a Democrat, for the presidency.

As an institution, the Roman Catholic Church does not tell believers for whom or against whom they must vote, despite what some politicians, pundits, and pastors suggest. Rather, as the U.S. bishops write in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (2007), "the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience." Certainly Catholics must seriously consider any candidate's stance on "intrinsic evils" such as abortion, racism, and torture. Catholics may not vote for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil "if the voter's intent is to support that position." Yet Catholics may choose a candidate who does not unequivocally condemn an intrinsic evil for other "truly grave moral reasons." Catholics ought to choose the candidate who is least likely to promote intrinsic evils and the most likely to promote "other authentic human goods." So the question becomes: Are there "grave moral reasons" that permit Catholics to vote for Obama, or any other candidate, despite his or her prochoice stance, or would such a vote be "intellectually careless or downright disingenuous," as Carlin asserts?

In the U.S. political context, where no candidate perfectly mirrors Catholic teaching on issues such as abortion, war, stem-cell research, poverty, discrimination, gay marriage, and immigration, voting should be a difficult matter of conscience for Catholics. Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship argues that these issues "are not optional concerns which can be dismissed." While John McCain's voting record on antiabortion legislation may be more consistent than Obama's with Catholic teaching, he supports federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research--an intrinsic evil that Catholic teaching unambiguously condemns. He supported and promises to continue a war that the members of the Roman curia and the U.S. bishops deemed unjust. The bishops have called for a "responsible transition in Iraq sooner rather than later." They caution against a hasty withdrawal that would abandon U.S. legal and moral responsibilities to the people of Iraq. Yet they see continuing military operations there as a catalyst for the insurgency and unlikely to promote sustainable peace. The bishops also urge nonmilitary actions, such as diplomatic engagement with Syria, Iran, and other nations in the region that "address the underlying factors of conflict." Is this the kind of "soft patriotism" tinged with "pacifism and cosmopolitanism" that Carlin rejects in the positions of Obama and other Democrats?

To return to the main question, what issues might weigh so heavily on the consciences of Catholics that they choose to endorse Obama? The obvious place to start is precisely the so-called war on terror and foreign policy more broadly. As is well known, Obama consistently opposed the war in Iraq and supports a timely and responsible withdrawal. In a speech in September 2007, he outlined his proposals to bring the war to an end. They include: talks with Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia; eschewing war with Iran; continued training of Iraqi forces; increasing aid for Iraqi refugees from $183 million to $2 billion; welcoming Iraqi refugees to the United States; a UN Iraqi war-crimes commission; and building schools throughout Iraq. …