Magazine article Commonweal

A Guide for Catholic Voters: Abortion Is Not the Only Issue

Magazine article Commonweal

A Guide for Catholic Voters: Abortion Is Not the Only Issue

Article excerpt

The 2004 presidential election saw a handful of U.S. Catholic bishops involve themselves in partisan politics in an extraordinary way. They admonished Catholic candidates publicly for their views and in some cases advocated refusing Communion to prochoice politicians and those who voted for them. Now, two years later--and weeks before a midterm election--the question of how Catholics should approach the challenge of voting remains a contentious one.

Republican partisans within the church have typically zeroed in on four controversial issues: gay marriage, euthanasia, stem-cell research, and abortion. Of these four, abortion provides the most fuel for political advocacy and action. On gay marriage, the parties don't differ all that much; the Democratic Party's most recent platform, for example, stops well short of endorsing homosexual nuptials. On stem-cell research, Republicans generally oppose federal funding while Democrats typically support it, but there are dissenters in both parties, neither of which has called for its outright prohibition. Finally, physician-assisted suicide has been legalized in only one state and is more of a cultural bogeyman than a live political issue. That leaves abortion to do the heavy lifting for Republican activists who are trying to capture the Catholic vote.

On that score, the logic of Republican Party apologists is as follows. The issues where traditionally Democratic policy positions have tended to reflect church teaching--economic justice, the death penalty, war, environmental protection, and others--are issues for which the church's positions are flexible, making policy disagreements permissible even among those who accept Catholic principles. The intrinsic immorality of abortion, on the other hand, allows for no dissent, and a vote for a prochoice candidate is therefore a vote for someone whose views are unquestionably opposed to what is right and good. The handful of bishops who explicitly went after prochoice politicians based their actions almost entirely on the legal status of abortion--an issue so important, they suggested, that voting for a candidate who supported legalized abortion was unacceptable, irrespective of that candidate's conformity with Catholic teaching on other issues. As Princeton political philosopher Robert George and Notre Dame law professor Gerald Bradley suggested in an opinion piece published by National Review Online before the 2004 election: To vote for a prochoice candidate is to cooperate in evil of an unspeakable magnitude--the intentional killing of over a million human beings a year. Faithful Catholics, they implied, must vote Republican.

This argument actually combines two very different points. First, it asserts that Catholic teachings on abortion are unambiguous in a way that is not true of the church's teaching on issues such as just war or our collective responsibilities to the poor. Yet certain aspects of the church's just-war doctrine as well as what we are taught about the evil of poverty are in fact just as unambiguous as the condemnation of abortion. Taken at face value, the George/Bradley argument would render irrelevant the entire breadth of the church's social teaching. In fact, the argument goes much further than George and Bradley even recognize. After all, if abortion is the moral equivalent of mass murder, Republican and Democrat alike should be condemned for failing to endorse radical action to stop women from having abortions. The intentional slaughter of millions of children would justify almost any form of resistance, arguably including violence.

Indeed, if legal access to abortion were truly the unquestionable, all-consuming moral emergency that rendered all other considerations trivial, George W. Bush's failure to take extraordinary steps during his six years in office to put an immediate end to the slaughter makes him nearly as culpable as prochoice politicians. If mass murder is going on every day in this country, shouldn't President Bush halt all other government business in order to force through a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion? …

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