Can Catholics Support Obama?
Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver has published an essay that addresses the question: can a Roman Catholic support a pro-choice candidate such as Barak Obama. The essay is in First things, but he also relies on some previous remarks he made:
In the years after the Carter loss, I began to notice that very few of the people, including Catholics, who claimed to be “personally opposed” to abortion really did anything about it. Nor did they intend to. For most, their personal opposition was little more than pious hand-wringing and a convenient excuse—exactly as it is today. In fact, I can’t name any pro-choice Catholic politician who has been active, in a sustained public way, in trying to discourage abortion and to protect unborn human life—not one. Some talk about it, and some may mean well, but there’s very little action. In the United States in 2008, abortion is an acceptable form of homicide. And it will remain that way until Catholics force their political parties and elected officials to act differently.
Why do I mention this now? Earlier this spring, a group called “Roman Catholics for Obama ’08” quoted my own published words in the following way:So can a Catholic in good conscience vote for a pro-choice candidate? The answer is: I can’t, and I won’t. But I do know some serious Catholics— people whom I admire—who may. I think their reasoning is mistaken, but at least they sincerely struggle with the abortion issue, and it causes them real pain. And most important: They don’t keep quiet about it; they don’t give up; they keep lobbying their party and their representatives to change their pro-abortion views and protect the unborn. Catholics can vote for pro-choice candidates if they vote for them despite—not because of—their pro-choice views.
What’s interesting about this quotation—which is accurate but incomplete—is the wording that was left out. The very next sentences in the article of mine they selected, which Roman Catholics for Obama neglected to quote, run as follows:But [Catholics who support pro-choice candidates] also need a compelling proportionate reason to justify it. What is a “proportionate” reason when it comes to the abortion issue? It’s the kind of reason we will be able to explain, with a clean heart, to the victims of abortion when we meet them face to face in the next life—which we most certainly will. If we’re confident that these victims will accept our motives as something more than an alibi, then we can proceed.
. . .
Changing the views of “pro-choice” candidates takes a lot more than verbal gymnastics, good alibis, and pious talk about “personal opposition” to killing unborn children. I’m sure Roman Catholics for Obama know that, and I wish them good luck. They’ll need it.
Read it all here.
I think the Archbishop's challenge must be taken seriously, but have the following observations. First, I challenge anyone to defend the proposition that the position of the President has made any measurable difference in the number of abortions in the United States. As the chart above shows, there is little relationship between the position of the President and the rate of decline in abortions. While pro-life advocates focus on the selection of Supreme Court Justices, there have been far more appointments to the Court by pro-life Presidents than by pro-choice Presidents, and Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land. And the issues that remain in the hands of the federal executive are largely symbolic, and affect very few (if any) abortions. The sad fact is that the abortion issue is largely used by both sides to win elections with little to show for the energy this issue gets during elections. (There is a very good analysis of this very history at the Catholic (and Pro-Life) group blog Vox Nova.)
Second, it is not as if there are not other quite profound moral issues, including issues on which there is clear Catholic teaching, that are profoundly affected by the election of the President. The decision of the present Administration to endorse torture is perhaps the clearest example.
Still, I think that the Archbishop's posited conversation in the afterlife is an important one. But I think that it is one that political leaders on both sides of this issue need to answer: sadly the current political system is so busy fighting each other on largely symbolic issues, and neither side has done a good job of being serious about reducing the number of abortions.
So I think that the challenge to candidates on both sides of the abortion issue is this: given the reality of Roe v. Wade, what concrete steps can we take to reduce the number of abortions? There are actually some groups taking this question quite seriously. The Democrats for Life have a proposal that aims to reduce the number of abortions by 95% in ten years. Some of the proposals are opposed by pro-choice groups, but many are not. Pro-choice Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro and Pro-Life Congressman Tim Ryan are leading a coalition of members on both sides of the issue to sponsor the “Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act,” a summary of which can be found here.
So what do I think? I think a serious pro life Catholic can have more than lip service to say about why they are supporting a pro choice candidate for President, but it is long overdue for politicians in both parties to focus on abortion as a problem to be solved rather than political football.