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.


janinsanfran said…
The Roman Catholic Church has a fundamental problem on this issue: it treats women as not fully human or fully adult. When it does, it gets to talk about abortion. In the mean time, women will struggle with these extremely difficult moral choices by default tuning out the RC hierarchy.
Chuck Blanchard said…

The various proposals that I mention in my post focus on two main sets of proposals. First, pregnancy prevention, including access to birth control. Second, they focus on financial and emotional support of women and their children both before and after birth. (There are also some adoption incentives, but those are not at the heart of either proposal.

The challenge, of course, is that th eprovision of birth control is itself a non-starter for the Roman Catholic Church.
seamus said…
I think the bishop should look into his and the church's failure on the issue and pose himself a similar question; Why despite the opposition to abortion the church has made little headway in affecting its prevalence?
The legislation it seeks to impose without a clear consensus shows not only its failure to persuade but a fundamental distrust of the pluralistic society. The objection most American Catholics feel is not about the morality of abortion perse but to what extent the government should intervene. The U.S. bishops have stated in two recent pastoral letters that although their public policy proposals deserve the serious consideration of the Catholic faithful in forming their consciences, they do not bind Catholics in conscience. In light of this, the bishops should emphasize that Catholic public officials are free to arrive at prudential judgments of public policy that do not agree with theirs. Moreover, it should be made clear that a "tactical disagreement" between the bishops and Catholic public officials on matters of political strategies does not necessarily indicate any ecclesial disloyalty to, or disrespect for, the magisterium of the bishops on the part of the Catholic politician. However, the bishops do have the right and duty as moral teachers to judge the moral adequacy of a particular political option of a Catholic public official. Such criticism is an exercise of the moral magisterial role of the bishops.

Simply put, its not as simple as it seems. To apply the coercive power of the state where there is in this country no consensus for the absolute prohibition of abortion may simply make the law unenforceable with the resultant back alley abortions of the past and this is clearly not the intent of the church or a civil society. Realistically then wheter or not you have state permitted or state prohibted abortion law, there will be abortions. The issue then is not one of the application of the higher moral principle but when to use the cooercive power of the state. As the absolute elimination of abortions is not possible, then reduction is an admirable. practical and realistic goal. People of good will and religious faith on this can and will differ on the use of state power. I feel in this country grounded on personal liberty, the use of power of the state will be constrained on this issue as it crosses into the choice of the woman for better or worse.

The onus is even more on the bishop to advance those societal conditions which favor the continuance and enhancement of life rather then engage in inflammatory rhetoric or seek to enact laws that will lead only to a tragic choices.
Chuck Blanchard said…

You and I think alike. Check out some of my earlier posts on abortion.

Again, thanks for your comment!

seamus said…
Will do Chuck, I sent you an email regarding an earlier post that I addressed in a letter to the CCB, thought you might enjoy the letter. let me know if you got it.
Katherine said…
As a Catholic for Obama, I appreciate the bishop's reflection. I note to items he offers. For those Catholics voting for candidates despite their vies on abortion he says "I think their reasoning is mistaken." I am glad that the Archbishop, even while disagreeing, puts this question in the field of human reasoning, rather than morals or doctrine. He sees a shortcoming in my human reasoning; I may see a shortcoming in his. That does not break the bonds of Christian unity and charity between us.

Second, he notes that we are accountable for our actions in the next life. He leaves the judgment there and not with any prelate or other person in this world.

I suspect the Archbishop and I have disagreements. But i think we can keep our differences polite. Unlike my interaction with some others.
Chuck Blanchard said…

I was also struck by the civil and reasonaing nature of his approach to the issue--especially given the Archbishops reputation. And, as I note in my post, I think he asks tough but fair questions of those who profess to be pro life when they support a po-choice politician.
Gene said…
If you feel good about voting for Obama, then you will want to watch this video:

Katherine said…

I didn't get beyond the opening quote from our first divorced President. Is divorce the theme of the video? Does it have something to do about McCain's adulterous affair with Cindy and then dumping his wife to marry her?

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