Why this election can't be reduced to one issue
In defense of Douglas Kmiec
Significant portions of the Catholic Church in the United States appear committed to the proposition that the only acceptable political manifestation of being a Catholic entails embracing the Republican Party. Clearly this is the (at least de facto) position of many prominent prelates such as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton. It is also quite clearly the position of EWTN, which furnishes a one-hour commercial for the Republican Party every Friday night at 8 Eastern (of course, I’m referring to The World Over, hosted by Raymond Arroyo). Nor is that support confined to high-ranking church figures and leading Catholic media outlets. On the contrary, at Mass in my parish two weeks ago, a very young, newly ordained priest encouraged his listeners to vote Republican solely on the basis of the abortion issue.
In this political and religious climate, I find Doug Kmiec’s support for Sen. Barack Obama a salutary and refreshing development. I say this as someone who does not fully share Kmiec’s enthusiastic embrace of Obama or his high expectations regarding what an Obama presidency is likely to achieve. Instead I write as someone who has long been disenchanted with American politics and who fully expects that we will continue to be ill-governed no matter who wins the election. Why then do I regard Kmiec’s contribution in such a positive light? For two reasons. The first is that as a Catholic with a long history of support for the prolife cause, Kmiec’s endorsement of Obama calls into question the notion that the GOP is the only acceptable political option for Catholics. Of course one might well counter that the Democratic Party is a far from welcome home for Catholic principles as well, and I would readily agree. But that’s not really the point. At the moment, neither party is a good vehicle for the promotion of Catholic social principles. Catholics who truly understand and embrace the main ideas of the Catholic political and social tradition will find themselves politically homeless and regularly confronted with unattractive voting options. But if political homelessness is the characteristic condition of American Catholics, then the proper response of church authorities should be to acknowledge that lamentable situation rather than to offer de facto political endorsements—as they are coming perilously close to doing with the Republican Party. To the extent that Kmiec’s vocal support for Obama challenges the movement toward a Republican hegemony within U.S. Catholicism, it performs a major service.
The second reason I find Kmiec’s position helpful is that, while clearly speaking from within the prolife movement, he provides much-needed correctives to two unfortunate tendencies within that movement. The first is the propensity of many prolifers—including many church leaders—to attach so much significance to opposing abortion that they end up effectively dismissing every other issue as unimportant or of minimal importance. (Indeed, in a recent pastoral letter, Bishop Martino approvingly quoted the view of his predecessor, Bishop Timlin, that “abortion is the issue this year and every year in every campaign.”) While opposition to abortion is surely an important part of Catholic teaching, it does not begin to exhaust the riches of the Catholic social tradition. On the contrary, there are many other important matters—issues of foreign policy (including questions of war and peace), health care, whether and how we are going to meet our obligations to the poor, just to name a few—on which the Catholic social tradition has much wisdom and insight to contribute. To reduce Catholic teaching to opposing abortion, which many bishops are very close to doing, is to present a truncated version of the Catholic tradition, and Kmiec is to be commended for pointing that out.
Kmiec has also rightly noted a tendency among many in the prolife movement to ascribe excessive importance to the results of elections, including this one. This has long been my impression of the prolife movement. Having reduced everything to the issue of abortion, they tend to attach excessive (I almost wrote utopian) hopes and expectations to the outcomes of elections. In this year’s campaign, they appear to believe that everything hinges on electing John McCain, who will appoint prolife justices who will in turn overturn Roe v. Wade.
There are serious problems with that approach. To begin with, it mistakenly treats this election as though it were a referendum on abortion. It is not. Voters are not being asked to vote directly up or down on whether we support legalized abortion—as have the electorates of some other countries (Ireland and Portugal, for example). Of course, if we were faced with such a prospect then the prolife rhetoric about how important it is to vote a certain way would make a lot more sense. But we are not faced with a referendum on abortion. Instead, we are asked to choose between candidates campaigning on a wide range of issues (candidates who, once in office, may or may not carry out the policies they are proposing). This is the familiar situation that causes so many conscientious Catholic voters, myself included, to feel so conflicted.
Even if McCain wins, it’s not certain that he will be able to fulfill the hopes some fervent prolifers are investing in him. If elected, he will almost certainly confront a Senate controlled by a large Democratic majority. This will make it very difficult to shepherd an openly prolife justice through the confirmation process. He may surprise supporters by nominating people considered unsuitable by prolifers. After all, McCain has already indicated that he will not have a “litmus test” for judicial appointments. Moreover, he is known to be a rather mercurial fellow. In any event, we can never know for certain what kind of person a president will nominate to the Court. Who expected President George W. Bush to nominate Harriet Miers? Nor can we be sure how new justices will vote. Did the Republican presidents who nominated Earl Warren, William Brennan, and David Souter expect them to turn out as they did?
But let’s assume a best-case scenario. Let’s assume McCain is elected, that his nominees for the Court are confirmed by the Senate, and that they go on to prove instrumental in overturning Roe. While I would welcome such a development, let’s not be under any illusions about it. It would not mean the end of legalized abortion in America. Instead the issue would be kicked back to the states. Different states would adopt different policies. And given the remote prospect of a constitutional amendment banning abortion, there is every reason to expect that such a situation would remain for the foreseeable future.
If that analysis is correct, then a McCain presidency, even under the best circumstances (at least from a prolife standpoint), is not going to result in a final or definitive triumph over legalized abortion. Yes, it would change the nature of the struggle, but the struggle would continue, probably indefinitely. And there would still remain the need to address all the other important issues confronting us, issues to which some of us do not regard a McCain presidency as the best response.
In view of all this, we would be far better served by church authorities if, instead of granting a kind of unofficial imprimatur to a particular party (as some seem to be doing), they would recognize and accept a legitimate pluralism and diversity among faithful Catholics seeking to discharge their political responsibilities in the light of church teaching. The kind of pluralism I have in mind would range from radical perspectives such as that of the eminent Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre—who contends that the two major parties are so defective that not voting is actually preferable to voting—to support for antisystem third-party candidates like Ralph Nader, to voting for Obama (as I will) on the grounds that, on balance, his administration will do more to serve the common good than McCain’s, to voting for McCain (as many others will) on prolife or other grounds. That approach comports far better with the situation facing Catholics than anything proposed by bishops like Chaput and Martino.
Finally, let me try to avoid misunderstanding by affirming that I am prolife, and that I fully share the objective of the prolife movement to end legalized abortion. But I also believe that our national well-being will be much enhanced if the pursuit of this worthy objective is integrated within the broader context of Catholic political and social teaching rather than made the sole criterion of Catholic political orthodoxy. In seeking to promote a prolife agenda, we will do well to lower our expectations about what may be achieved by any one election (or even by a cluster of elections). Progress against abortion is likely to prove slow and incremental. But that should not surprise us, for as T. S. Eliot wrote: "The Catholic should have high ideals—or rather, I should say absolute ideals—and moderate expectations." Nor should that discourage us, for, as Eliot also wrote: "For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."
Related: A Tangled Web, by Douglas W. Kmiec
From the blog: The Via Crucis that Leads to the Voting Booth