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Abortion and the Catholic vote

Charles Rice | Tuesday, October 14, 2008

How does a Catholic voter decide? If you are uncertain, you have plenty of company. But you also have clear guidance from the Church.

In “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S. Catholic bishops affirmed in 2008, in accord with Vatican statements, a “consistent ethic of life [which] neither treats all issues as morally equivalent nor reduces Catholic teaching to one or two issues.”

Abortion, however, is a defining issue. The Church has always taught that abortion is a grave evil. “[T]he human being is to be … treated as a person from the moment of conception,” Evangelium Vitae, no. 60. The law must provide appropriate “penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child’s rights.” Instruction on Bioethics (1987).

In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, in a letter to the American bishops, said: “Not all moral issues have the same weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

In other words, there can be a just war, but there can never be a just abortion. In a postscript, Ratzinger said: “A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is … remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”

What could be such “proportionate reasons?”

Archbishop John J. Myers, of Newark, in response to the 2004 Ratzinger letter, gave a clear analysis: “[F]or a Catholic citizen to vote for a candidate who supports abortion and embryo-destructive research … either (a) both candidates would have to be in favor of embryo killing on roughly an equal scale or (b) the candidate with the superior position on abortion and embryo-destructive research would have to be a supporter of objective evils of a gravity and magnitude beyond that of the 1.3 million yearly abortions plus the killing that would take place if public funds were made available for embryo-destructive research. Frankly, it is hard to imagine circumstance (b) in a society such as ours … [P]olicies on welfare, national security, the war in Iraq, Social Security or taxes, taken singly or in any combination, do not provide a proportionate reason to vote for a pro-abortion candidate.” The Myers analysis makes sense because legalized abortion involves explicit legal authorization of the intentional killing of innocent human beings, with a toll to date of 48.5 million surgical abortions since 1973, not including the uncountable victims of the morning-after pill and other chemical abortifacients.

Senator Obama regards the question of when babies get human rights as “above my pay grade.” In the Illinois Senate, despite his disclaimers, he voted, in committee and on the floor, against the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act that would have guaranteed the rights of a person to a child born alive in a botched abortion. Obama supports Roe v. Wade. He supports federal funding of abortion and embryonic stem cell research. He co-sponsored the federal Freedom of Choice Act which would establish a “fundamental right” to abortion and would ban practically every federal or state law restricting abortion. He is a persistent and comprehensive supporter of legalization of the right of any mother to execute her unborn child.

Senator McCain has adopted a pro-life position during this campaign. He opposes Roe v. Wade, affirms that life begins “at the moment of conception,” and says he “will be a pro-life president.” His pre-campaign record is mixed, including, among other points, his leadership of the “Gang of 14” which prevented Senate confirmation of pro-life judges. McCain’s pro-life position today, however, is clearly superior to Obama’s.

Can a Catholic vote for Obama? Some Catholics, who oppose abortion, support Obama on the ground that the effort to “reverse” Roe v. Wade is futile and Obama will reduce abortions by fostering pro-life attitudes. Abortion is moving beyond the reach of the law because chemical and other abortifacients are making it a truly private matter. That cultural reality is all the more reason to form the culture by insisting that the law protect the right to life of all innocent human beings. Incidentally, the notion that an administration staffed by Obama activists would promote “pro-life” attitudes is beyond fantasy. Obama promises to set in concrete the principle that innocent human beings can be legally depersonalized and subjected to execution at the discretion of others. That is the principle, not only of Roe v. Wade but also of the 1857 Dred Scott Case, where the Supreme Court said that slaves were property rather than persons, and of the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

Opposition to the current wars cannot justify a vote for Obama. The toll from legalized abortion dwarfs the toll of military and civilian casualties in the current wars. In legalized abortion, government explicitly authorizes the intentional killing of innocent human beings. American law does not authorize intentional killing of the innocent in war. The killing of innocents can occur in war as an unintended “double effect” of justified military action. If United States forces, however, intentionally kill the innocent in war, they are subject to prosecution.

If a voter’s opposition to war cannot justify a vote for Obama, he clearly cannot justify that vote because he thinks Obama’s position is superior on economic or social issues where innocents are not subjected to death by government authority.

A strong, indeed compelling, reason to vote for McCain is to keep Obama out of the White House. But to say that a Catholic cannot vote for Obama is not to say that Church teaching requires that he must vote for McCain. That is up to the voter’s prudential judgment. If he can’t morally vote for Obama and he won’t vote for McCain, he can vote for one of the minor candidates. Or he can skip the presidential ballot. A refusal to vote for President when you have voted on the other offices is still a vote, for “none of the above.”

Space limits require that we defer further discussion of this issue. For now, suffice it to say that a Catholic who supports Obama, despite his record, ought at least to refrain from claiming that his position is consistent with the teaching of the Church.

Dr. Charles E. Rice is professor emeritus at the Law School. He may be reached at 574-633-4415 or rice.1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.