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Bush, Kerry, Catholics and children

Kristin Shrader-Frechette | Thursday, September 30, 2004

“You Catholics are the Marine Corps of religion.”

Sweating and red-faced in the Congo heat, I looked up. The Kinshasa pastor had just heard I was Roman Catholic.

“Our Kimbanguist Church is the Army. But you people are the Marine Corps. You put your bodies on the line. Against abortion, racism, war, killing criminals. For children, workers, the poor, the oppressed.”

These are not “Catholic issues.” But, taken together, my African friend realized their difficulty. Especially now for Catholic voters.

Network, the national Catholic social-justice lobby, says neither Bush nor Kerry always takes stands consistent with Catholic doctrine. Analyzing positions and votes, Network says Kerry does so 80 percent of the time. Bush, 20 percent of the time.

Should one follow the numbers and vote for Kerry? Or support Bush because of abortion?

On one hand, several bishops identify law with personal morality. Disturbed by 1.3 million U.S. abortions each year, they want Communion denied to Catholic politicians, like Kerry, who are personally anti-abortion but say democratic pluralism requires their defending pro-choice.

On the other hand, in their 2003 guidance, “Faithful Citizenship,” U.S. bishops as a group emphasized seven themes: safeguarding families, social justice and global solidarity and protecting against abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty and preemptive military force. They did not endorse Communion denial.

They could not. Catholic doctrine requires the primacy of conscience. It requires informing one’s conscience but prohibits ever violating it.

Besides, in Catholic natural-law ethics, the only absolutely certain moral norm is “do good and avoid evil.” As one defines “good” and “evil” more precisely, in specific actions or situations, certainty diminishes. Right reasoning, not merely rule-following, dominates Catholic morality. Thus, as Catholic theologian/philosopher Thomas Aquinas warned, not everything immoral can or should be made illegal. “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,” said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Head of the Congregation for the Faith, that vote “can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”

Some voters’ proportionate reasons might focus on protecting children. 62 million U.S. children are under age 15. The U.S. EPA says 30 percent of them, 18 million, must breathe air that violates public-health standards. And U.S. air pollution annually causes at least 30,000 premature deaths. One million U.S. children, mostly minorities, live within a mile of a Superfund site. One in 12 childbearing-age women has blood levels of mercury high enough to cause developmental/neurological problems in her children.

President Bush says voluntary emissions controls are the most cost-effective ways to reduce such pollution. He wants market trading of “pollution rights” and weaker standards that could triple mercury releases. He says U.S. economic welfare requires relaxing the Clean Air Act. Already Bush has reduced Superfund cleanups by 50 percent, shifted Superfund-remediation costs from polluters to taxpayers and cut millions of dollars from health/safety enforcement.

Kerry rejects relaxed mercury standards. When developmental/neurological toxins, like mercury, threaten children, Kerry rejects buying “pollution rights.” He says protecting children is mandatory, not voluntary, and promises full enforcement of health laws. Instead of taxpayers, he says polluters usually should clean up their own messes.

Abt Associates, Bush’s chosen environmental-audit firm, says Kerry’s air-pollution plan costs polluters more, but taxpayers less, than Bush’s plan. Compared to Bush’s plan, Abt says Kerry’s would annually provide $34 billion more net and prevent tens of thousands more deaths.

Medical care could prevent some deaths. But 9 million U.S. children are uninsured. Many lost insurance when their parents lost their jobs. Over the last four.years, 3 million U.S. private-sector jobs disappeared; long-term unemployment increased 177 percent; workers’ health care costs increased 50 percent; median household income decreased 3.5 percent. The result? Nine million children are “canaries in the coal mines” of poverty and unemployment.

Both candidates promise help for the 45 million uninsured Americans. Comparing their plans, the (conservative/Republican) American Enterprise Institute says Bush would cover 2.5 million uninsured people and Kerry, 26.7 million.

Although the numbers of hungry and uninsured U.S. children rose by millions over the last four years, Network says the President has cut children’s health/nutrition programs by millions of dollars both for the United States and for programs abroad. At least 1 million children die each year, just in developing nations, because of malnutrition.

Bush says cuts are necessary to curb the deficit. But he gave one-third of his tax cuts, $175 billion, to America’s wealthiest one percent. Why are millions of dollars from children’s health/nutrition programs, like Head Start and WIC, necessary to curb the deficit, while billions of dollars, for rich people, are not?

1.3 million U.S. abortions are a tragedy. But so are the slow deaths of 18 million U.S. children. And the 1 million deaths of children in developing nations.

Professor Kristin Shrader-Frechette teaches in the department of philosophy and the department of biological sciences at Notre Dame. Her column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at 1-2647 or through www.nd.edu/~kshrader.

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