Catholics Go for Obama,” read a headline for an item at washingtonpost.com after the presidential election in November. According to exit polls, 54 percent of Catholics voted for Barack Obama.
The author of the item, Jesuit Thomas Reese, noted that “pro-life” Catholics, such as law professor Doug Kmiec, had helped Obama win, adding: “Will the abortion debate rise up again in four years at the next presidential election? A lot depends on President Obama and the Democratic Congress. If they push through the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), then they will have betrayed their pro-life Catholic supporters.”
The naiveté here, if it is that, is grimly comic. After all, Barack Obama campaigned on the promise of signing that very act. “The first thing I’d do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act,” he told the Planned Parenthood Action Fund in 2007.
Kmiec’s “pro-life” case for Obama was a tortured exercise in casuistry, operating on the false premise, amongothers, that the Church’s stance against abortion represents not a truth but just a respectable religious opinion.
Consider what he wrote in the Los Angeles Times before the election: “Sometimes the law must simply leave space for the exercise of individual judgment, because our religious or scientific differences of opinion are for the moment too profound to be bridged collectively. When these differences are great and persistent, as they unfortunately have been on abortion, the common political ideal might consist only of that space.”
Differences of opinion. Doctrinal confusion, if not outright relativism, lurked beneath the “pro-life” case for Obama, explaining the ease with which his Catholic supporters stretched that phrase well past its breaking point.
Father Andrew Greeley, writing a piece in the Chicago Sun-Times titled “Why so many pro-life Catholics backed Obama,” wrote that it “might have been that while the candidate did not reject abortion, he supported most of the other Catholic positions on life, i.e., he condemned unjust wars, the death penalty, torture, kidnapping, cruelty to immigrants that his opponents implicitly support.”
Obama, early in the race, had shrewdly sized up the opportunity to exploit this Seamless Garment-style sophistry that lingers in the Church in America. He quickly formed Catholic groups, some counting nuns and priests among their members, to support his candidacy.
According to Father Reese, Obama even enjoyed the benefi ts of a divided and hesitant episcopate: “Some media outlets estimated the number of vocal anti-Obama bishops at 50 or more. I do not trust these numbers. Some of the bishops included in the tally only spoke out against Nancy Pelosi when she gave an interpretation of Catholic teaching, with which they disagreed. Others simply repeated what Faithful Citizenship said, that abortion ‘is not just one issue among many.’ The document also said, ‘As Catholics we are not single-issue voters.’”
That latter statement was particularly useful to Obama’s cause. He benefi ted both from the false perception that he disagreed with the Church on just a “single issue” and from the intramural squabble among lay Catholics and bishops over whether one could fi nd a “proportionate reason” to offset that “single issue.”
The truth is that Obama disagrees with the Church not on a single moral issue but on every moral issue it regards as “non-negotiable,” from euthanasia to gay civil unions. That’s why Planned Parenthood and gay-rights groups honored him with 100 percent voting ratings.
But even if one were to accept for the sake of argument his Catholic supporters’ “single issue” straw man, this has to be said: the single issue of supporting abortion still carries within it a disqualifyingly dangerous philosophy of the common good, which makes the eager search for a “proportionate reason” to overlook it appear at best idle and at worst reckless.
Change the “single issue” from abortion to racism or torture and the Doug Kmiecs would blanch. Could one imagine them trivializing support for water boarding as an isolated and excusable lapse from an otherwise impeccable record in service to the public good?
Their discussion about what constitutes a “proportionate reason” was hopelessly tangled. They assumed that a pro-abortion politician can remain a trustworthy defender of the common good while sanctioning the most fundamental assault upon it. But no politician can be at once a credible servant of the public and an advocate for its weakest members’ demise. No politician can authentically serve political society while weakening its fi rst one, the family.
“New to this election were non-partisan groups, such as Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, pushing the full agenda of Catholic social teaching. They were able to counter groups that presented a narrower list of nonnegotiables,” writes Father Reese.
But what do such groups mean by the “common good”? What do they mean by the “full agenda of Catholic social teaching”? Not what the Church means by them. The Church teaches that the common good and the natural moral law are inseparable. Disconnecting the two out of enthusiasm for an appealing politician is not “pro-life” but delusional.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!