Not all life issues weighed equally
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the conclusion of a two-part series on Catholic voting in the upcoming presidential election. The first part appeared in the Courier's September edition.
A July 2, 2008, Time magazine article described Douglas Kmiec, an ex-Reagan Justice Department lawyer, as a Republican who attends daily Mass and actively opposes abortion. Yet in the upcoming presidential election, Kmiec is backing Barack Obama -- a Democrat with a pro-choice agenda -- because he feels that Obama's Republican opponent, the firmly anti-abortion John McCain, can't deal as capably with the Iraq war, the economy and immigration reform.
Time writer Amy Sullivan goes on to describe "Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility" as "an unusual document" from the U.S. bishops because it states that "all life issues are connected." It also details an ideological scope beyond abortion that has "cleared the way for Catholics like Douglas Kmiec to re-evaluate what it means to cast a pro-life vote."
Yet according to Jann Armantrout, diocesan life-issues coordinator, there's nothing "unusual" about the document at all. She also noted there's a big difference between all life issues being connected and all being equal. In separating abortion from the pack, she maintained that there is a potential of a political candidate's stance on that issue defining much of his or her approach to all social concerns covered by the consistent life ethic.
"How you treat the unborn will be reflected in how we treat other vulnerable populations in the nation," Armantrout said, noting that "over a million individuals' lives are taken every year in this country by abortion. I don’t know how you ignore that. I don’t know how you don’t see that as a priority."
The consistent life ethic states that Catholics are to affirm life from conception until natural death by renouncing abortion as well as capital punishment, unjust war, euthanasia, violence and economic injustice.
Yet the Time article failed to note that the U.S. bishops, in their guide "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," distinguish abortion and euthanasia as "intrinsically evil" acts that "must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned" (no. 22).
Indeed, Armantrout charged that Time's take on the document is typical of mainstream media's treatment of abortion as simply one issue among many, with pros and cons weighed proportionately.
"Somehow we’ve gotten the idea that there are always two sides to every story, and that we have to give equal credence to both sides," she said. "It has been repeatedly clarified through the centuries that abortion is absolutely opposed by the church. And that’s just the way it is."
Along with abortion and euthanasia, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" defines human cloning and destructive research on human embryos as intrinsic evils, and says "other direct assaults on innocent human life and violations of human dignity, such as genocide, torture, racism, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified" (no. 23). It further states that "... the direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many" (no. 28).
Such strong statements seemingly would give Catholics clear direction on how to vote. But what if both candidates favor one or more intrinsic evils? In such cases, the bishops say Catholics should vote for no one at all "or, after careful deliberation, (they) may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods" (no. 36). They add that choosing the lesser of two evils is only permissible "for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil" (no. 35).
On the other hand, the bishops stressed that voters cannot use these evils to justify dismissing or ignoring other priorities related to the consistent life ethic which, "rightly understood, neither treats all issues as morally equivalent nor reduces Catholic teaching to one or two issues" (no. 40).
"Racism and other unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, or an unjust immigration policy are all serious moral issues that challenge us and require us to act," the bishops' document states (no. 29).
Weighing all priorities
Marvin Mich, director of social policy and research for Rochester's Catholic Family Center, agreed that "we are not single-issue voters" but also emphasized that the consistent life ethic "is not saying that all life issues are the same." Whether all Catholic voters can -- and are willing to -- make such fine distinctions is uncertain.
For starters, Mich contended that "a lot of people have only a vague understanding" of the consistent life ethic. Beyond that, it's hard to fault Catholic voters such as Kmiec for being concerned about vital issues that may not fall under the heading of intrinsic evils. Mich observed that voters face a dilemma when, for instance, high poverty rates under an anti-abortion president might actually cause more women to seek abortions.
The Catholic vote may play a significant role in determining who emerges as our next chief executive. The July 2 Time article noted that there are 47 million Catholic voters, and eight of the last nine presidential-election winners have captured a majority of Catholic votes. The only exception was Al Gore in 2000, who narrowly lost to George W. Bush.
The Time piece added that Catholic pro-lifers, including bishops, may have gone a long way toward determining the 2004 presidential election by strongly denouncing the support for abortion rights of John Kerry, a Catholic. But Sullivan's story went on to state that it won't be as easy for Catholics who oppose abortion to pull the lever for McCain, based on a Republican regime under Bush that has yielded a precarious economy, high gas prices and a war now in its sixth year.
Armantrout added that electing a president who claims to denounce abortion doesn't automatically make that and other major problems go away, as evidenced by the current administration.
"We still have abortion on demand. We still have the war," Armantrout said, also citing an unfair distribution of wealth and health-care woes affecting our country: "Nobody wins right now."
Is it possible for a presidential candidate to emerge who espouses consistent life ethic priorities across the board? Not this year, Armantrout conceded. She suggested that voters weigh their consciences to the best of their abilities for the upcoming election -- and that in the future, they demand their political parties and candidates to be less concerned about political correctness and more concerned about taking all life issues into account.
"We can't be ashamed to be a pro-life church," she said.