Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Seven Key Themes of Catholic Social Teaching: Option for the Poor and Vulnerable

This post is the fourth in a continuing examination of both presidential candidates based on the seven basic Catholic themes of social teaching. If you're new here, be sure to read the earlier posts in this series to see where I'm coming from:
Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
While the common good embraces all, those who are in greatest need deserve preferential concern.

To me, this topic covers the following areas: education, civil rights, disabilities, poverty, abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, preventing domestic violence, and protecting children.

Education may seem like a stretch to be included since it's technically not "protecting" but "preparing" our kids, but even though it does not involve protecting them from immediate harm, I think in a long-term view it very much protects them by helping them live up to their potential (or, in other words, it protects them from becoming losers). I should also note that I'm not a big fan of the "protect the children" cry. Not because I'm a heathen -- I am a parent, after all -- but because there's so much political smoke blown at us for "the children" that I think much of it is a waste of time and effort. But I'll see what these guys have to say about that topic since children are vulnerable, after all.


On education, McCain continually uses the word "choice" in discussing parents options. He never says "vouchers," which he was big on in 2000, but I'm left wondering if that's what he means this time around, too. Or does he just mean parents get to choose among public schools in their local system? Aside from choice, his plans for early childhood include better coordinating early education programs and creating Head Start "Centers of Excellence" that will expand their reach by serving more children and sharing their techniques with other schools.

For primary schools, McCain's plans talk about moving beyond No Child Left Behind and supporting better teacher training and retention, providing tutoring programs to under performing schools, expanding online programs, and "giving parents greater choice," whatever he means by that.

Higher education is more sparse, but he talks about simplifying financial aid and tax benefits, improving lending programs, and eliminating earmarks that pull funding away from university R&D. (Way to tie your pet project in with other programs!)

Personally, I'm intrigued by his early learning ideas, need more info about his primary school plans, and am less than impressed with his higher education ideas.

There are no pages on McCain's site dealing with civil rights, disabilities, poverty, euthanasia, or domestic violence, but he does have a section called "Human Dignity & Life" that covers abortion, stem cell research, and protecting children. (With all the publicity about Governor Palin's child with Down's Syndrome, I find it interesting that there's nothing on the McCain website about their plans for disabled or special needs children.)

Many Catholics will flock to McCain because of his goal of overturning Roe v. Wade. He wants "constitutional balance" restored (an important-sounding phrase that, drawing from my Constitutional Law classes from college, I think really doesn't mean squat in this case) by returning the abortion decision to the states. Then he wants faith-based, community, and neighborhood organizations (does he mean community organizers?) to help end abortion at the state level. Promoting adoption becomes the next step for dealing with crisis pregnancies.

My fear is that he wants to clear Roe v. Wade off the books, let the states outlaw abortion on their own, and then leave it to the pro-life organizations to take care of the rest. Unfortunately those pro-life organizations have a mixed record for caring for pregnant women and perhaps a worse record for helping new mothers. At the least I'd like to see a promise of federal help; I'm sure many of these organizations can't do more simply because of limited resources (even my local archdiocese has greatly reduced funding to it's center for pregnancy and adoption services in recent years).

Moving on the stem cell research, McCain probably loses some Catholics based on his support of stem cell research, although his plan opposes creating embryos for research, calls for bans on "fetal farming" or using any human cells created for such use, and supports funding for research that doesn't involve human embryos. Probably not enough to pull in die-hards, but he seems to be trying to walk a fine line between not offending pro-lifers but not being as restrictive with research as the Bush administration has.

Finally, we discussed his plan to protect the children from online porn and predators in an earlier post. To quote that earlier post:
He talks about filters on public computers and a national registry for people convicted of sex crimes against children. I'm not a fan of internet filters, but if a national registry could be handled better than the TSA "no fly list," it's not a bad idea.

The Obama education plans starts with his "Zero to Five Plan," supporting parents and infants with early education programs to prepare kids for kindergarten and helping states move to voluntary, universal pre-school. He also proposes increasing Head Start funding and, in a practical departure from education-only plans, help in providing child care to working families.

There's a good bit of detail on primary schools to improving on No Child Left Behind (he, like McCain, believes that teaching to a test and comparing kids to national averages isn't the best way to go), expanding funding for charter schools, prioritizing math and science education, providing intervention strategies for addressing dropouts, and expanding after school programs to help working families. He throws in a good bit about recruiting, training, and rewarding teachers as well.

On the surface his higher ed plan and McCain's plan look fairly similar in their goals to make the financial aid process simpler, although Obama ups the stakes by adding a plan for a universal and refundable tax credit of $4000 to be used for college in exchange for 100 hours of community service.

As I mentioned, McCain has no sections on civil rights, disabilities, or poverty, while Obama has extensive plans for all three areas. Obama, like McCain, doesn't seem to mention euthanasia on his site.

Not to sell his Civil Rights section short (it's fairly extensive if you read the PDF), but rather than re-analyze the plan I'll simply quote an earlier post:
It discusses enforcement of civil rights laws, employment discrimination (minorities and women), expanding hate crime statuses, deceptive voting, racial profiling, reducing crime recidivism, and more.
Obama also has a good bit of information on helping Americans with disabilities by expanding laws that protect their rights, loosening the restrictions placed on the term "disabled" that the courts have used to water down the Americans with Disabilities Act, and helping increase the employment rate for workers with disabilities. (This all seems to make sense with the sheer number of disabled soldiers returning from Iraq.) There's more detail in a PDF, and there's a separate PDF dealing specifically with his plan for Autism Spectrum Disorders.

His plans to combat poverty are extensive, including programs to raise the minimum wage and tie it to inflation, create a "green jobs corp" for disadvantaged youth, promote responsible fatherhood, fund programs to create affordable housing, establish "promise neighborhoods" to expand social services in disadvantaged areas, and expand the earned income tax credit for low-income families.

Going against the Church's position, Obama supports Roe v. Wade and would oppose measures to overturn it. He has been consistent in his support for the right to choose, however his positions have been embellished and outright misrepresented by opponents. His efforts to reduce abortion are really based on his support for preventing unintended pregnancies through "comprehensive sex education that teaches both abstinence and safe sex methods."

On stem cell research, Obama co-sponsored a bill to allow research on human embryonic stems cells derived from donated embryos. The embryos cannot have been created for the purpose of research, but must have been created for fertility treatment. Currently many of these embryos are kept frozen and then destroyed after a certain amount of time has passed, so in a sense this idea means not creating life only to waste it. However, this does not sit well with the Catholic Church, which does not agree with using human embryonic stem cells in any way. (It goes without saying that the Church does not approve of the fertility treatments that lead to the creation of these "extra" embryos in the first place, although I don't know what it thinks we should do about the existing frozen embryos.)

Obama's plans for protecting children are wide-ranging, including providing healthcare for every child, protecting children from lead poisoning, expanding paid sick days, reducing domestic violence, preventing child abuse and neglect, and registering sex offenders with a national database. I don't see any "protect the children" scare tactics like internet filters that block legitimate websites at libraries (how many kids surf porn on public computers, anyway?) or laws against online predators that duplicate state and national laws already on the books.

Obama also supports expanded funding for domestic violence prevention programs, he co-sponsored the Violence Against Women Act, and has been active in humanitarian efforts to protect victims of gender violence in Darfur.

To recap, this area covers a number of topics:
  • education
  • civil rights
  • disabilities
  • poverty
  • abortion
  • stem cell research
  • euthanasia
  • preventing domestic violence
  • protecting children
Trying to read this through the Church's eyes, I think Obama would come out ahead on civil rights, disabilities, poverty, preventing domestic violence, and protecting children. His plans in all of those areas are extensive, and McCain doesn't even touch on them, except for two ideas in the protecting children category (one of which, the national database for sex offenders, is shared by both candidates).

McCain would come out favorably on the issues of abortion and possibly stem cell research -- although since McCain still does support stem cell research, the Church may think he's still on the wrong side of the line. The candidates would probably both earn approval for their education plans, even though they go about things differently (personally I'd give the nod to Obama, but the church might like it if McCain is indeed referring to vouchers). It's impossible to tell from their websites where they stand on euthanasia, but I can at least note that the Republican platform is against euthanasia while Democrats feel it is an individual decision. Still, there's not enough info for me to rate either candidate on this one.

Abortion is the hot-button topic that will get people going, and I'll have more on that in a later post (while it is strongly implied here, it crops up again two more times in coming themes). The church will argue that it deserves extra weight in these discussions, so I'll take that into account.

To that end, as I've stated, excepting abortion and stem cell research, Obama's plans seem to fall more in line with Catholic social teaching. I've identified nine issues, and I feel Obama is more in line with the Church on five of them. Both candidates would rate favorably on one of the issues, McCain would get the nod on two issues, and I don't have enough information to rate one issue.

I'm willing to give extra to McCain for his stances on abortion and stem cell research, but the fact that he doesn't even mention civil rights, disabilities, poverty, or domestic violence (I could not a single word about any of them on his website) brings him back down in my book. I know many people will disagree and place the protection of life above all else, but I can't let a single issue, no matter how important, push everything else aside. If Roe v. Wade is overturned but nothing is done about the conditions many of those children are born into, we haven't fully "won" anything.

Obama: 4
McCain: 0

Next up: Rights and Responsibilities


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