Friday, October 31, 2008

Seven Key Themes of Catholic Social Teaching: Call to Family, Community, and Participation

This post is the sixth 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:
Call to Family, Community, and Participation
The family, based on marriage between a man and a woman, is the fundamental unit of society... Supporting families should be a priority for economic and social policies.

I'm dealing with these seven themes in reverse order of how they are generally presented in Church literature. That means that this sixth topic is the second most important theme of Catholic social teaching, which frankly I find incredible. Is defining marriage as between a man and a woman really more important than eliminating poverty, stopping unjust wars, or caring for the poor? Even the last post, Rights and Responsibilities, talks about food and shelter, education and employment, healthcare and housing. You're telling me that heterosexual marriage is more important than that?

Don't get me wrong. Families are important to society -- any society. But is defining what a family looks like more important than feeding and protecting that family? I don't buy it. But because we've come this far already, I'll dive in anyway.


McCain lists family issues in the "Economy" and "Human Dignity & Life" sections of his website. The subsection under his economic page is called "Immediate Relief for American Families" and discusses gas and food prices, his mortgage buyout plan, and expanding the lender-of-last resort options for student higher education loans to keep the credit crunch from affecting people's ability to receive loans for school.

His plan to lower gas prices is almost comical: "telling oil producing countries and oil speculators that our dependence on foreign oil will come to an end - and the impact will be lower prices at the pump." I can imagine how that will go:

US: Hi, um, OPEC? We aren't going to be dependent on you anymore.

OPEC: Sure, whatever. You buy more oil from Canada than us anyway, but that's fine.

US: No, really. We're going to stop buying so much oil from you, so you'll have to lower prices.

OPEC: Right. You see, the thing is, China and India will more than make up for any consumption you stop, so the market will keep prices where we think they should be. And if prices go down, you'll just drive more again anyway. And guess what happens to prices when consumption goes back up?

US: Oh yeah? Well, we'll screw up the global economy so the price of oil tanks on its own then. How you like them apples?

OPEC: Nuts. I guess we'll have to cut production to drive market prices back up.

US: Crap. Drill, baby. Drill!

Maybe it wouldn't be quite like that, but it's amazing to me to think that simply telling people that we'll cut back on foreign oil would affect global prices. And once again the McCain camp is being delusional in thinking that we have enough domestic capacity to really cut out foreign suppliers. (See my post, Where's the Oil, in the September archives.)

He then goes on to say that his policies (he's not clear on which ones specifically) will cause the value of the dollar to rise, increasing our purchasing power for oil. But wait a minute -- didn't you just say we weren't going to be dependent upon foreign oil any more? So then it wouldn't matter what the price of international oil was, right? Do I need to do another hypothetical conversation? Because I will. It was kind of fun.

McCain's other brilliant plan - that I can't believe is even still on his website - is a summer gas tax holiday. Never mind even his own economists said it was a bad idea. And never mind summer is gone.

He then discusses repealing a tax on imported sugar-based ethanol to increase competition and lower pump prices. Great. We'll stop buying oil from OPEC and instead buy ethanol from Brazil! Granted I'd probably rather send our money to Brazil (and sugar-based ethanol is generally a lot better than corn-based ethanol), but I thought we weren't going to be dependent on foreigners for our energy needs anymore.

Lastly, the only nod to food prices is to kill corn-based ethanol subsidies, which actually might help lower food prices (and help the Brazilians sell us their sugar-based ethanol).

Anyway, this is a bizarre part of his website, and frankly while I don't think the Church would object to any of this, I don't think they'd go out of their way to endorse it, either.

I discussed McCain's mortgage plan in an earlier post, so I won't go into it again here. To recap, it's a revival of a New Deal plan FDR implemented during the Great Depression. Socialism, baby! (Sorry. It's late.)

Now we move on to what I really think the church means when it discusses supporting families: gay marriage. McCain starts out his "Protecting Marriage" section with a discussion about how he will nominate judges who won't legislate from the bench. (That's code for "they won't legislate in ways we don't like, but it's fine if they legislate conservative values.") But his point is clear: if you are a gay couple and you want to get married, there had better be a state statute allowing it, because we won't let judges decide that gay marriage is an implied right.

He then goes on to say, and I wish I were kidding, that "the family represents the foundation of Western Civilization and civil society." Really? Western Civilization? Those heathens and infidels in the Middle and Far East can just suck it. They know nothing about marriage, or civil society for that matter. Never mind that they were the cultures preserving human knowledge in the middle ages while Western society was dumping their chamber pots in the street, fighting with each other, and letting millions die because of a lack of basic sanitation principles that had been practiced since before the Romans were in control. But I digress.

He goes on to say that marriage between one man and one woman (what, is he implying there's a bunch of polygamists in this country?) is the only "definition that sufficiently recognizes the vital and unique role played by mothers and fathers in the raising of children, and the role of the family in shaping, stabilizing, and strengthening communities and our nation." I happen to know a bit about fatherhood and the importance of male role models in children's lives, and I won't argue his main point here. But I will argue that there are more viable options than just "one man and one woman." Nevertheless, this is a stance that the Church approves of, so he earns a point here.


Obama's plan to strengthen families focuses on practical plans from several areas: cutting taxes, creating living wages, expanding workplace flexibility and the FMLA, reforming education, providing healthcare, protecting home ownership, protecting at-risk families, and creating secure retirement options.

In a nutshell, here's what his plan does (from his website):
  1. Barack Obama will provide a "Making Work Pay" tax cut for America's working families: Obama and Biden will restore fairness to the tax code and 95 percent of workers the tax relief they need. They will create a new "Making Work Pay" tax credit of up to $500 per person, or $1,000 per working family.
  2. Strengthen fatherhood and families: Obama and Biden will work to remove some of the government penalties on married families, crack down on men avoiding child support payments, fund support services for fathers and their families, and support domestic violence prevention efforts.
  3. Restore Work-Family Balance: Obama and Biden will double funding for after-school programs, expand the Family Medical Leave Act, provide low-income families with a refundable tax credit to help with their child-care expenses, and encourage flexible work schedules.
I've discussed or linked to discussions on most of these topics in previous posts, so I won't rehash those areas here. Special notice should be given to his plans to "strengthen families" by supporting fathers, cracking down on deadbeat dads, and supporting domestic violence prevention efforts. Furthermore, he would also expand programs that provide home visits by trained nurses to low-income expectant and new mothers and their families to help with pre- and postnatal care and support. I think the Church would be pleased with all of those plans.

Obama does not specifically mention on his website that marriage needs to be defined in any particular terms. Why limit or exclude when there are so many opportunities to build families up? Fear not, traditionalists: Obama and Biden have both said they do not support gay marriage. But I suspect you won't easily ram any legislation down their throats that curtails anyone's rights.

In the end, McCain's policies play to his conservative base while offering few real social benefits. Obama takes the opposite approach and, rather than limiting himself, proposes practical plans to lift all families up. Since neither candidate ultimately supports gay marriage, this category goes to Obama for offering so many other family-strengthening ideas.

Obama: 6
McCain: 0

I should point out here that, since my system is awarding points all or nothing for each category (kind of like the winner-take-all Electoral College system in most states), it's not looking too good for McCain. That certainly doesn't mean that McCain's candidacy is devoid of any qualities the Church would find redeeming. If I were awarding points for all of the issues within each theme, he'd be better off. But since the election itself is winner-take-all, I'm going to stick with this scoring system. Quite frankly, however, even if I did award points by issue and not by theme, Obama would still be comfortably ahead in my book.

Next up: The Right to Life and the Dignity of the Human Person


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