Friday, November 14, 2008

Here We Go Again, with a Twist

In a letter to parishioners, a Roman Catholic priest in South Carolina instructed anyone who voted for Obama to refrain from receiving Communion until they have done penance for their vote, "lest they eat and drink their own condemnation."

Um, yeah.

This is the first time I've come across parishioners receiving this treatment (usually it's just politicians themselves), and this is the first time I've seen this after an election. I guess this priest hasn't read the rather long "Faithful Citizenship" document released by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. It clearly states that Catholics can vote for whomever they choose, regardless of their candidate's stand on abortion -- if they have come to conclude, after praying and forming their social conscience, that they believe their candidate has other strengths that match their values better than the opponent. The only catch is that Catholics can't vote for a candidate precisely because of his or her views on abortion.

We've talked about this in previous posts, and of course we'll discuss it in future posts as well (including some discussion about Catholics, election exit polls, and how Catholics voted). For now, with 54% of Catholics voting for Obama, it looks like this South Carolina priest might have a significantly shorter Communion line this weekend, unless his confession hours are booked solid before mass.

More at Huffington Post.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Monday, November 03, 2008

Seven Key Themes of Catholic Social Teaching: Wrapping it All Up

We've covered a lot of ground in the past week, examining the seven themes of Catholic social teaching and grading the presidential candidates based on their support for those themes:
Senator Obama has come out on top, in my rankings, with a score of 6-1 over Senator McCain. While McCain scores favorably in the "right to life" categories, Obama shows greater strength in his support for social, economic, and justice issues.

Each of the seven themes incorporates more than one issue, however, and I feel it's important to wrap up this series with a brief look at each of the issues that have been raised over the course of this series. Examining how the candidates rank on these issues will provide a more rounded view of their support for these social teachings - McCain will come out better on some of the social and economic issues while Obama will come out better on some of the right to life issues.

The complexity of this undertaking has reinforced my belief that voting a single issue is short-sighted and dangerous. Too many of these issue are inter-related, as can be seen simply in how the Church presents them. Even the right to life topic goes beyond abortion, also including unjust wars, racism, and poverty. Ignoring one area for the sake of another may simply prove to complicate both issues as well as make the problems more difficult to solve.

Although I'm sure many will disagree with my assessment of one or both of these candidates based on several specific issues, I hope I have at least made my point that these are complex topics that require complex thinking and solutions. While many choose to only see the black and white, the details (and ultimately solutions that will prove to be both workable and agreeable by the majority) are in the many shades of gray in between.

Since I've written a pretty fair amount about most of these issues throughout this series, I'm not going to dedicate a lot of space to justifying my picks here. These are the underlying criteria I used in grading the seven main themes, and my justifications can be found in my earlier posts. Throughout this process I've tried to see these issues as the Church would see them. Undoubtedly my own bias has come out in a number of them, despite my attempts to minimize that, but remember: I'm a layperson trying to make sense of the world using the tools the Church has provided. While theologians may score this list differently than I did, my results were the basis of actively developing my social conscience through study of the issues as well as prayer -- exactly what the Church requests of all members before making voting decisions.

The grading will be simple: Obama, McCain, or No Difference (ND). Of course even where the candidates share similar views, there are often fairly large differences in how they intend on tackling those issues, but in this case "ND" simply means that their end goals are compatible regardless of their paths to those goals, and ultimately that's what I'm judging here - the compatibility of those goals with Church teaching.

Environment/Climate Change: Obama
Energy Policy: Obama
Pursue justice: Obama (no mention on McCain website)
Eliminate Racism: Obama (no mention on McCain website)
End Human Trafficking: ND (no mention on either website)
Protect Human Rights: Obama (no mention on McCain website)
Seek Peace: Obama (no mention on McCain website)
Avoid the Use of Force Except as a Necessary Last Resort: Obama (no mention on McCain website)
Work at Fair, Living Wages: Obama (no mention on McCain website)
Legal Status for Immigrant Workers: ND
Participation in Unions: Obama (no mention on McCain website)
Education: ND
Civil Rights: Obama (no mention on McCain website)
Support People with Disabilities: Obama (no mention on McCain website)
Overcome Poverty: Obama (no mention on McCain website)
Prevent Domestic Violence: Obama (no mention on McCain website)
Protect Children: Obama
Right to Religious Freedom: ND (no mention on either website)
Right to Access Food: ND (not enough information on either website)
Healthcare: Obama
Housing: Obama
Marriage = 1 Man and 1 Woman: ND
Economic Policies to Support Families: Obama
Social Policies to Support Families: Obama
Abortion: McCain
Promoting Adoption: McCain (no mention on Obama website)
Euthanasia: ND (not enough information on either website)
Human Cloning: ND
Destruction of Human Embryos for Stem Cell Research: McCain
Oppose Torture: ND
Oppose Unjust wars: Obama (no mention on McCain website)
Oppose the Death Penalty: Obama
Prevent Genocide and Attacks Against Noncombatants: ND

Scorecard (out of 33 categories):
Obama: 20
McCain: 3
No Difference: 10

It still seems pretty harsh for McCain, but the fact that he goes from 1 out of 7 in the overall results to 13 out of 32 in the detailed results is statistically a big jump. Even if you weigh the right to life issues more than the other categories (as the Church does), however, it's still tough to argue that McCain's policies are in line with the Church's overall themes of social teaching. As you saw, there were a great number of issues that McCain simply has not discussed, whether on his website, in interviews, or on the stump.

It is for these reasons that I strongly support Barack Obama for president. He is far from a perfect candidate, and I reject the messianic status placed upon him by some, but he is a transformational figure at a time when just such a leader is needed, and I think his policies will protect and uplift the vulnerable while improving the lives of us all.

Thanks for reading. I hope you have enjoyed this series, and I sincerely hope, even if you don't agree with my results, that you have learned more about the issues (either directly through this series or through further research on your own spurred by these posts) as well as your faith.

Seven Key Themes of Catholic Social Teaching: The Right to Life and the Dignity of the Human Person

This post is the seventh 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:
The Right to Life and the Dignity of the Human Person
...Direct attacks on innocent persons are never morally acceptable, at any stage or in any condition. In our society, human life is under direct attack from abortion. Other direct threats to the sanctity of human life include euthanasia, human cloning, and destruction of human embryos for research.

Catholic teaching about the dignity of life calls us to oppose torture, unjust war, and the use of the death penalty; to prevent genocide and attacks against noncombatants; to oppose racism; and to overcome poverty and suffering.

Let's be honest here. This theme includes more than just abortion, but most people are going to gravitate right to that one. Members of the Church and pro-life proponents from all faiths tend to single out abortion and shrug off the death penalty, unjust war, genocide, and poverty. Euthanasia and stem cell research get a bit more attention from the pro-life crowd, but the big ticket is abortion.

I don't mean to minimize the importance of ending abortion. I am certainly against the taking of any human life, and I believe that the moment of conception is the beginning of a unique biological event that cannot be described as simple cell division. The church is correct to protect the unborn, but I'm not convinced they are going about it in the right way. It pains me that Obama isn't a pro-life candidate, although as I will explain I don't think that means he should support the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Before I go into why, let me backtrack and point out that we've covered the candidates' stances on all of the issues brought up in this social justice theme, so I'm not going to rehash them in detail here. If I scored this category by all of it's parts (abortion, the death penalty, unjust war, etc), it would be a split decision - and just might tilt in Obama's favor. But because most people, right or wrong, look at this as a single issue theme, I'm going to focus on that one issue. And as far as the Church's teaching goes, McCain is the candidate that best follows that teaching.

Note, however, that I'm going to end this series with one more post that cuts the issues out of each of the seven themes (since most themes incorporate multiple issues) and provides a comprehensive "report card" for both candidates. Scoring by the seven themes results, in my opinion, in a 6-1 Obama "victory" in supporting Catholic social teaching. The comprehensive report card won't change that result, but it will give McCain more credit than is obvious in the 6-1 score, while also boosting Obama's credibility in these "right to life" areas thanks to his support for human rights, his programs to end poverty, and his concrete opposition to unjust wars and racism.

Why No One Should be a Single Issue Voter

We were greeted after mass today by a fairly detailed - and fairly inaccurate - description of the candidates' views on abortion left on our windshields. It pains me that, time and time again on issue after issue, people (and sometimes the candidates themselves) feel the need to spread inaccurate information and sometimes lies about certain issues. Their views are so different from each other in so many areas, what's wrong with simply stating the facts? In the case of abortion, it's simple: McCain favors the repeal of Roe v. Wade, Obama does not. Is that not clear enough? Why is there a need to make Obama out to be a baby killer? But that's how strongly so many people feel about this. It has become the issue of all issues, despite the fact that a vote for the candidate who wants to overturn Roe v. Wade is also a vote against so many other issues (poverty, healthcare, to name two) that play directly into this discussion as well.

My wife wrote a post called Bumper Sticker Religion back in May of 2005 where she described her frustration at seeing a bumper sticker on a bulletin board at church that read "You can't be Catholic AND Pro-Abortion." She explained how that is wrong on several levels (no one is "pro abortion"), but it's most relevant here simply because being Catholic does not mean one has to join the pro-life ministry. Catholics hold a wide range of beliefs, and attempts to paint us all as pro-life is simplistic and naive. In the article New York Times Makes Up Fairy Tale About Politics of Abortion, the site Campaign for America's Future reported on how the Times showed some shoddy journalistic practices by selecting an unrepresentative sample of Catholics that painted an inaccurate picture of our voting habits. It's not saying that Catholics aren't pro-life, but it does show that reporters can't automatically assume that we'll all vote for a pro-choice candidate strictly on that issue.

It also shows that, in polls from the last presidential election, 72% of Catholics opposed the idea of the Church denying communion to politicians who did not oppose abortion. As it turns out, those Catholics aren't sinners for thinking that. In the article Theologian says one-issue bishops violate their own teaching, the National Catholic Reporter reported on remarks by noted theologian Fr. Richard McBrien who said "Bishops who make a case for one-issue politics or openly oppose a political candidate are in violation of the guidelines set out repeatedly in their own documents on political responsibility." McBrien quoted Catholic teaching that states:
Catholic voters and their bishops must not forget the distinction between moral principles and their application in the political order. It is possible to agree on an important moral principle and yet disagree, in good conscience, on the way that principle is applied in the political order.
Furthermore, last Fall the USCCB issued an election statement that read, in part:
The consistent ethic of life provides a moral framework for principled Catholic engagement in political life and, rightly understood, neither treats all issues as morally equivalent nor reduces Catholic teaching to one or two issues... Catholic voters should use the framework of Catholic teaching to examine candidates' positions on issues affecting human life and dignity as well as issues of justice and peace ...
So there you have it. You can agree on an issue while disagreeing on the best way to approach that issue. And while you're doing that, remember not to "reduce Catholic teaching to one or two issues." There's more out there than just abortion, and it turns out many of those issues all affect each other.

Why Not Oppose Roe v. Wade?

The Church, Senator McCain, and Senator Obama all want to end abortion. The Church wants to counsel pregnant women against it. The Church and McCain both want it to be illegal. Obama wants to educate people so they can avoid unwanted pregnancies while working to eliminate the social and economic conditions that lead to unwanted pregnancies, sub-standard prenatal care, and children living in poverty.

The Church's position on counseling (and encouraging adoption) is good. And it should be noted that the Church also has some ministries that help new mothers in difficult situations. But it is irresponsible to make abortion illegal without a) striving to minimize unwanted pregnancies, b) expanding the social and economic networks that support pregnant women, and c) expanding the social and economic networks that support new families (especially single mothers). Of course it is unlikely that the Church will change its stance on birth control, but it can continue to play a large part in providing those important support networks. But if abortion were made illegal, it (and other crisis pregnancy centers) would need an increase in resources to provide those services at a greater level than they do today.

There would be much celebrating in pro-life circles if Roe v. Wade was ever overturned, but the hangover would be intense when the realization hit that the problem of unwanted pregnancies would not simply go away with the ruling. And that's my biggest problem with McCain's stance on the issue. He has no extra provision for funding - federal, state, or part of any faith-based initiative - for any programs to support these troubled women if abortion is once again made illegal. So while his plan would send the issue back to individual states (eventually making the procedure illegal in many states), it wouldn't do anything to help stop the underlying cause of the procedure or support troubled women who are likely candidates for the procedure. McCain has stated the need for local organizations to deal with this problem, but those organizations are already struggling and can't possibly be asked to do much more without some sort of additional funding and/or assistance.

Overturning Roe v. Wade is problematic enough. In The Conservative Christian Case for Supporting Obama, Rob J makes a strong case that Christians can and should support Obama for all of his beliefs, and that his stance on abortion isn't incompatible with Christian teaching. In his rebuttal to the comments readers posted in reply to this article, he also points out that Roe v. Wade is pretty much stare decisis law. Stare decisis is the legal principle under which judges are obligated to follow the precedents established in prior decisions. That makes Roe v. Wade difficult for courts to even consider (the Supreme Court actually declined to hear a case that would have reviewed it in 2006), let alone overturn. Would appointing more conservative judges to the court change that? Maybe, or maybe not. It's been the promise of every Republican president starting with Reagan, but it hasn't worked out so far. Shouldn't the resources spent fighting this ruling be spent on more constructive programs for reducing abortion?

And if McCain were to appoint another conservative judge or two to the Supreme Court, what other damage could be done to our legal system? Would torture be more acceptable? How about illegal wiretapping by the NSA? In my opinion the advantage of overturning Roe v. Wade, however unlikely that may be, is largely outweighed by the threat to many of our democratic rights and civil liberties that the current administration has already played fast and loose with.

Bringing it All Back Around

Ending abortion is a common goal shared by most people. The differences in opinion are in how to end it: make it illegal or work to eliminate the conditions that lead to unwanted pregnancies.
  • Despite the assertions of many laypeople, it is not a sin for a Catholic to vote for a pro-choice candidate. In fact, Catholics should examine a number of issues from the entire framework of Catholic teaching when deciding which candidate to support.
  • Overturning Roe v. Wade, as unlikely as that may be, would not stop unwanted pregnancies. Instead it would strain the resources of the existing counseling and support services.
  • McCain's platform has the stated goal of overturning Roe v. Wade, but no support for the social, economic, or educational policies to help reduce or eliminate the underlying problems that lead to abortion
  • Obama, while not being strictly pro-life, advocates policies that reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and support programs that would help pregnant women - including the reform and expansion of the mis-managed Faith-based Initiatives project started by President Bush.
In the end, I'm still giving this one to McCain based simply on the fact that his goals directly match the Church's on the issue of abortion. The goal of ending abortion is undoubtedly good, but I feel that everyone would be better served to recognize this common goal and strive to find creative ways to achieve it instead of this "all or nothing" partisan game we've been playing for the last 30+ years. Abortion should be safe, legal... and rare.

Obama: 6
McCain: 1

Next up: A comprehensive look at all of the issues wrapped into these seven key themes of Catholic social teaching - including a detailed scorecard of the candidates.