Monday, November 03, 2008

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.

Scorecard:
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.

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