A few weeks ago, a friend asked me, “When are you going to write something on the blog about how Catholics are supposed to vote?” We had a brief but thoughtful discussion about it, noting that the question is hard to answer because it is partly about objective morality and partly about practical considerations that depend on the options actually available. And when one looks at those “options actually available,” the question seems almost moot: Exactly which candidate are we supposed to vote for if we are not permitted to vote for anyone whose views are at odds with Catholic teaching? But it is a fascinating topic, and a well-crafted blog post about it might count as “views you can use.” For now, though, I’m still thinking.
In the meantime, another friend calls my attention to a recent piece by Douglas Kmiec, first published I-don’t-know-where and later posted on the Mirror of Justice blog by Michael Perry. It’s not a systematic analysis of the extent to which our votes should be influenced by our religious beliefs; it’s not even a systematic analysis of Catholic teaching on that score. In fact, Kmiec veritably sprints through that part of the question, noting somewhat magisterially (if you’ll excuse the pun),
Committed to the protection of human life in the womb, Catholics are urged (some of my critics say “mandated,” but with respect, they are mistaken) to vote only for candidates who oppose abortion. In truth — and here let me quote the bishops directly so they can share in the mail — “a Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position.” But voters should not use a candidate’s opposition to abortion “to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity” — such as, say, the invasion of a foreign nation leading to the sacrifice of the lives of our own troops and of thousands of others.
I don’t know where those quotations are from; I would like to. But as I say, that is not Kmiec’s primary purpose in writing. Instead, Kmiec — who formerly advised Mitt Romney — is writing to explain why Catholics might well be attracted to Obama’s candidacy despite his apostasy on the abortion question. As Kmiec says,
Obama argues that there must be, in this life, a distinction between the uncompromising commitments that religion calls us to make and the public policy that we can realistically expect. This is a dose of political pragmatism, and reasonable on virtually any issue not involving a grave moral evil. It’s not an easy answer. But frankly, that’s a problem not just for Obama, but for all of us. As he writes, “I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke [sic] God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”
To his credit, Obama neither offers up a glib, unsatisfying solution nor reverts to the standard liberal line that objective moral values have no place in the public discussion. Our problems are not mere technical dilemmas “in search of the perfect 10-point plan. They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness — in the imperfections of man.”
If liberals and conservatives would stop shouting at each other (and most especially at me), more people might see abortion as a product of societal indifference and individual callousness: the former exemplified by economic conditions ranging from inadequate wages to evictions traceable to the subprime fraud; the latter typified by a self-centeredness that sees children as competitors or enemies to personal fulfillment. A person who understands the significance of faith as well as Obama does is likely to have a better chance of understanding and addressing both causes. Why? Because when the seemingly insoluble intrudes upon life as it inevitably does, the religious person has the humility to pray. Obama concluded his own religious reflections a few years back with what he described as “a prayer I still say for America today.” The prayer? That despite our profound disagreements, “we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all.”
I think Kmiec is getting at something very important here — certainly something important about the way a person of strong religious faith should govern, and possibly something important about Obama. Obama is universally praised for his eloquence, but to my mind “eloquent” doesn’t quite do him justice. What makes Obama’s speeches so much better than those of other politicians is not just that he uses prettier words or has a nicer voice. He does and he has — but he also gives us evidence that he is comfortable with strong moral claims and he understands they often pull us in different directions. He manages to perceive nuance without confusing it with subjectivity.
Does that translate to abortion policy that Catholics find less offensive? Kmiec at least implies that it might, but it hasn’t happened yet, as far as I can tell. Furthermore, one of the tragedies of Senator Clinton’s new lease on life after the Ohio and Texas primaries is that it seems likely to inhibit such expressions of nuance and postpone any real demonstration of statesmanship on this or any other issue. If Obama allows Clinton to lock him into partisan orthodoxy on important moral issues, she deprives his intellect and subtlety of their legitimate power, thus destroying his single most attractive trait. It is as if the Democrats have a chance to nominate Superman, and for some reason she keeps following him around with big trunk full of Kryptonite.
So what’s a Catholic voter to do? I’m still thinking. I hope Senator Obama is too.