Thursday, October 23, 2008

Talking Pro-Life or Acting Pro-Life: Informed Catholic Voters

What’s happening to the Catholic vote in this presidential election continues to draw attention. I noticed two noteworthy articles about this topic in the last day, after I posted yesterday. In today’s posting, I’d like to summarize and comment on those articles.

In “Don’t Let the Bishops Swing the Election—Again!” Robert Blair Kaiser reminds us of what happened four years ago ( In the Kerry vs. Bush campaign, the same key bishops who are trying to swing the election for McCain—Chaput and Burke—requested a letter from the Vatican’s Holy Office. They got the document they wanted: it appeared to tell Catholics that it was their religious duty to vote for Bush. Chaput and Burke and their allies disseminated the letter widely, suggesting that the Vatican had weighed in on the election and faithful Catholics should listen and act accordingly.

As a result, Ohio, which had voted overwhelmingly for the Catholic Kennedy in 1960, voted in the same proportion for Bush this time, though his opponent, Kerry, was a Catholic. Kaiser reminds us of who headed the Vatican’s Holy Office in 2004: it was none other than Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Kaiser observes, “In effect, Cardinal Ratzinger, a man who would soon be pope, swung an American election for a Republican who said he was ‘pro-life.’”

Kaiser notes that there is increasing recognition even among Catholics (including right-wing ones such as Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia) that overturning Roe v. Wade will not significantly affect the abortion rate in the U.S. If reducing abortions is a desirable objective, then attention has to be given to the reasons women choose abortion. Mitigate the needs for making this choice, and you will diminish the abortion rate—something the Democratic platform recognizes, in the view of many pro-life voters this year, better than the Republican one does.

As an aside, I’d like to note what appears to me to be a fallacy in the statements many pro-Republican bishops are making about Roe v. Wade. Many bishops are hinging their argument for electing “the” “pro-life” party on its promise to abolish Roe v. Wade, and on the connected claim that the number of abortions rose dramatically in the U.S. after Roe v. Wade.

I wonder how bishops—or anyone—knows that the number of abortions rose after Roe v. Wade. From all I have learned through my study of American history, abortions occurred outside the scope of public scrutiny in the past. When procuring and having an abortion were criminal activities, abortions took place in back rooms.

To my knowledge, there are no trustworthy statistics for abortions that took place before Roe v. Wade. Criminalizing abortion again could have the effect not of stopping abortions, but of driving them once again into a netherworld that caused tremendous suffering to women who felt they had no choice except to seek an abortion in the past—including in circumstances when their life was endangered if they carried a baby to term.

Kaiser notes the tremendous irony in many bishops’ encouragement of their flocks to vote for “the” “pro-life” party: when these same bishops promoted the “pro-life” administration we have now, and when that administration’s record on life issues is checkered to say the least, bishops appear to be encouraging us to vote “pro-life” regardless of whether those we elect actually behave in pro-life ways. This leads to a certain cynicism among some Catholic voters: is life really the issue on which bishops are hinging their support of “the” “pro-life” party? Or do they find something else in that party, its leaders, and its platform, that they prefer for other undisclosed reasons?

Kaiser notes that an Australian Jesuit, Frank Brennan, a law professor, has critiqued the approach of Burke, Chaput, and others to the public square. In his book Acting On Conscience (Univ. of Queensland Press, 2007), Brennan notes that, during the 2004 campaign, Archbishop Burke argued, "Of course, the end in view for the Catholic must always be the total conformity of the civil law with the moral law."

In Brennan’s view, this attempt to make civil law totally conform with moral law is fatuous—it is not supported by Catholic theology, which has always recognized that civil law does not totally enshrine moral values and never will do so. Brennan calls Burke’s position "a theocratic hope." In Brennan’s view, the U.S. bishops should decisively repudiate the theocratic ambitions of their current “pro-life” pastoral agenda.

(An aside: they don’t appear to be doing so in the person of Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, about whom I blogged yesterday. I’ve just read a news report which states that when Martino barged into a parish’s political forum Sunday night, he announced, “I own this building” [].

Shocking, that statement. If I am not mistaken, God owns the church, not Bishop Martino—and if Bishop Martino has suddenly been divinized, the report of that transformation has yet to reach me. Moreover, since the church is the people of God, the people of God own church buildings every bit as much as a bishop does. It was our money and our labor that built parishes, after all.)

Kaiser ends his discussion with a sane observation from Fr. Brennan: Brennan notes that the U.S. bishops "need to abandon the simplistic hierarchy of political wrongs, giving a preference to politicians who favour the criminalization of acts judged to be intrinsically evil while [ignoring] the direct action of those same politicians who themselves commit criminal acts, such as…committing the nation to war without just cause."

In other words, if bishops are going to encourage Catholics to vote pro-life, let them show at least minimal respect for truth by noting that what “pro-life” leaders actually do—whether they behave in pro- or anti-life ways—needs to be taken into consideration by pro-life voters. The kind of coercion practiced by "I Own This Building" Martino et al. in the name of pro-life politics—the attempt to shut down public forums in which Catholic voters discuss the application of Catholic principles to politics—has no place in the Christian life. It is fascist, not Christian.

The second article to which I’d like to draw attention is Chris Korzen’s “Tough Times for the Catholic Right” at

Korzen notes that the Catholic right had hoped for a reprise of 2004 and what occurred in Ohio. As a result, it has been dumping millions into advertising and other campaigns to promote the tried-and-true agenda of single issue voting.

(A new website purporting to inform Catholic voters about their duty to vote “right” seems to come online every day now. Yesterday, Clerical Whispers noted the appearance a new "Catholic" website that claims to offer intellectual and spiritual resources to Catholic voters [].

Visit that website—“Formed Catholics in the Public Square”—and you’ll find it’s sponsored by the brand-new “Solidarity Institute” . . . of Colorado. In other words, it comes from the Colorado Catholic Conference, presided over by none other than Archbishop Chaput, who recently lambasted Mr. Obama as the architect of millions of “little murders.” The website’s “intellectual and spiritual resources” are those tired old instructions to vote on the basis of the handful of “non-negotiable” issues on which right-wing Catholics fixate.

One has to wonder where the money to set up these “Catholic” websites is coming from . . . .

Korzen notes that this election, Catholics are not buying what the Catholic right is selling. Polls show a majority of Catholics supporting Obama. A few bishops, including Steib and Zavala, have broken with the single-issue approach to remind Catholic voters that there is a range of life issues one must consider as one forms one’s conscience. There is also unanticipated organizing on the part of Catholics who want the entire range of life issues to be part of our political dialogue.

And then there’s that inconvenient reality question, the question of whether our pro-life votes have really resulted in pro-life actions on the part of the “pro-life” leaders bishops have bullied us to elect. As Corzen says,

Like so many things, saying that a candidate's position on abortion makes him or her unfit for the Catholic vote works better in theory than practice. The Catholic right's message loses its effectiveness when voters realize it uses the same logic that impelled Catholic voters to re-elect Bush in 2004 - whose presidency turned out to be a disaster for Catholic values and the nation as a whole.

This is why I wrote my essay entitled “Remembering Katrina,” which I uploaded to this blog on August 28—as the election cycle unfolded and as I knew in my bones we’d have a reprisal of the “vote-life” argument of some bishops. I wrote that essay in September 2005, just after Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans.

I sent the piece to National Catholic Reporter. They chose not to print it. Later, I decided (a year later, actually), to upload the statement to NCR’s blog cafĂ© ( Despite NCR’s initial negative response to it, it must say something readers think is worth hearing. As of today, it has had 5355 reads.

I wrote “Remembering Katrina” to call the bishops’ hand on pro-life rhetoric. After watching in total disbelief as, day after day, bodies lay unburied in New Orleans, people went without food and water, the elderly and critically ill died like flies in hospitals without medical treatment, human beings were crowded like cattle into the Superdome, I decided that enough was enough.

I wrote with passion. I had friends, some of them elderly, in New Orleans who had not yet been accounted for. I was desperately seeking information about a number of people I knew, who had chosen to stay in their houses during the storm.

I wrote with anger. The scenes we all saw on our television sets in August and September 2005 were brought to us by those same “pro-life” leaders the bishops had done all but stand on their heads to elect. I concluded,

Perhaps those bishops need to re-think their support for “pro-life” politicians who, to all appearances, seem shockingly callous in face of the need of poor, hungry human beings trapped like rats in a bowl in a major American city now lying largely underwater. Perhaps, as they prepare for their big Eucharistic shindigs, they should be pondering the core significance of what they profess about the bread of life. At the very least, perhaps they should be adding to their roster of speakers some who will remind us of the connections between providing daily bread to the hungry and inviting the spiritually hungry to the table of the Lord.

If they don’t do these things, it’s entirely possible that, one day, the bishops will give a party and no one will come. Or that they’ll shake their big sticks to compel the faithful to vote the “right” way, and no one will cower anymore. It’s possible that, having seen how our pro-life leaders have responded to the needs of the people of New Orleans, we will re-think what it means to vote pro-life in future elections, no matter what our bishops tell us.

And I meant every word of that conclusion then, as I mean them now. As Colleen Baker’s perceptive comment on my posting yesterday notes, sometimes you have to keep saying the slogan over and over again—especially when you’re responding to a noxious slogan being shouted at you with the intent of shutting down your critical faculties.

To the bishops who keep shouting “pro-life,” I intend to keep saying, “Remember Katrina.” They may forget. I don't intend to do so.

You can’t claim to be pro-life when you behave in shockingly anti-life ways. My conscience tells me I’d be sinning if I voted for political leaders who continue to endanger life, no matter how loudly they and their religious acolytes shout “pro-life.”