Acton Institute Powerblog

Election Quandary for Catholics

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Robert Stackpole of the Divine Mercy Insititute offers a thoughtful analysis of the positions of the major presidential candidates on health care at Catholic Online. I missed part one (and I don’t see a link), but the series, devoted to examining the electoral responsibilities of Catholics in light of their Church’s social teaching, is evidently generating some interest and debate.

Stackpole’s approach is interesting because he tries to steer a course between the two dominant camps that have developed over the last thirty years of presidential elections: Catholics who vote for Republican candidates in large part or solely because they are at least marginally and in some cases significantly more in line with the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life with respect specifically to the legality of abortion (I belong here); and Catholics who, reluctantly or otherwise, vote Democratic because they perceive that candidate’s platform to be more in line with Catholic teaching on a range of other issues (death penalty, welfare, health care) and thereby to outweigh the Democrat’s unfortunate position on abortion.

Stackpole avoids two common mistakes made by Catholics on the Democratic side: he does not minimize the preeminent importance of abortion as a grave abuse that might be easily outweighed by other issues; and he does not oversimplify the respective Democratic and Republican positions on other issues by claiming, for example, that Church teaching indisputably favors the Democratic policy on welfare.

On health care specifically, he is scrupulously fair both to McCain and Obama, eventually siding with Obama’s plan as being more compatible with Catholic teaching. Not that I agree with the conclusion, but it is a serious argument.

On one more general point, however, Stackpole trips. Here is the problematic passage:

Strictly “political” issues would be things like who has the best experience to be the next president, who has flip-flopped more on key issues, who is beholden to which special interest groups, whose tax and spending policies would be best for the economy as a whole, who is right about offshore oil drilling, and who has the most sensible proposals for dealing with global warming. Such questions are purely political, matters of factual analysis and prudential judgement about which Catholic Social Teaching and the Divine Mercy message can have little to say.

In contrast, he asserts, the issues of abortion, health care, and the Iraq war are “matters on which Catholic Social Teaching can shed considerable light.”

I would say, instead, that every matter that he cites has a moral dimension, and the principles of CST can shed light on them all. It’s true that there are facts, independent of CST, that must serve as the basis for judgment about how to deal with all political questions. To give Stackpole the benefit of the doubt, he possibly means to say that the very narrow question about what economic impact a particular tax policy has is a question of fact, not moral judgment. The statement could easily be interpreted, though, as meaning that tax policy is purely a political question, when it instead has all sorts of ramifications, through the incentives it creates, for the discouragement or encouragement of personal virtue, healthy family life, and the flourishing of mediating institutions (including churches). To separate neatly certain “strictly political” questions from other matters with a moral dimension is, I think, a dangerous move for any person of faith.

Which is not to say that there are important distinctions to be made. Better, however, to go with the approach taken by Archbishop John Myers of Newark, in a 2004 statement on the political responsibilities of Catholics:

Some might argue that the Church has many social teachings and the teaching on abortion is only one of them. This is, of course, correct. The Church’s social teaching is a diverse and rich tradition of moral truths and biblical insights applied to the political, economic, and cultural aspects of our society. All Catholics should form and inform their conscience in accordance with these teachings. But reasonable Catholics can (and do) disagree about how to apply these teachings in various situations.

For example, our preferential option for the poor is a fundamental aspect of this teaching. But, there are legitimate disagreements about the best way or ways truly to help the poor in our society. No Catholic can legitimately say, “I do not care about the poor.” If he or she did so this person would not be objectively in communion with Christ and His Church. But, both those who propose welfare increases and those who propose tax cuts to stimulate the economy may in all sincerity believe that their way is the best method really to help the poor. This is a matter of prudential judgment made by those entrusted with the care of the common good. It is a matter of conscience in the proper sense.

But with abortion (and for example slavery, racism, euthanasia and trafficking in human persons) there can be no legitimate diversity of opinion.

Kevin Schmiesing Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of CatholicHistory.net.

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