Acton Institute Powerblog

Election Quandary for Catholics

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

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


  • Charlie


    Thank you for your thoughtful essay. I’d like to make two points regarding Catholic doctrine and the political responsibilities of Catholics.

    The first is the responsibility of the church to be clear and resolute on the priority found within Catholic doctrine. The sanctity of individual human life is paramount as a Catholic and moral value. When applied to politics it cannot be “balanced” by summing up “other teachings” to place against it. The respect for human life is always the priority as The Great John Paul II articulated so well for over two decades and as Pope Benedict XVI so forcefully defended in his recent visit to the United States.

    The second is the responsibility of Catholic voters who participate in the abortion industry by voting for it and paying for it with our tax dollars.

    I know it is hard to hear for Catholic Democrats like myself, but there is only one way for Catholics to vote and that is for life. Once we chase the Pro-abortion forces from our party, then we can in good conscience return to it and make a strong moral case for voting Democratic and one that is consistent with our faith. Most Catholics became Democrats because we were from working class families often Irish (myself) or Italian or other ethnic groups with a strong Catholic tradition, and the Democratic Party looked out for the working class. We didn’t join the Democratic Party because of its position on abortion. We have just somehow lost control of our party to the abortion lobby.

    I honestly believe that if Catholic Democrats voted Republican this election only, it would be such a devastating blow to the Pro-abortion forces in our party that they would lose their strangle hold on our party and we could again be the party of Catholics.

    As you think about and pray about this election cycle, allow your heart to dwell on the enormous number of abortions being committed in our country and often with our taxpayer dollars. There have been approximately 4000 US military casualities in Iraq in 6 years. There are nearly 4000 babies aborted in the United States every morning before noon. And, we cannot make an informed choice without contemplating the method of abortion. As painful as it is to consider just imagine how painful it is to experience being burned to death by saline solution or ground up bit by bit and sucked out a tube. Try to imagine yourself submerged in a bathtub of sulfuric acid or forced through a wood chipper. No, really, stop and try to imagine the pain of it. I’m sorry to put this image on you but I have thought about it and prayed about it and there just is no way to make a fully informed choice without considering the methods of abortion. The only crime that these babies have committed is not being loved and not being wanted. Remind you of anyone? A certain Jew that lived a few thousand years ago, perhaps?

    We stand in church every Good Friday and tell ourselves that if we had been their during Christ’s time we would not have cried ”Crucify Him, Crucify Him” as the crowds did. We would not have denied him as Peter did. But, yet each day we destroy the innocent by the thousands each day. We do participate by voting for it. We do deny Christ by denying the silent cries of the suffering babies brutally killed in the womb. And, they are killed without any painkillers. To use painkillers would stipulate that they feel pain, which of course has been incontrovertibly proven by medical science. Yes, next Good Friday you can stand in church and know that not only would you have denied Christ in his day, but you are doing it now.

    Please, let’s take back our party and rid ourselves of the pro-abortion lobby that has high-jacked it.

    Prayerfully submitted,

  • Sam

    There is no balance between abortion and other issues, as the Church has consistently made clear. The only way a Catholic could vote for Obama is if McCain’s anti-life position was worse. Hard to imagine! But if Mc Cain vowed to kill alive babies who were handicapped and there were over 40 million of these, then perhaps there would be a proportionate reason to vote for Obama. Many Catholics are confused about this and I think you just made it more confusing…Sam