Thursday, August 28, 2008

Political miscellania: A confession

I have two confessions to make. First, unlike most people, I love politics. I am not the least bit apologetic about my affection. I do not love politics for its intrigue, or shallowness, the latter being a product of our culture and attributable as much, or more, to the electorate as to those who run for and hold office. I love politics because it is the art of the possible, it is about bringing one's self to bear on the issues that confront us as a people, weighing in on the world in light of what we think, what we believe, what we know. President Carter had it right when he averred that "The American people will never have a better government than they deserve". Democracy is funny that way. I love politics because it is philosophical and is primarily concerned with how we live together. I also like politicians. I have the privilege of knowing and/or having had some personal contact with several prominent office-holders. Now, there are many features of our current cultural and, hence, political milieu that I abhor, but it is there, it is real, and it can be changed. Furthermore, many of its better features can be embraced and harnessed for good. The motto of The Christophers holds true and seems to me to speak words we Christians need to hear: "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." I will never run for office not only because I am a Democrat in Davis County, Utah, which has no Democrat among its elected officials, and a Catholic, but a Catholic convert to boot! At earlier points in my life I had different aspirations.

Second, I am a Democrat and have been since before I was old enough to vote for a lot of reasons, primary among which I come from a working class family, a modest background in every way. Last night, during his speech, President Clinton reminded me of all the reasons I am a Democrat and made me want to vote for him again. Given my second confession, I have never in my life voted a straight party ticket and I do not plan to do so this year. I plan to do something I did not do in 2004, vote for Jon Huntsman, Jr. as governor of my state. He is, by all measures, worthy of my vote. By identifying myself as a Democrat, I freely admit that the party's positions on marriage and abortion trouble me greatly, as do the increasing number of Democrats who support the death penalty, to the point that I lament and long for the old days, which I am too young to remember, and, in some instances, cause me to vote across party lines. I think these confusions are inexcusable, especially in a party that still has so many prominent Catholic members. Nonetheless, apart from these, admittedly fundamental issues, I am a Democrat through and through.

Presently, the two most prominent practicing Catholic Democrats are House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and vice-presidential nominee, Senator Joseph Biden, both of whom are alright with the abortion status quo and desirous of dismantling marriage if not by legislation, then by judicial fiat. Now, it is important to note that both are married and are parents. Speaker Pelosi has five children, the same number we will have come October. Senator Biden, who in his better moments sounds a lot like RFK and who looks, acts, and speaks like my uncles on my Dad's side of the family, had four children, one of whom died in the same car crash that killed his first wife, just after he was elected to the U.S. Senate (see Greg Kandra's blog for an interesting note on Sen. Biden's speech- fellow celini please note the consonance of this with Don Gius' stance on work, especially in the Assembly at the end of chapter two of Is It Possible . . .). So, on a personal level, they both live their faith as it pertains to marriage and family. I firmly believe that actions speak louder than words. This is a far cry from the pro-family, not to mention the pro-life, hypocrisy of so many Republicans (Newt Gingrich, et. al.) that have ultimately betrayed many Christian voters.

In recent days, as my dear friend Rocco, writing over on Whispers, reports, Speaker Pelosi, justifiably, has come under the scrutiny of Cardinal Egan, archbishop of New York, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC, and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver for remarks she made on NBC's Meet the Press that stand in sharp contrast to clear church teaching. In the 5 September issue of Catholic San Francisco, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, her ordinary, a man I admire greatly and who I am so glad was the one who ordained me a deacon, Archbishop George Niederauer, will respond in his column to her statements (I will post the link). Besides, it was the so-called Bluedog Democrats, who are young old-school Dems, like me, and who are socially conservative, who beat Republicans in Republican-held districts in the south, mid-west, and west, that gained control of Congress for the Dems in 2006. Let's not forget that folks!

From where I sit, abortion among Catholics often comes down to a disagreement about means, not ends. Both Speaker Pelosi and Senator Biden have said that they believe abortion is morally wrong. I believe them. It is not my right to question their moral convictions as they express these. On the other hand, I lament their inability to make a consistent judgment on the basis of what they believe and what is true and their unwillingness to acknowledge that church teaching on both abortion and marriage is rooted, in the first instance, in reason and not revelation. So, it is not a case of imposing one's religious beliefs on others. Acknowledging all of this, it is still incumbent on us to articulate our positions in the public square to people of different faiths and of no faith at all. But, Senator McCain, in his support for embryonic stem cell research, is also logically inconsistent and only slightly less confused. Hence, he is unable to make a clear and consistent judgment on the basis of his expressed belief that life begins at conception. His support for marriage seems unwavering, even though he opposes a constitutional amendment to define marriage properly. I also believe that we need to have social policies that make it easier, given their legal option to have an abortion, for women in crisis pregnancies to have their children. Enacting such policies has proven to be effective in decreasing the number of abortions. I urge everyone to read the best article on abortion I have read in recent years, written for America magazine by Dennis O'Brien, No to Abortion: Posture, Not Policy.

As far as I can tell, Speaker Pelosi and Sen. Biden are confused about marriage and about abortion as it pertains to public policy as expressed in law. I surmise that their confusion stems from the same impulse, namely their desire to be compassionate and their confusion about what compassion means, which is to suffer with. Speaker Pelosi needs to recognize, especially on this, his feast day, that St. Augustine is not the final word on Catholic teaching. Hence, her response, which you can read in Rocco's post, constitutes an evasion. Among the several things for which President Bush deserves credit, the ones that loom largest are his appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.

Tuesday evening, Senator Bob Casey, Jr., Pennsylvania's (my wife's home state) junior senator and the son of the late, great Bob Casey, Sr., who if he had not died a premature death from cancer would have been one of the party's leading lights today, perhaps even its presidential nominee and who was denied the chance to speak at the national convention in 1992 due to his pro-life stance, spoke to the convention Tuesday evening. Like his dad, he is unapologetically Catholic, and, hence, pro-life, and unapologetically a Democrat. Here's what he said, making reference to his father's 1992 snub:

"Barack Obama and I have an honest disagreement on the issue of abortion. But the fact that I’m speaking here tonight is testament to Barack’s ability to show respect for the views of people who may disagree with him."
I also have to add that I am very uncomfortable with the false messianism that seems to have become a hallmark of Sen. Obama's campaign. We must always remember some fundamental facts: only Jesus is the Christ, only he is Lord and the kingdom is not yet. All our judgments are to be made in light of these facts.

More on prudential judgment in due course. Along with Suzanne, I want to be in Rimini. Meanwhile, Sharon, who is in Rimini, is bloggin'.


  1. you almost persuade me to return to my own Democratic roots...

  2. Thanks for this -- it is so helpful to me -- particularly the link to the article on posturing/policy in the abortion debate. I hope your day is beautiful!

  3. Thanks, Suzanne. To me being loyal always means being critical. To that end, on Sunday I watched Abp Chaput's interview with Raymond Arroyo and came away very disappointed because his remarks seemed to me be posture, not policy and his take on prudential judgment far too restrictive. Stated simply, it seems that he wants Catholics to be reduced to one issue voters, not overtly, but as a consequence of the logic he employs. This seems to me to stand in contrast to what we read in Faithful Citizenship. Nonetheless, this did not seem to keep him from being puzzled as to why he was not invited to give an invocation at the convention held in his city.

    What I like about O'Brien's article is that in it he takes what seems to me to be a far more Catholic approach. This approach is not alien among our bishops, it just doesn't get the media attention that Abp Chaput, Abp Burke, and Bp Sheridan muster by their outspokenness.

    If, using Abp Chaput's reasoning, I have to be able, on judgment day, to explain to an aborted child why I voted for a pro-choice candidate (which implies that I am responsible for the child's death despite working to end abortion), I must stand equally ready to explain to the mother, whose children were accidentally blown up in an unjust war, why I voted for a president who believes in pre-emptive force and engages in such wars; to the person who starved, etc. In other words, what Abp Chaput seems to be doing is insisting on a distorting reduction of proportional reason and prudential judgment.

    To wit: I refuse to vote for a candidate simply because s/he agrees with me on abortion and marriage. I also will never vote for a candidate because s/he is pro-choice, or is mistaken about the nature of marriage. It seems to me that Christians in the U.S. have long been victims of such reductions.

  4. From where I sit there is no morally evil equivalent to abortion. Not just for the shear numbers of innocent lives that are taken, but also for the confusion it inflicts on society with respect to how we view who and what we are. That is a very sinister evil.

    To say that you can vote for a pro choice candidate while working to end abortion strikes me as a contradiction, as that vote is perpetuating the very thing you say you are working to end.

    Regarding Pelosi, I'm sympathetic to this view:

  5. Steve:

    All cases in which innocent people are unjustifiably killed are morally equivalent. On another issue, while I oppose the death penalty, it is not the moral equivalent to abortion and I have never made that argument. Again, I suggest reading O'Brien's article. Stated simply, the only way to end abortion, or to dramatically reduce the number of abortions, is not by a direct, frontal assault, which, even now, would not likely pass constitutional muster. The overturning of Roe v. Wade would not bring an end to abortion. In some states, it would make it more easily and legally available.

    My position is not a contradiction. I state unhesitatingly that I have never, nor will I ever, vote for a candidate because s/he is pro-choice, but in spite of it. I also state that this has caused me on several occasions to vote across party lines. Without sounding too harsh, feel free to disagree, but don't mischaracterize my position by overly simplifying it, reducing it, or trying to make me say something I am not. To be clear: I am not voting to perpetuate something I work to end. It may have escaped your notice, but nobody is proposing to make abortions more accessible, or to liberalize abortion laws. The trend in recent years, even among many Dems, has been to place restrictions, like parental notification laws, making it illegal to cross state lines to obtain abortions, etc. All laws that seek to restrict abortion, like the ban on partial birth abortion, which, thank God, the Supreme Court upheld, making this illegal, have to pass constitutional review precisely because of Roe. So, in most instances, abortion is not even in the hands of Congress, but that of the courts.

    Of course, who a president might appoint to the Supreme Court in the likelihood of a vacancy is a very good thing to look at when deciding for whom to vote. I am not sure who I am voting for yet. Suffice it to say, I will look at all factors and make a prudential judgment.

    What confuses people is when important distinctions fail to be made and their moral reasoning is short-circuited by gross over-simplifications of issues made complex by living in a pluralistic democratic republic in which to vote is to accept reality as it is, not as it we'd like it to be, but in the hope and with the assurance that what we do matters. Again, it is not so much about ends, especially among Catholics, but about means. While we may never do evil that good may come of it, we do have to understand, if not accept, the givenness of certain realities and prudentially determine how best to bring about a more just society.

  6. Here's something from Archbishop Chaput that has been troubling me:

    "Obviously, we have other important issues facing us this fall: the economy, the war in Iraq, immigration justice. But we can’t build a healthy society while ignoring the routine and very profitable legalized homicide that goes on every day against America’s unborn children."

    It troubles me because the issues that he lists do not include innocents who are or will be killed through wars instigated by a bellicose Commander in Chief...In other words, the way he frames the alternatives makes it seem as though we are dealing with lesser injustices, on the one hand, and murder, on the other. I am really and truly concerned about the blood of innocent victims that will indeed be spilled, if either candidate takes office. If a Church leader won't address my concern head-on, then he doesn't help me to find an answer to my dilemma, he only muddies the water for me. What am I to do? Try to estimate how many will die during the future presidency of each man and choose the one who will be responsible for fewer corpses? How can I possibly make such an estimate? There are so many unknowns. Besides, I really think that this sort of calculation would be cynical -- like an acceptance that well, so many are going to have to die in any case...

  7. Suzanne:

    You bring up several good issues. Taking my lead from Abp Niederauer, it is not your bishop's job to tell for whom to vote. I know that you know that, I am not trying to be patronizing, just laying down something fundamental. It is his job, as the chief catechist and an authentic teacher of the faith, to teach you to reason morally and the objective content of what the church teaches and why, how these truths are rooted in reason. These two together are what constitute a properly formed conscience. So equipped, the judgment is yours. The very fact that you recognize that there are issues that are genuinely and unequivocally the moral equivalent of abortion shows that your conscience is properly formed, but it leaves you in a dilemma. I find myself in the same dilemma.

    You are also correct insofar as such a calculation would be unadulterated utilitarianism, which we reject. For me, it is helpful to look at the extent to which the office actually bears on the issue. For example, I am not interested in what the county mayor thinks about abortion. As mayor, s/he has no say. I am worried about where s/he stands on road maintenance, county rec facilities, law enforcement, penal issues at the county jail, the Meals on Wheels program, etc. Of course, the president has a lot to do with issues of war and peace and has some say on the issue of abortion.

    Restricting our discussion to the office of president, I find it helpful to be realistic about what can be accomplished, the art of the possible. For example, if a candidate readily admits that pre-emptive wars are inherently unjust, then I can be pretty certain that as CinC no such wars will be started. On the other hand, a candidate may believe that life begins at conception and is opposed to abortion. The question here is what can that president do? The Supreme Court justice issue comes into play here and what the U.S. supports overseas. Because it is a constitutional issue, the president cannot enact, even if he had congressional support, a moral abortion policy, setting aside what effects that might have (referring to O'Brien). This is all without addressing embryonic stem cell gathering by immoral means.

    I don't know if that helps, but it ain't easy.

  8. So, you caught that I was only half-joking when I asked how many beers I'd need to buy you, huh?

    All of this does help. Then there is also my gut, which points me toward the less volatile person who is more respectful towards his peers and underlings. That counts for something. In times of crisis, a person's temper becomes a crucial factor.

  9. In January we can have few beers and review our choices. I think you have a wise gut!

  10. I would like to respond, but have too much to say and I'm stuck with just my phone. More next week...


A political non-rant

In the wake of yesterday's Helsinki press conference, which, like a lot of my fellow U.S. citizens, as well as many people abroad, left ...