Saturday, September 6, 2008

Politics are frustrating and proportional reasoning is hard

UPDATE II: Gerald Boyer has an article available on the Commonweal website that covers much of what I have covered in the post below, only better and more specfically. It is entitled Yes You Can: Why Catholics Don't Have to Vote Republican. Boyer is a professor of theology at St. Joseph's Univ. in Philadelphia.

UPDATE: My dear friend Rocco passes on a report that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner that Speaker Pelosi has accepted Archbishop Niederauer's invitation to sit down for a discussion about the issue of abortion. Of course, the archbishop addressed the speaker's publicly stated rationale for her unequivocal insistence that a woman has the right to choose an abortion, which position is in direct conflict with church teaching, in the current issue of Catholic San Franciso, the newpaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. As Archbishop Niederauer invited us in his column: "Let us pray together that the Holy Spirit will guide us all toward a more profound understanding and appreciation for human life, and toward a resolution of these differences in truth and charity and peace".

I was provoked by Fred yesterday, in a good way, to think seriously about the issue of abortion and the stance of the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Senator Joseph Biden, who is a Catholic. That last phrase is key. He is a Catholic. That is not disputable, at least not on this blog. That being stated, it is easy to be unreasonable about faith, or to not draw the conclusions necessitated by certain aspects of our Catholic faith, to translate our faith into a life, our life. It is difficult and requires our cooperation with God's grace. I daresay that precious few of us have perfected it, that is, have become perfect. I certainly have not. This is further complicated by the fact that we live in what philosopher Alaisdair MacIntyre accurately describes as an emotivist culture. This is particularly true of our political culture. Both conventions are examples of this reality. Voting, when undertaken responsibly, remains a deliberative act of reason. I misstated something in an earlier post that needs to be corrected: Sen. Biden supported the partial birth abortion ban.

If I am going to address the subject of unreasonable faith, I have a whole lot of ground to cover, especially when faith meets politics, which adds a whole new dimension of unreasonableness, which is driven by the electorate's highly emotional approach to issues. It is political supply and demand. I want to lay out some facts. The first fact is that Sen. Biden is morally opposed to abortion. He has said on numerous occasions that he accepts church teaching that life begins at conception. So, his confusion isn't even about the immorality of abortion. Like many Catholic Democratic office-holders and candidates, his stance has two main components. The first is legal and recognizes that whether you like it or not, Roe v. Wade is presently the constitutional law of the land. Faithful Citizenship confronts this reality directly:

"Sometimes morally flawed laws already exist. In this situation, the process of framing legislation to protect life is subject to prudential judgment and 'the art of the possible.' At times this process may restore justice only partially or gradually. For example, Pope John Paul II taught that when a government official who fully opposes abortion cannot succeed in completely overturning a pro-abortion law, he or she may work to improve protection for unborn human life, 'limiting the harm done by such a law' and lessening its negative impact as much as possible (Evangelium Vitae, no. 73). Such incremental improvements in the law are acceptable as steps toward the full restoration of justice. However, Catholics must never abandon the moral requirement to seek full protection for all human life from the moment of conception until natural death" (FC 32).
I once again urge everyone to read Dennis O'Brien's No to Abortion: Posture, Not Policy. Short of reading a lot of big books, this article is essential reading for anyone interested in the vexing issue of abortion. The second component is a confusion, the refusal to recognize that the church's teaching is derived from reason and not from revelation. Therefore, it is not the case that we are seeking to impose our faith on others. Nonetheless, in the words of Sen. Obama, from a speech he gave in 2006, entitled One Nation . . . Under God

"Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason. 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 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."
Sen. Biden's former bishop, now retired, Bishop Robert Mulvee, speaking about the senator said in response to a group of Delaware Catholics who accused him of neglecting his pastoral duties by not censuring Sen. Biden: "I am personally convinced that communication, not excommunication, is the way to change minds and hearts" on abortion (Intermountain Catholic 5 Sept. 2008, pg 4). We saw another example of this pastoral approach, which itself is a prudential judgment made by a person's bishop and nobody else, in Archbishop' Niederauer's response to Speaker Pelosi's recent public remarks on abortion.

It is important to note that Sen Biden has supported a number of measures, including the partial birth abortion ban and even opposing federal funding for abortions, that limit and restrict abortions. Again, it is not the case that an expansion of the availability of abortion is being sought. By all indications, Joseph Biden seems to live his faith, even if he does not always translate it effectively into public policy. By all accounts, he is a solid father and a faithful, caring husband. For several years he raised three children by himself after the car wreck that claimed his wife's life and that of one of his daughters. He is one of the few senators who have been in the Senate long enough (i.e., before the harsh, partisan divisiveness that started in 1994) to have deep personal friendships with members across the isle. He and John McCain are very good personal friends and have been for years. I think this is among the reasons he was chosen by Sen Obama. I also believe this is why the Dem Convention struck such a respectful tone toward Sen McCain, which was not reciprocated at all by the Republicans, who were pretty nasty toward Sen Obama, not Sen McCain personally, but certainly by the other keynote speakers, which prompted yesterday's Jon Stewart fest here on Καθολικός διάκονος.

On the subject of unreasonable faith, Gov Palin, while solid on abortion, is on record as believing that the war in Iraq is God's will.


  1. How does one, Scott, justify Sen. Biden's willingness to advocate Roe vs. Wade? How can one say that they are faithful to the teaching of the Church, and publicly advocate for that unjust ruling and the laws that have come from it? I don't believe one can with any moral integrity. Any more than can advocate for the unjust taking of any human life.

  2. I give, how does one justify it? You are asking the wrong question to the wrong person.

    Here's a question for you: What would be the consequence of overturning Roe v. Wade?

  3. ahfI don't think one can justify it and remain intellectually and morally honest.

    I don't know what the consequence would be of overturning Roe. A struggle would ensue in the states I suspect.

    As to consequences, I don't make moral decisions based solely on consequences. Certainly, it is a proper question to ask, but only one of several that may be important. Discussion regarding moral issues need to approach the matter from various vantage points: 1) consequences; 2) justice; 3) facts/realities; and 4) virtue/goodness. Thus, one can ask, "What would Christian goodness/virtue require of us regarding Roe?" or "What would justice require?", or "What are the facts as they are and as they have been regarding this moral issue in the history of human and religious experience?"

  4. I, too, reject consequentialism, just as I reject utilitarianism and other inadequate ways of moral reasoning. That is not the issue. Please don't try to make me out as saying something I am not.

    It is important to point out that in this post, on which we are both commenting, I call Sen. Biden's position on abortion, with the exceptions of the times he has voted to restrict or limit abortions, unreasonable. I have sought to understand and articulate the reasoning on which his position is based. Further, when it comes to applying what his Catholic faith teaches on the sanctity of all human life, which begins at conception, to his work as a senator, he is largely confused when it comes to abortion.

    To wit: I am not arguing that Sen. Biden's position on abortion, on the whole, is reconcilable with church teaching. It clearly is not. However, I think #32 of Faithful Citizenship, which, in turn, references #73 of Evangelium Vitae, is important in this regard. Further, Sen. Biden is not the only candidate in the race who employs faith on issues involving human life unreasonably. Sen. Obama shares Sen. Biden's confusion about abortion. Sen. McCain is equally confused when it comes to the issue of fetal stem cells. He is also unreasonable on continuing to justify and unjustifiable war. Gov. Palin is unreasonable by thinking that going to war in Iraq was God's will.

    Stated differently, being against abortion is but one aspect of what it means to be pro-life. One can also favor means other than a full frontal assault on Roe v. Wade in reducing and even in eliminating abortion, like public policies that make easier for women to decide to give birth, just to mention one. I think more often than not, at least among Catholics, it boils down to disagreeing about means, not ends. Means are matters of prudential judgment, even on abortion, as #32 of Faithful Citizenship clearly states.

    If you want to vote on the basis of a single issue, that is your right. As for myself, as well as for many other faithful Catholics, especially in light of these past eight years, there are other important issues to consider when casting our votes. Let me also reiterate that I would never vote for a candidate because he or she is pro-choice, but despite it. That being said, I refuse to be held hostage by cynical politicians who use this and other wedge issues to cow Christians into voting for them and then deliver little or nothing. This is not consequentialism and it is not utilitarianism, it is proportional reasoning on the basis of fact and experience. I think this time around, even many Evangelicals have gotten wise to this tactic and are looking at a myriad of issues that deal with the virtue of justice and that touch on human life and dignity, like health care and sanity when it comes to the use of military force, and compassion when it comes to immigration.

  5. Scott, I wasn't trying to imply you were a consequentialist. I was responding to your question to me regarding consequences, and how I would even attempt to answer the question put to me.

    I am in agreement with you in your last post.

    I have studied Faithful Citizenship and I think I understand proportional reasoning fairly well, not only from the document, but from years of study at universities and elsewhere.

    I take issue though with the impression you have that I am a "single issue" voter. I am not in the sense you seem to imply. Yes, I do see abortion as a primary issue to which I give a lot of weight when I make political decisions. I believe we all have certain moral issues that would disqualify a candidate from consideration if he or she were to actively advocate or condone.

  6. Thanks, Bob. I can certainly appreciate where you are coming from. I think most Catholics who take our faith seriously give a lot of weight to abortion because it is so clearly, at least in the vast majority of instances, a terrible evil and a gross injustice. Hence, the agonizing.

    I don't know about other voters, but there isn't one issue that disqualifies me from voting for a candidate. There are issues I tend to react more to, like abortion, like marriage, like the death penalty, like economic injustice, like health care, but I try to keep from letting my emotions determine for whom I cast my vote. I mean looking at my issues, the first two the Republicans are clearly preferable, even in often in a cynical way, but as to the rest it is clearly the Dems. The first two also seem to be more in the province of either the courts (i.e., abortion) or the states (i.e., marriage), even courts in states. I would certainly favor a constitutional amendment on abortion. As to marriage, living in Utah, I am not worried about the issue too much. Our state constitution, after a referendum several years ago, defines marriage as between one man and one woman, which is no small achievement in this state and not due to any pressure for same sex unions. So, the courts, at least in this state on this issue, must defer to the expressed will of the people.

  7. Other examples of single issues that would disqualify a candidate in my opinion would be, for example, a federal candidate several years ago who was anti-abortion but was publicly and blatantly racist. I would not vote for him. Or a candidate who was prolife but obviously anti-Semitic.

  8. Good points. I suppose those would be singular reasons for me not to vote for a candidate, too.

  9. Something I find interesting in all the arguments about right to life and right to choice is that the political positions rarely come even close to being in line with the overall Catholic doctrine of the Sanctity of Life, which is a rather amazingly broad doctrine.

    We have been a rather fortunate church in that many of our modern popes have been men who rarely looked at issues simplistically, but have formulated extremely position which are extremely deep in their considerations.

    John Paul II was such a pope, but given that Benedict XVI was his closest advisor on many issues, we are again, rather fortunate in them.

    Many Americans including American Catholics have wedded the free market capitalism of this country to religion. John Paul II rather clearly disagreed with this, and so the issue of voting on single issues has been greatly complicated.

    John Paul II's Evangelium Vitae is looked at as a primary document opposing abortion, but it goes on to also give equal weight to other conitions which deny the dignity of life, not merely the sanctity of it:

    Looking at the situation from this point of view, it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of "conspiracy against life" is unleashed. This conspiracy involves not only individuals in their personal, family or group relationships, but goes far beyond, to the point of damaging and distorting, at the international level, relations between peoples and States.

    In other places bpth recent popes have vocally spoken out against the raging materialism which is often an aspect of American electoral campaigns ("The government should allow you to keep your money")

    Most Americans, even American Catholics, take a political stance in which religion is wedded to the free market, but John Paul II and his follower reject this stance as well:

    Rich and Poor: The poor of the United States and of the world are your brothers and sisters in Christ. You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs from the feast. You must take of your substance, and not just of your abundance, in order to help them. And you must treat them like guests at your family table. Homily at Yankee Stadium, New York, Oct. 2, 1979

    I find it sigificant, that of all the possible choices for this first homily in America, John Paul II did not choose abortion as his topic, but something else.

    Again, there is a rather wide chasm between the simple political issue of "right to life" and the more profound positions taken by the Catholic Church.

    When one decides who to vote for, as a Catholic, ones conscience must be guided by the broader, and more profound position taken by the Church, and not the simpler issues of simply opposing Roe v.Wade.

  10. The statement noted here:

    (Evangelium Vitae, no. 73). Such incremental improvements in the law are acceptable as steps toward the full restoration of justice. However, Catholics must never abandon the moral requirement to seek full protection for all human life from the moment of conception until natural death"

    Would rather give a great deal of credence to the position taken by Obama and other democrats with regard to making abortion as infrequent as possible through social policies that support birth as the first choice and abortion as the last.

    When one considers many Republican policies with regard to economics, international affairs, you end up with having to vote for candidates whose policies result in tends of thousands of deaths per day.

    For example, there is massive starvation and disease in Africa, yet Africa produces more than enough food to sustain every person living on that continent. Policies of both the U.S. and Europe often result in it being necessary for those nations to sell grain and other food to Europe in order to purchase American weapons which make up a considerable amount of foreign aid to African and other nations.

    Also protectionism is involved. Currently Africa has one percent market share of the worlds agricultural markets. This is not because Africa is not capable of selling more, but other nations restrict purchasing African agricultural products. Aas a consequence Africa must exchange 5 billion dollars in foreign aid, for the roughly eighty billion it would be able to earn on its own if its market share was increased from one to two percent. This would do little harm to the economies of Europe and North America, but certainly would do much to prevent the deaths of the nearly 38,000 children who die every day around the world, a large percentage of who live and die all too soon on the African continent.

    This is too often the case. American voters have learned as an author once states to "Bravely stop at the surface"

    As soon as the words "tax cuts" are heard, it becomes all to simply to select the "pro-life" candidate.

    Last year I recall listening to a radio program. I was sort of scanning through the AM dial, and heard an evangelical preacher. What attracted my attention was that he was stating a political position, and this was his assertion that the it was inappropriate and "unChristian" to give charity to the poor, because it would make them "dependent on charity"

    I laughed so hard I started crying because I came to the realization of exactly how lost most Americans had become on the basics of religion and social responsibility and religious leaders started crafting a religious position designed to tell people what they wanted to hear, rather than what they needed to hear

    I also find it rather more than co-incidental, that in the year that John Paul II came to American and gave his homily on Americans needing to give of their substance and not just of their wealth to help the poor, that Jimmy Carter also gave what has been come to be known as his "Malaise Speech" in which he states that the greatest problem America was facing was that it was becoming too materialitic, and losing its spiritual values. Reagan told Americans that it was "Morning in America" and at this moment I think the simpler answers to deeper questions about right to life and social responsibilities became separated. One president was telling Americans what they needed to hear, the other, what they wanted to hear, yet it was the president who was voted out of office who most closely mirrored John Paul II's first homily to American Catholics and the American people

  11. I'm curious as to why you post anonymously?