Catholics and Obama

I want to offer a response to Nicholas Cafardi, M. Cathleen Kaveny, and Douglas Kmiec's "A Catholic Brief for Obama"—which was itself a response to my essay on the subject.

I take it as an iron law of controversy that when three tenured law professors like Nick Cafardi, Cathy Kaveny, and Doug Kmiec fret in print about "intellectual siren calls" and "elegant theorizing," something other than real argument—moral argument or policy argument—is afoot. A serious, bipartisan, national debate about the ways in which people of goodwill in both political parties can work together to build a culture of life in 21st-century America would be welcome. Professors Cafardi, Kaveny, and Kmiec are not making the contributions to that argument of which they were once capable. Indeed, as the Most Rev. Charles Chaput, archbishop of Denver recently put it (speaking, he emphasized, as a private citizen), "To suggest—as some Catholics do—that Senator [Barack] Obama is this year's 'real' pro-life candidate requires a peculiar kind of self-hypnosis, or moral confusion, or worse. To portray the 2008 Democratic Party presidential ticket as the preferred 'pro-life' option is to subvert what the word 'pro-life' means."

Why? Because the public record amply demonstrates that Senator Obama is not the abortion moderate of our professors' imagination, but a genuine abortion radical. In the third presidential debate, Obama described Roev. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that obliterated the abortion law of all fifty states, as "rightly decided"—a judgment with which Professors Cafardi, Kaveny, and Kmiec have all disagreed in the past. Moreover, Senator Obama's defense of Roe extends far beyond anyone's "elegant theorizing." Support for Roe was Obama's stated reason for opposing Illinois bills aimed at providing legal protection for children who survived an abortion. Support for Roe buttressed Obama's criticism of a Supreme Court decision upholding state partial-birth abortion laws. The full implementation of the most radical interpretation of Roe would seem to be the goal of Obama's support for the federal Freedom of Choice Act [FOCA], which, by stripping Catholic doctors of "conscience clause" protections currently in state laws, would put thousands of Catholic physicians in jeopardy.

In short, there is very little, if anything, in Senator Obama's public record to suggest that he agrees with Professors Cafardi, Kaveny, and Kmiec that abortion is a "tragic moral choice." On the contrary, the 2008 Democratic platform removed language that described abortion as "regrettable" from the relevant plank. Do Professors Cafardi, Kaveny, and Kmiec imagine that they have a better grasp of Senator Obama's views on the life issues than, say, the National Reproductive Rights Action League [NARAL], or other pro-choice Obama supporters?

Our law professors rightly ask who would best serve women in crisis pregnancies and their unborn children. The answer is obvious: those thousands of crisis pregnancy centers across America, staffed largely by unpaid volunteers and veterans of the pro-life movement, which offer women a real choice, and a better alternative to their dilemma than abortion. How is it possible to square a concern for women in crisis with support of the presidential candidate who favors ending the modest federal funding some of those crisis pregnancy centers now receive? How is it "pro-life" to support a presidential candidate who is publicly committed to requiring any federal legislation in support of pregnant women to include promotion of abortion? At a certain point along this trajectory, I fear, we are through the looking glass and into the White Queen's world of impossible things before breakfast.

It is also quite true that "better education of our youth" is essential to building a culture of life. Why, then, do our Catholic professors support a presidential candidate who recently scoffed at voucher programs that allow poor parents in our inner cities to choose to send their children to Catholic schools—which are often the only urban schools that work?

It is very bad theology to suggest that the controversy over the reception of Holy Communion by Catholic politicians who actively support the abortion license is a matter of "using the sacrament as a political tool." On the contrary, it is a question of maintaining the integrity of the church's central act of worship, and of calling Catholics with an ill-formed sense of the moral requirements of both faith and reason to a serious examination of conscience. As for divisiveness, well, there are times when bishops are morally required to be "divisive," as when Catholic bishops deliberately "divided" their flocks on the question of the segregation of Catholics schools by excommunicating segregationists.

The truth of the matter, alas, is that most Catholic politicians are woefully ill-informed about the moral logic of the Catholic Church's teaching on the life issues, which is not a moral logic for Catholics only. This reflects an enormous failure on the part of too many pastors and bishops. That failure is compounded when prominent Catholic intellectuals who may wish to support a candidate for other reasons fail to make clear that the candidate's views and public record on the life issues are reprehensible. That compound failure is made even worse when such a candidate is repackaged as the "real" pro-life candidate.

Is John McCain—for whom, I might add, I have never served as an adviser, formally or informally—a perfect pro-life candidate? Of course not. But Barack Obama is a perfect pro-life nightmare. President McCain would not work to repeal the pro-life legislative advances of the past 35 years; knowledgeable and sober-minded Catholic legal and political observers who have worked on these issues for decades are convinced that an Obama administration and an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress would eviscerate those modest advances within a year. As for the Supreme Court, the hard facts of our national history teach us that, while the country can survive the court's getting it wrong on some things, we are in very deep trouble when the court gets it wrong on the big human rights questions. That was true when Scot v. Sanford declared an entire class of human beings outside the protection of the laws. That was true when Plessyv.Ferguson upheld legal segregation. And that has been true with Roev.Wade. Professors Cafardi, Kaveny, and Kmiec say they have "no objections" to pursuing legal redress to Roe; yet they support a candidate who, given the opportunity, would certainly do everything in his power to make any revision of Roe, or return of the issue to the states, impossible for the foreseeable future. Once again, we're through the looking glass and into a wilderness of impossibilities.

As a former Democrat who left the party after it left former Pennsylvania governor Robert Casey out in the cold at the 1992 convention, I deeply regret the fact that the once-traditional political home of U.S. Catholics has embraced policy positions on the life issues that offend both Catholic faith and everyone's reason. I would welcome a new openness to pro-life argumentation and policy in the Democratic Party. But it is not at all clear how that revolution, will be advanced by Catholic intellectuals and lawyers who imagine that the party leader's record on core life issues can be, somehow, bracketed, and that reinventing the New Deal or the Great Society will turn the Democratic Party into a political force committed to the culture of life. Should Senator Obama be elected president, Professors Cafardi, Kaveny, and Kmiec will enjoy a brief moment of satisfaction. That moment will likely be followed by the discovery that they have far less credit in the new administration's bank than NARAL and other longtime Obama supporters.

As his biographer, I think it likely that I knew the late John Paul II rather better than Professors Cafardi, Kaveny, and Kmiec. John Paul II was an adult, with whom one could disagree on matters of prudential judgment without his becoming disagreeable. It was an admirable trait. In reflecting on it, my interlocutors might also reflect on the relationship of the candidacy they support to John Paul's description of America's moral history, eloquently expressed when the pope accepted the credentials of the last Democratic ambassador to the Holy See, Lindy Boggs, in 1997:

"No expression of today's [American] commitment to liberty and justice for all can be more basic than the protection offered to those in society who are most vulnerable. The United States of America was founded on the conviction that an inalienable right to life was a self-evident moral truth, fidelity to which was a primary criterion of social justice. The moral history of your country is the story of your people's efforts to widen the circle of inclusion in society, so that all Americans might enjoy the protection of law, participate in the responsibilities of citizenship, and have the opportunity to make a contribution to the common good. Whenever a certain category of people—the unborn or the sick and old—are excluded from that protection, a deadly anarchy subverts the original understanding of justice. The credibility of the United States will depend more and more on its promotion of a genuine culture of life, and on a renewed commitment to building a world in which the weakest and most vulnerable are welcomed and protected."

Join the Discussion