Friday, October 3, 2008

A Different Take on Kmiec's Book

Michael Winters recommends reading Prof. Kmiec’s book about Obama, “Can a Catholic Support Him?” This is good advice, as we can all use more reading in our lives; what Catholic would have the temerity to reject the advice “tolle et lege.” Reading this book may help many to understand Kmiec’s support for Obama, despite the latter’s absolute support of abortion rights, and the need for the government to promote those rights through the Freedom of Choice Act which would effectively eliminate all state restrictions on abortion and bans on public funding of it.
But I think that in the present context Kmiec mistitled the book. The question isn’t whether a Catholic “can” support Obama. The Church has made it clear that a Catholic can, as She has made it clear that a Catholic can support any pro-choice candidate for office, even one with as absolute a pro-abortion position as Obama’s, so long as the support is not directed at the pro-choice position, and one has proportionate reasons for tolerating the evil of the pro-abortion position. In arguing that a Catholic “can” support Obama, Kmiec is adding nothing to what the Church has already made clear.
The question is whether a Catholic “should” support Obama. And Kmiec has for a while been deploying several arguments to convince Catholics that they “should” support Obama over McCain. Michael refers to one argument when he mentions Kmiec’s claim that both Obama and McCain are pro-choice, and neither candidate’s pro-choice position fully accords with Catholic teaching. He has made this argument before. He argues that Obama believes the “decision” about abortion is the mother’s to make, while John McCain believes the “decision” belongs with the states, rather than the federal government, to legislate on abortion; in other words McCain advocates Federalism. Kmiec then concludes that as both are “pro-choice,” differing merely on the locus of the choice, the individual or the state, neither position fully accords with Catholic teaching. “Neither candidate presents a position fully compatible with Catholic teaching recognizing abortion for the intrinsic evil that it is.” The conclusion is that the voter is confronted with an option between two pro-choice candidates.
But this argument is plainly fallacious, as it equivocates on the terms ‘decision’ and ‘choice’. Who isn’t pro-choice if being pro-choice means being in favor of choice on something or another? Everyone is “pro-choice” about whether to eat the vegetables at dinner. The Church is “pro-choice” if you are talking about the right of parents to choose the setting of their children’s education.
Decisions and choices are defined by their objects—what are they about? Obama’s position is that the decision to have an abortion is a legitimate moral choice made by an individual that must be protected from any interference by any governmental entity. The relevant choice that he is “pro” with respect to is the beginning of an act of abortion. And Kmiec understates the point when he says that Obama’s position is not “fully compatible with” Catholic teaching—it is fully incompatible with Catholic teaching. McCain’s position is that the decisions about how to legislate concerning abortion reside with the states. The relevant choice that he is “pro” with respect to is an act of a government that brings about a law, not an act that brings about an abortion. And one can maintain that certain legislative acts belong to the states without being committed to the rightness of every legislative act. So I may think that the choice to determine educational standards belongs with the states, and still think that the actual standards chosen by a state are bad. McCain’s position is entirely consistent with maintaining that the failure of states to legislate restrictions on abortion is a failure to protect the common good; Obama’s position is not. Indeed, McCain has consistently voted against pro-choice legislation and for pro-life legislation, while the reverse holds true of Obama.
Kmiec would be hard pressed to detail just where the Catholic Church teaches against Federalism; indeed the Church’s teaching on subsidiarity resonates strongly with Federalism. So it is simply false and misleading to suggest that McCain’s position is “not fully compatible with” Catholic teaching. Obama’s position is that our federal constitutional order can, does, and should exclude a class of human beings from the protection of law, while McCain’s position is that it should not. This is a difference of justice at the foundation of any social order; one position destroys the conditions necessary for the common good, while the other does not. It is difficult to imagine what proportionate reasons there are for ignoring a position that destroys the conditions necessary for the common good. Thus it is specious to suggest that both are “pro-choice” in the sense relevant to the question “should a Catholic support him?”

John O’Callaghan


Brigitte said...

Should a Catholic overlook the candidates' positions on all the issues over which elected officials have direct control in order to make an ideological statement in the voting booth? Is the Presidential election a referendum on the morality of abortion?

Mike Moehlenhof said...

I believe that your analysis is correct, but I want to make a point to add to the discussion...

Obama's platform of pro-choice policies will likely strengthen pro-choice laws and positions in the federal government, thus possibly making it more difficult to overturn such pro-choice laws.

McCain's platform neither strengthens nor weakens pro-choice policies in the United States. However his leverage is that he can move the law to individual states and work to establish pro-life policies or pro-choice policies in some states.

Either way you look at it, the Catholic Church advocates protection of life, and pro-choice policies of Obama would be in direct contradiction to the teachings of the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church would be neutral in standing with John McCain.

Marie..."can" and "should" a Catholic vote for Obama are two different meanings. An well informed conscience will dicate such reasoning at the polls for Catholics.

djr said...


The right answer is 'no,' O'Callaghan's answer is 'no,' and the Church's teaching is 'no.' As O'Callaghan put it, one can support a pro-choice politician "so long as the support is not directed at the pro-choice position, and one has proportionate reasons for tolerating the evil of the pro-abortion position."

So your questions are just not the right ones to be asking, because their answer is obvious (though of course, plenty of people do seem to talk as though the answer to your questions is 'yes'). The right question is whether or not there are proportionate reasons for tolerating Obama's position on abortion. O'Callaghan thinks not: "It is difficult to imagine what proportionate reasons there are for ignoring a position that destroys the conditions necessary for the common good." I'm not convinced that the answer is so simple. Protection for all human beings is certainly a necessary condition of realizing the common good. But it is not sufficient, and O'Callaghan has not offered any reason to think that Kmiec is wrong to think that an Obama administration would do more to promote the common good of our political community and justice in the world at large than a McCain administration.

O'Callaghan is, of course, right to point out Kmiec's equivocation on McCain being 'pro-choice.' He does us all a service by clarifying the question. Perhaps now we can have a better go at answering it well.

Brigitte said...

Mike, there is no single reason women give for choosing abortion. Poverty tops the list, but what about a woman who just does not want to endure pregnancy, has no interest in mothering, and who does not believe in God? Is there a principle upon which one can base a law depriving her of her "freedom to choose" that is not an imposition of someone else's religious beliefs upon her?

Brigitte said...

Is there reason to be concerned that if government takes, or is given, the authority to stop women from choosing to have abortions, then government also gets the authority to force women to have abortions against their will? Why or why not?