My Catholic Problem — and Ours

I am grateful for the Patheos political question of the week this time out. A bunch of us have been asked to answer the question, “What are the key issues at stake in this election for people of your tradition?”

My religious tradition is Catholicism, full stop. There are two issues that should be of paramount importance to Catholics, and they make a choice at the presidential level very difficult.

One of those issues is abortion. The other one is not “social justice.” As I wrote in the Guardian last time out:

The Church believes in a hierarchy of evil, which has stark political implications. It means that certain issues are intrinsically more important than others. So long as it’s legal and widely available in the US, abortion will always trump social justice issues, even if the other issues might be worthy causes.

The problem, as I spelled out in that piece, is that there is one issue that ought to be on equal footing with abortion, and Republicans are about as bad on it as Democrats are on abortion. The issue is war and the necessity that nations attempt to conform their actions to the Just War Theory. Republicans just do not believe in this. Take Iraq:

The Pope and his predecessor warned against this. John Paul II sent Cardinal Pio Laghi as an emissary to the White House who explained that the US invasion of Iraq would be “illegal” and “unjust”. Benedict XVI, then head of the teaching office of the Church, said that the “concept of a ‘preventive war’ does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” with good reason.

Last time, Barack Obama was awful on abortion and he hasn’t gotten any better. Obamacare could seriously impede the operation of Catholic institutions, medical and otherwise, with its mandates to finance things the church — and millions of Catholics right along with it — considers deeply immoral.

Obama was a little bit better on war, though he’s proved extremely disappointing on that front as well — committing the country to war with Libya without so much as a by-your-leave to Congress, for one. Obama hasn’t committed ground troops to any new theaters. Other than that, he’s been a disaster.

Mitt Romney professes to be better than Obama on abortion these days. Indeed it would be hard to be any worse. Unlike many pols who profess to be “personally opposed, but” on the issue, we know that Romney actually was personally opposed even when he didn’t want to change the law, because as a Mormon bishop he urged several women not to have abortions.

Yet his political record is not encouraging. In Massachusetts, he took the path of least resistance, calling himself pro-choice and loudly defending that assertion. He has recently said that he would not advance legislation in Congress. The legislative point is a defensible one. From a pro-life point of view, all he has to do is sign legislation and appoint good judges, but it’s still discouraging for pro-lifers who signed onto his campaign thinking they’d found a genuine ally.

And war. Don’t get me started on Romney. The only hope is that Romney actually does not believe a lot of the crazy things he’s said on the campaign trail.

That’s possible. Romney’s father missed out on the Republican nomination in 1968 in part because he came out against Vietnam. The son may have taken from that defeat the importance of sounding hawkish. I know a lot of people think he’s too risk averse to get us into another Iraq, Afghanistan or even a Libya, but I’m not convinced.

Last time, faced with the choice between Obama and John McCain, I voted for Bob Lott, my dad. I just filled out my ballot last night and again voted for Bob Lott.

If Romney can get elected, unravel the worst parts of Obamacare and not get the nation into any more quagmires, he’ll have earned my vote in 2016 — and my respect. Regardless of how they vote in this election, I suspect many Catholics feel roughly the same way.

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  • J Kok

    You effectively voted for Obama.

  • Jeremy Lott

    And if we lived in a swing state, I’d feel bad about that.

  • Tim

    I only ineffectively vote.

  • RobM1981

    How can you vote for Obama in 2012? By your own calculus you declare he and Romney effectively a “draw” on the issue of war. Since Romney has never had that power, this is speculative, but I can follow your logic.

    Abortion and, if I may be so bold, religious freedom is clearly a win for Romney/Ryan. Obama/Biden have not only allowed partial-birth abortion – a most heinous crime against humanity – proceed, they have built it into Obamacare. Moreover, they have attacked the Catholic Church to force them to provide forms of insurance that the Church rejects.

    Surely you must see this. This isn’t spin – these are merely the facts.
    If the candidates are a true tie on one issue, then the decider must be the second issue.

    People who vote for Barack Obama have blood on their hands. They are complicit in partial birth abortions.

    At least enemy soldiers get to fight back sometimes…

  • Mike Petrik

    1. Neither party believes in or even reasons via JWD. Both parties are essentially consequentialist with different prudential and political calculi.

    2. The GOP (and some Dem) enthusiasm for going into Iraq was grounded in preventing catastrophic losses from WMDs. Understandable, but wrong. The Dems changed their mind not because they conceded the initial reasoning was wrong, but because the WMDs weren’t there.

    3. The Dem (and some GOP) enthusiasm for abortion rights is grounded in nothing worthy at all, except perhaps in cases involving rape or the mother’s survival which while wrong is understandable.

    4. Basically, Bush allowed good ends to justify illicit means. The Dems ends are not even good.

  • Bill

    I voted third party in 08 so I am not really criticizing you (Mr. Lott) and have some sympathy with your view. But things are a lot more complicated that you let on here.
    First, in voting for a non-candidate you are effectively withdrawing from the political process. That’s not inherently wrong, but difficult questions have always existed for Christians re the circumstances in which withdrawal is the moral choice and the circumstances in which it is not. I would suggest that unless all options are thorougly evil, it is a problematic choice.
    Second, just because you identify two issues of particular concern to Catholics (and I agree), doesn’t mean that you can or should vote on only those issues. You are endowed with reason, and Christians are generally expected to exercise a certain prudence and care for society overall, and for themselves. If you believe the candidates to be essentially equal on those issues, why not consider other issues and decide which candidate, though highly imperfect, seems better overall?
    Third, it is just not fair or accurate to say that Republicans do not believe in just war theory. I thought Iraq was not justified, but there was in fact extensive discussion of just war theory among Catholic intellectuals, including many Republicans, at the time of the Iraq invasion, and many defended it on those grounds. You can argue that their understanding of the facts on the ground and/or of the proper application of just war theory to them differ from yours, and from JPII (and you can vote against them on that basis if you wish), but that is not the same thing as them rejecting just war theory. And, a great many devout Catholic intellectuals agree that pre-emptive war can be within the bounds of just war theory due to the nature of modern warfare (for example, if you’re pretty sure somebody is going to launch a nuclear bomb you can attack them to stop it) and no Pope or Catechism has declared that it cannot be.

  • R. L. Hails Sr. P. E.

    If our nation worked, and it does not, there would have been, both in the Congress, and the campaign, a reasoned debate on the just war theory, as it desperately needs to be updated, to support the modern world. A key unconsidered issue is time. IF Iran gets a deliverable nuclear weapon, it will take only a few seconds from launch to the evaporation of Tel Aviv, and the certain destruction of the entire nation of Israel. That is what a weapon of mass destruction means. We know, from history that the US created the first nuclear weapon, and used it roughly a month later, in total war. It is a model T compared to today’s technology. Ergo, when can a first strike be used? If the answer is never, you must accept the consequences of that decision, certain megadeaths.

    I would further argue that the second item, after abortion, is gay marriage, more important than our existing conventional wars. Some 30 states have settled the issue, but it is boiling is almost all states. This too, is a grave evil. Doctrinal evils, proactively supported by Catholic leaders, is far worse that sins of individual weaknesses, as it warps societal mores.

    In weighing the candidates, I will vote against Obama, based on abortion, and basic competence. If permitted, I would sell Capital Hill to WalMart. We need the money and it has been useless for years. The only pol I really like is the telephone pole on my street. It works.

  • Duncan J. Farmer

    I agree with you on the intrinsic evil of abortion. It certainly involves the taking of an innocent life. I think, however, that the issue of preventive war is not an issue necessarily involving intrinsic evil. As you note, there are unjust wars and just wars. Just wars would not be intrinsically evil. Just War Theory is by no means a settled formula. It certainly involves self-defense and a nation’s duty to protect its citizens. In the atomic age, waiting to be attacked might well render a nation incapable of self-defense. Granted, it is a very tough call, one that probably requires that the danger is a clear and present threat. That will be difficult to guage in the best of circumstances. But what is the moral alternative? As to your vote, you could have chosen the lesser evil.

  • Kate

    I’m thinking that I’ll vote for myself. After all, I am the only candidate with which I agree wholeheartedly on every single issue.