Tomorrow is “Respect Life Sunday” when the Catholic Church reiterates in word and deed its commitment to the principle that the right to life is the fundamental tenet of law. And for those Catholics (like myself) who still hold that law sprouts from (or ought to sprout from) a foundational, universal moral commitment to life, the upcoming election is a true test for putting into to practice our belief that law ought to reflect that ethic and that we must, without negotiation, make our vote a symbol and gesture of that belief. MSNBC has a provocative write-up on the tension within the Church going into the presidential election. Justin Cardinal Rigali, the chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, has released his statement for this Sunday, which is a clear and praiseworthy summary of what is at stake politically this November.
Those of us who really believe abortion and embryonic stem cell research to be “non-negotiables” will not vote for either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain, for to do otherwise is to performatively contradict that stance. A vote for Obama and a vote for McCain is an active display of the negotiable quality of these issues. So if a Catholic buys into the notion that there are, indeed, such things as “non-negotiable” issues, then that Catholic remains consistent in action only by refusing to negotiate by voting for the so-called “lesser evil.”
If a Catholic votes for Obama or McCain, then he/she does not, in my opinion (which is based upon Ratzinger’s famous letter on pro-choice politicians), commit mortal sin provided they vote for what their conscience and intellect deem proportionate reasons. A vote for Obama or for McCain is a material cooperation in evil, which is a sin, albeit a non-mortal one. My conscience tells me that I ought not to participate materially in the evil of abortion or embryonic stem cell research. But that’s a standard I hold only myself to, for the duty to follow one’s conscience is binding. I trust that those Catholics who inform themselves of the Church’s teaching on life issues and vote for Obama or McCain are acting in good conscience. I just know that my conscience tells me not to vote for either because it tells me that abortion and embryonic stem cell research are not negotiable issues.
Conscience and morality are not conditioned by a two-party, three-party, or single-party system. The right to life is not relativised, I think, by the fact that either Obama or McCain will win and that a third-party candidate will not. Once upon a time, when the Church was not afraid to refuse to compromise with a political structure, the most ardent of Catholics did not endorse the rule of a sovereign who compromised fundamental moral issues. I pray we recover that worldview soon, for there are many today who wish to compromise in their endorsement of Obama and McCain. I dare not presume that they should be denied the Eucharist (such is their judgment and that of their ordinary). But I do dare to presume that they are weakening the Church from within by means of their negotiation with the ethics of life.