Vox Nova is pleased to welcome a guest post by James McGehee.
I grew up Catholic and Republican. I am now Catholic and politically independent. In my first three presidential elections, I voted for George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. This November will be different. I will not cast my vote for the Republican nominee and only pro-life candidate for the presidency. While the prospect of a President Donald J. Trump frightens me, I can’t, as many do, dismiss the voters who secured his nomination as ignoramuses and bigots. Trump received the rebel vote, the vote fed up with the status quo, one vote to make up for dozens wasted on your standard, well-mannered Republican. I get it, because I will be casting my own rebel vote, the vote that ends my days as a single-issue voter for the pro-life cause.
You can’t blame the single-issue abortion voter. Catholic doctrine teaches that human life begins at conception, and if you believe this you must conclude that the Democratic Party, whose platform endorses liberal abortion rights, is complicit in mass murder. Moreover, the Church hierarchy places abortion front and center in every election. That emphasis itself could lend the impression that Catholics have an obligation to vote for pro-life candidates over pro-choice ones, and many Church leaders are outspoken in encouraging Catholics to vote as a pro-life bloc. For the last time a Catholic clergyman advocated for pro-life candidates before a congregation I was sitting in, I only have to turn back one Sunday, to the homily. The deacon imagined a young man who has announced his intention to vote for a pro-choice candidate this November. The father tries to convince his son not to make this grave mistake, because the father knows that by voting for a pro-choice candidate his son will formally cooperate with evil and flirt with damnation. There was nothing ambiguous about the deacon’s words: to vote for a pro-choice candidate when there is a pro-life alternative is not only poor citizenship, it’s sinful.
When Joseph Ratzinger was the cardinal who headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he sent a memorandum to United States bishops titled “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion. General Principles.” The document makes clear the Church’s position that a Catholic cannot vote for a candidate forpolitical office because of that candidate’s permissive stand on abortion. When a Catholic does not share that stand, but votes for the candidate for other reasons, the Church considers this “remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.” The U.S. bishops have published their own reflections on political responsibility in “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” They write that a Catholic may vote for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil such as abortion “only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.”
Whenever I hear a Catholic take this hard line, one underlying premise is that voting pro-life candidates into office will spare the untold lives that abortion claims. A changing political tide can of course bring about sweeping changes to public policy. In 2008, voters ushered Barack Obama into the presidency and gave Democrats a wide margin in both houses of Congress. In complete control of the political branches, Democrats passed an $800 billion stimulus package and major reforms to the healthcare and banking systems, all over opposition from Republicans. If a pro-life vanguard of Republicans were to conquer Washington in similar fashion, they could accomplish a good deal, but not by instituting a federal ban on abortion. Since 1973, when Roe v. Wade recognized a constitutional right to an abortion, the Supreme Court has given lawmakers little latitude in regulating abortion.
For this reason, the primary justification for pro-life voting is that politicians who stand by anti- abortion policies will reconfigure the ideological composition of the Supreme Court, until there are five justices who will vote to overturn Roe and its progeny. While no Supreme Court justice has ever recognized constitutional rights for the unborn, jurists who believe federal judges have little or no power to create constitutional rights not within the Constitution’s text and original meaning usually oppose what Roe (constitutionally speaking) stands for—the power of judges to recognize rights not within the document’s text and history, but within its contemporary spirit. (Abortion isn’t mentioned in the Constitution.) Because the latter view of the Constitution is associated with liberals, and the former with conservatives, undoing Roe requires a president sympathetic to a conservative reading of the Constitution.
A second hurtle is that no single president can entirely reform the Supreme Court. The nine justices enjoy lifetime tenures, and on the whole work past the average retirement age and live beyond the average life expectancy. A two-term president is lucky to appoint two or three justices. Most pro-life voters understand they are playing the long game, but because the White House see-saws between the country’s two major parties, every ostensible gain a Republican president makes toward sitting a Roe-adverse court is usually mitigated by a Democratic successor.
I am not suggesting that Catholic voters not account for abortion when deciding which candidates will best serve the common good. Politicians can and do advance the pro-life agenda. Whether “proportionate” or “truly grave” reasons to vote for a pro-choice candidate exist this election cycle is a question each Catholic voter must submit to a well-formed conscience. Without wading into a discussion of the policy issues at stake in this election, I offer two additional considerations for the Catholic voter discerning whether it is morally permissible to vote for a pro-choice candidate. First, the pro-life movement would hardly suffer from having a stronger voice within the Democratic Party. To surrender an enduring American establishment to the ideological opposition only makes that opposition more formidable. Pro-life voices are needed within the Democratic Party. Abortion need not be a partisan issue.
It’s understandable that the Church emphasizes the role politics has to play in the pro-life movement. Catholics were long excluded from American politics and have seen our representation in the ranks of government slowly rise. At the same time, Catholics have seen our cultural impact dwindle. The Vice President and Speaker of the House are both practicing Catholics, but the mainstream media, Hollywood, and the academy—perhaps the three most influential non-political institutions in America—not only lack Christian representation, but are often hostile to the teachings of Christianity. Whether the pro-life movement is ultimately successful will depend less on who holds the reins to government than on who shapes American culture. The forces of culture can convert the unconverted. Political victories, on the other hand, usually cause the losers to double-down on their position. As R.R. Reno wrote in First Things before the 2010 midterm elections, “the future of America will turn on culture, not politics: the poetry of our moral and social imaginations, not punditry. So by all means vote, but don’t neglect the real and deeper sources of public life.”
At a daily Mass I attended a few weeks ago, the priest interrupted his intercessory prayer on behalf of the unborn to remark that “when it comes to politics and a choice between parties, the choice is clear,” another nod to the GOP from the altar. But by allying the faith with the Republican Party—which, likes its rival, takes its share of criticism from the American bishops—such remonstrance ignores the murkiness inherent in politics and the primacy of culture. I end my days as a single-issue voter for the pro-life cause not by waving the white flag of surrender, but in the sincere belief that putting this stain on the national conscience behind us requires Catholics to rethink the way forward.