At least one reader has reminded me, regarding this piece, that hierarchies do usually exist, and there are various legitimate ways to shuffle the deck. I still believe it is worth calling us back from too much weighting of one social issue over all others.
October 11, 2004
Voting Our Conscience, Not Our Religion
By MARK W. ROCHE
South Bend, Ind. * For more than a century, from the wave of
immigrants in the 19th century to the election of the first Catholic
president in 1960, American Catholics overwhelmingly identified with the
Democratic Party. In the past few decades, however, that allegiance has
largely faded. Now Catholics are prototypical "swing voters": in 2000,
they split almost evenly between Al Gore and George W. Bush, and recent
polls show Mr. Bush ahead of Senator John Kerry, himself a Catholic,
among white Catholics.
There are compelling reasons - cultural, socioeconomic and political -
for this shift. But if Catholic voters honestly examine the issues of
consequence in this election, they may find themselves returning to
their Democratic roots in 2004.
The parties appeal to Catholics in different ways. The Republican Party
opposes abortion and the destruction of embryos for stem-cell research,
both positions in accord with Catholic doctrine. Also, Republican
support of various faith-based initiatives, including school vouchers,
tends to resonate with Catholic voters.
Members of the Democratic Party, meanwhile, are more likely to
criticize the handling of the war in Iraq, to oppose capital punishment
and to support universal heath care, environmental stewardship, a just
welfare state and more equitable taxes. These stances are also in
harmony with Catholic teachings, even if they may be less popular among
When values come into conflict, it is useful to develop principles that
help place those values in a hierarchy. One reasonable principle is that
issues of life and death are more important than other issues. This
seems to be the strategy of some Catholic and church leaders, who
directly or indirectly support the Republican Party because of its
unambiguous critique of abortion. Indeed, many Catholics seem to think
that if they are truly religious, they must cast their ballots for
This position has two problems. First, abortion is not the only
life-and-death issue in this election. While the Republicans line up
with the Catholic stance on abortion and stem-cell research, the
Democrats are closer to the Catholic position on the death penalty,
universal health care and environmental protection.
More important, given the most distinctive issue of the current
election, Catholics who support President Bush must reckon with the
Catholic doctrine of "just war." This doctrine stipulates that a war is
just only if all possible alternative strategies have been pursued to
their ultimate conclusion; the war is conducted in accordance with moral
principles (for example, the avoidance of unnecessary civilian
casualties and the treatment of prisoners with dignity); and the war
leads to a more moral state of affairs than existed before it began.
While Mr. Kerry, like many other Democrats, voted for the war, he has
since objected to the way it was planned and waged.
Second, politics is the art of the possible. During the eight years of
the Reagan presidency, the number of legal abortions increased by more
than 5 percent; during the eight years of the Clinton presidency, the
number dropped by 36 percent. The overall abortion rate (calculated as
the number of abortions per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44)
was more or less stable during the Reagan years, but during the Clinton
presidency it dropped by 11 percent.
There are many reasons for this shift. Yet surely the traditional
Democratic concern with the social safety net makes it easier for
pregnant women to make responsible decisions and for young life to
flourish; among the most economically disadvantaged, abortion rates have
always been and remain the highest. The world's lowest abortion rates
are in Belgium and the Netherlands, where abortion is legal but where
the welfare state is strong. Latin America, where almost all abortions
are illegal, has one of the highest rates in the world.
None of this is to argue that abortion should be acceptable. History
will judge our society's support of abortion in much the same way we
view earlier generations' support of torture and slavery - it will be
universally condemned. The moral condemnation of abortion, however, need
not lead to the conclusion that criminal prosecution is the best way to
limit the number of abortions. Those who view abortion as the most
significant issue in this campaign may well want to supplement their
abstract desire for moral rectitude with a more realistic focus on how
best to ensure that fewer abortions take place.
In many ways, Catholic voters' growing political independence has led
to a profusion of moral dilemmas: they often feel they must abandon one
good for the sake of another. But while they may be dismayed at John
Kerry's position on abortion and stem-cell research, they should be no
less troubled by George W. Bush's stance on the death penalty, health
care, the environment and just war. Given the recent history of higher
rates of abortion with Republicans in the White House, along with the
tradition of Democratic support of equitable taxes and greater
integration into the world community, more Catholics may want to
reaffirm their tradition of allegiance to the Democratic Party in 2004.
Mark W. Roche is dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the
University of Notre Dame.