Should a Catholic Vote for Bush or Kerry?
On Wednesday, Georgetown University's Catholic Studies Election Forum presented, "Why should a Catholic Vote Republican...Democratic?" The forum, moderated by Georgetown's Father John Langan, S.J., featured a surrogate for President George W. Bush and for Senator John Kerry. Each campaign representative made the case for why he believes his candidate is the best choice for Catholics in November.
Father Langan, the Cardinal Bernardin Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown, kicked off the program by saying the election is the third most important conflict we currently face. The most important, he felt is the Iraqi war, and joked that this was followed by the Red Sox-Yankees baseball playoffs. He noted that a recent political program had identified Catholics and working women as voting blocs "still in play" for both candidates. Therefore, the purpose of the forum was to see which candidate makes the strongest case for Catholic support. Each surrogate had fifteen minutes to make his argument followed by questions and answers from the audience.
Leonard A. Leo, Executive Vice President of the Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies in Washington, D.C, represented President Bush and spoke first. He stated emphatically that because Senator Kerry opposes the Church's teaching on "culture of life issues," Catholic voters must disqualify him. Therefore, the real question is can Catholics vote for President Bush based on Church teaching.
Leo said his rejection of Senator Kerry as an alternative for Catholics is not based on Kerry's faith. The only objective criteria are the senator's stated positions and voting record. This record must be examined in light of the Church's social teachings. At the core of these teachings is the right to life, which is paramount to living the Gospel of Life.
He then presented Kerry's scandalous abortion record. Kerry is against any sensible limits on the practice. He voted against the partial- birth abortion ban six times. He opposes parental notification laws, and he is the first presidential candidate Planned Parenthood has ever endorsed. He also supports human cloning and supports reversing President Bush's ban on new lines for embryonic stem-cell research. He noted Kerry's commitment to filibuster any judicial nominee who is pro-life, and pointed out how the senator voted against the unborn victims' act.
Leo also dismissed the senator's claim in the second debate that while he personally opposes abortion, he is not going to impose his religious views on others. He noted religion takes a position on an issue like abortion not as an article of faith, but because it is inherently morally wrong. He also addressed another popular claim by Kerry and others on the Left that Kerry is more pro-life because of the social spending he supports, which somehow leads to a decrease in women relying on abortions. Leo said abortions have declined in America not because of social spending, but because people are waking up to the horrible nature of the procedure. He also noted that you cannot measure someone's commitment to Catholic social teaching by how much money he spends on social programs.
After presenting why Catholics who take the Church's social teachings seriously could not vote for Kerry, Leo made his case for President Bush. He said Catholics can support the president after examining three main areas: the culture of life, social policies, and the Iraq war.
About the culture of life, he noted that President Bush signed the partial- birth abortion ban and unborn victims' act, and supports parental notification legislation. The president has also tried to make abortion rarer by promoting abstinence and advocating adoption as an alternative. He has banned tax money for overseas abortions. The president has placed a ban on federal embryonic stem-cell research beyond those lines already in existence from previously destroyed embryos and he supports adult stem-cell research. He also opposes human cloning.
Leo then presented President Bush's compassionate conservative social agenda. He noted that many of his conservative friends have bemoaned the fact that this administration has spent so much on social spending. He said President Bush has sought to lessen people's tax burden, and introduced programs like prison counseling. He has also launched the faith-based initiative. Most of all, President Bush recognizes that when individuals are empowered to live their own lives, society recognizes their inherent dignity, which is the crux of Catholic social teaching.
Given the setting and the number of students in the audience fiercely opposed to the Iraq war, Leo's toughest task was to present the president's justification for the invasion. He said the war was the last resort for the administration. Saddam Hussein was a vicious butcher who represented a threat to his own people, the Middle East, the United States, and the entire world. Further, Hussein continually ignored the United Nations' 17 resolutions addressing the Iraq crisis.
Representing Senator Kerry was Robert Otto Valdez, Ph.D., M.H.S.A., a Senior Health Scientist at RAND and a Senior Fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute for Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business. He began by noting that Catholics are interested in all issues despite the fact that the media likes to portray them as a single bloc only interested in one or two issues.
Valedez said that political exploitation was at an all-time low and to distort Kerry's position on moral issues was outrageous. He spoke of the Church's spiritual renewal since Vatican II, which promotes religious liberty, human dignity, respect for an individual's conscience, openness in policy, and the rights of all believers. He then took a shot at what he called "Pre-Vatican II" believers, whom he claims are in the business of rolling back reforms.
About Gospel values, he argued that John Kerry's vision comes closest to that of Catholics. He said Kerry is the better of the two candidates on a whole spectrum of social justice issues, including abortion, the death penalty, and social spending. Valedez then claimed that moral theology is not stagnant nor was it set in stone a couple of thousands of years ago. He argued it is wrong to believe that we have already uncovered all the moral issues facing humanity. It is rather a constant search for the truth.
He then made a not-so-veiled attack on Evangelicals, including the president, who he believes use the Bible as a means of demonizing others to promote their own agenda. He labeled this the politics of exclusion and claimed Kerry's view of the Gospel is one of openness, tolerance, and inclusion. He also said Kerry is someone who prays in secret and contrasted this to the Pharisee in the Gospel who seeks to bring attention to himself through ostentatious worship. The senator knows how to keep his faith and politics separate, he noted. Again, a not-so-subtle comparison to the president.
Valedez then launched a scathing attack on the President Bush's economic policies. He said real GDP is the lowest in memory. Employment is contracted, bankruptcies are up sharply, the stock market is lower then when Bush took office, and the poverty rate is up. The income inequality has grown, the budget surplus has disappeared, and in its place is a huge deficit, he argued.
He closed by noting when policies are extreme, which go to the breaking points, they hurt everyone. This is clearly against the Church's teaching on social justice. Kerry and Edwards are the right choice to restore the economic health of the country. More of the same isn't going to work. Freedom, equality, justice, and humanity are the values represented by the Democratic ticket, he said.
In general, the questions were thoughtful, although some could not resist the opportunity to make political points, particularly when it came to opposing the war. Some raised the issue of capital punishment and President Bush's support for the action, particularly as governor. Leo admitted this is one of the more vexing issues for him as a Catholic, but also noted that Kerry and the president share a similar position. Kerry has not made it a moral issue, according to Leo, because he is on record as supporting the use of capital punishment for terrorists.
As the election approaches, it is clear both campaigns are desperate for Catholic voters, as witnessed in the third debate in which Kerry employed Scripture, professed his Catholic faith, and mentioned his service as an altar boy. Now is decision time.
Catholics approaching the election have a clear choice. If they believe issues like abortion and euthanasia are non-negotiable, and that a candidate's support for such positions disqualifies him for consideration, they must do as Leo suggests. They must reject Senator Kerry and support President Bush or not vote - a practice the Church does not encourage.
Alternatively, they can ignore the Church's clear teaching on life and the primacy she places on it when it comes to voting, and support Senator Kerry. Before doing so, however, they should consider the words of Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput, who said recently that many Catholic Democrats "have used the 'seamless garment' as an excuse to sideline the abortion issue, making it one among many others. And, we can't do that." He noted that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the dignity of human life are at the heart of Catholic theology. He warns Catholics not to violate this doctrine. "Whether it's the creation of embryos for embryonic stem cell research or abortion, [these] are violations of the dignity of human beings, from our perspective. And you can never justify it."
St. Thomas More, pray for us.