A kind reader suggested that I offer an analysis of all the presidential candidates in order to assist voters in making the right choice. Unfortunately, despite the shrill denunciations of modernist Catholics who insist that my opposition to abortion proves I am a shill for the Republican Party, I am one of the least qualified persons to make such an assessment.
Though I do have a personal friend who is running for the Senate, I tend to be woefully uninterested in politics. I get most of my own political information from people I trust who are far more knowledgeable than I. Of course, I am not referring here to the moral principles which must govern our votes. I’m very keen indeed on those. But as far as getting to the bottom of conflicting reports about a candidate’s positions, or evaluating past voting records, or assessing the best possible political strategy, well, I’m not anywhere near the forefront.
However, since the U. S. Bishops have in general not given adequate moral guidance, I’ll talk a little here about two key principles. The first principle is that serious intrinsic moral evils which can be controlled politically and which affect large numbers of people must be at the very top of the decision tree for selecting candidates. The fact is that a million persons are murdered by abortion each year in our country as a direct result of judicial and legislative action, and countless others are murdered through embryonic stem cell research and in vitro fertilization, with more being queued up for death by euthanasia. All of these attacks are intrinsically evil, and they affect enormously large numbers of people.
Now, it doesn’t take a moral genius to understand that this grave evil must take precedence in the decision tree over other significant issues such as concern for the environment, health insurance, welfare programs, or educational policy, none of which typically involve the intrinsic evil of deliberately taking an innocent life. And the same is true even for war policy, the pros and cons of which must be endlessly debated because war is not intrinsically immoral, even though it does involve direct attacks on human lives, though generally (thus far, at least) on a much smaller scale.
For this reason, the very first principle of political morality in contemporary America is that voters have a serious obligation to distinguish between candidates who support the abortion license (and its related evils) and candidates who want to reduce, restrict or eliminate the abortion license altogether. Assuming one or more candidates fall into the latter camp, a moral voter in America in 2008 will restrict his vote to this group, choosing among them based on the degree of their hostility to abortion, the viability of their plan to restrict or end it, and their expected electability. Only after assessing this is the voter justified in proceeding to secondary moral issues and personal preferences.
Of course, if no candidate falls into the group which desires to reduce or eliminate the abortion license, the voter is justified in choosing on other grounds. The point here is that if the voter can be positively engaged on behalf of the life issues, he must be so engaged. The reason is that in contemporary America nothing else comes close in its combination of human impact and moral importance.
My second principle is a refutation of the mistaken opinion among some pro-life leaders that it is immoral to support incremental measures to restrict abortion. For these leaders, it must be all or nothing at all. The result is that they are very quick to declare no candidates acceptable, thereby leaving the voter morally free to choose on other grounds. On this reading, for example, a candidate who would propose to outlaw only some kinds or classes of abortion is regarded as actually proposing to commit murder against all those who will be left unprotected. In other words, as compared with a pro-abortion politician, the proponent of mere restrictions is said to offer no real moral alternative.
But this is nonsense on its face. While we have an obligation to do the very best we can, the morality of any given step along that path is to be assessed according to how the proposed step will alter the prevailing pattern of abortion at the time it is proposed. If a law will permit fewer to be murdered than are being murdered now (that is, the law will protect and save some), it may morally be supported by both voters and politicians (and the politicians are also morally required to make known their principled opposition to abortion as a whole). Incidentally, this is not me talking. It is Pope John Paul II, who stated the case very clearly in Evangelium Vitae #73:
A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favouring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations — particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation — there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.
Thus is established the second principle, a principle allowing for many strategic considerations and the exercise of prudence in a good cause — so long as the voter is truly committed to the cause.
On strategy, of course, there is room for disagreement. And there is even more room for disagreement in addressing problems that are not intrinsic moral evils, problems which may be significant but cannot carry nearly the same weight as abortion does in the current context. If a voter’s conscience is animated by the two principles I have outlined, he may also consider, further down the decision tree, these secondary matters, in differentiating among candidates who are still in play after applying the earlier decision path. Such a voter would be well-advised to inform himself about the positions, seriousness and viability of all the available candidates. He should then base his final selection on a decision tree whose first node is morality, whose second node (if multiple candidates still remain) is strategy, and whose third node (if multiple candidates still remain) is a collection of issues necessarily less significant in 2008 than the American holocaust.