Sunday, September 21, 2008

All Catholicism is Divided into Three Parts...

(A take-off on Caesar's Gallic Wars.) I've been following the American Presidential election cycle with considerable interest since the beginning of this year. But I've refrained from commenting because it doesn't feel right for a Canadian to pontificate on American political affairs. But some issues that have come up have application to our own situation here.

There has been a raging debate, some of which has spilled into the blogosphere, about how Catholic doctrine and sound reasoning apply to the election. There are among that minority of Catholics (those for whom conforming their thinking and action to that of the Church is a public duty) three basic divisions: Pro-Obama, Pro-McCain and Pro-Anybody Else. The first position is taken by Professor Kmiec and I will treat it as unreasonable and leave interested readers to investigate it for themselves. The next, perhaps the majority of this minority, argues that a vote for McCain/Palin is morally defensible and best in the circumstances. The last party is best represented by Mark Shea, though several other Catholic bloggers have expressed similar thoughts: both major candidates are morally objectionable and one must vote for some other, third-party candidate, even with no hope of defeating the first two. Steven Greydanus is attempting to engage these last two positions and his argument may have some bearing on our situation here in Canada, where viability of candidates is a tricker thing to assess:

Elections, Voting and Morality, Part 1: "

SDG here (not Jimmy).

In this election season, questions about voting and morality are naturally under discussion in the Catholic blogosphere and the larger Catholic world. At times, the range of possible answers being proposed and discussed has included some dubious opinions and claims.

There are good reasons not to be thrilled with either of the two major candidates, and it's not surprising that some thoughtful and serious Catholics and others may choose not to vote at all, or to vote for some quixotic third-party candidate as a form of protest against the major candidates.

More surprisingly, some serious Catholics have seemed at times to incline toward the view that, although one of the two major candidates is far less problematic than the other, even the less problematic candidate is still problematic enough to make supporting or voting for either of the two major candidates not only not obligatory, but actually objectively wrong. Rarefied theories regarding the purpose and moral significance of voting have been floated that seem hard to reconcile with Catholic teaching.

Even more surprisingly, some serious Catholics have actually gone so far as to argue that the preferable candidate is one whose agenda is about as radically opposed as it is possible to be to Catholic teaching on fundamental moral issues (including abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, therapeutic cloning and same-sex marriage) rather than his opponent whose views are much more convergent with Catholic teaching on most, if not all, of those issues. (More on this later.)

This last view has become most widely associated with Douglas Kmiec, Professor of Constitutional Law at Pepperdine University's School of Law and former Dean and St. Thomas More Professor of Catholic University's law school. After working with fellow Catholic scholar Mary Ann Glendon on Mitt Romney's presidential bid, Kmiec stunned American Catholics by endorsing Barack Obama for president.

While acknowledging that McCain's opposition to abortion is consonant with Catholic teaching while Obama's abortion advocacy is contrary to it, Kmiec seems to feel that the social and economic benefits of Obama's overall agenda could actually help reduce the incidence of abortion more effectively than any anti-abortion actions McCain is likely to undertake. Similar views have been taken by, among others, Catholic bloggers at Vox Nova and Eastern Orthodox convert Frank Shaeffer.

Kmiec also challenges McCain's pro-life credentials by citing McCain's failure to oppose the death penalty. (Perhaps oddly, I have not seen Kmiec mention the more crucial issue of McCain's failure to oppose embryonic stem-cell research. Surely Kmiec knows that Catholic teaching permits a diversity of opinion on the death penalty, but not on embryo-destructive programs.)

Kmiec's arguments for Catholic Obama advocacy have been roundly rejected by prominent Catholic commentators. At times, unfortunately, resistance to Kmiec's views has been taken to extremes: On one occasion a priest wrongly refused Kmiec communion because of his Obama advocacy, a canonically unjustifiable move.

The Church has penalties for procuring an abortion (automatic excommunication), and there seems to be a growing consensus among the bishops that Catholic politicians who actually support legalized abortion should not receive communion. (Strong arguments have been mounted that, following Canon 915, politicians who obstinately persist in manifestly supporting legalized abortion should be denied communion, though consensus on this point among the bishops has been slow in coming.)

However, when it comes to citizens supporting or voting for politicians who support intrinsically evil policies like abortion, Church teaching acknowledges that this can be morally justifiable if two conditions are met. First, one must support the politician in spite of his evil policies and not because of them. Second, there must be proportionately grave reasons outweighing the evil policies (again, more on this later). The question whether such morally proportionate reasons exist in any particular case, like the question whether a particular war is just, is not a matter of binding teaching, but of a permissible diversity of opinion.

This doesn't mean, of course, that all opinions are equally good, or all arguments equally plausible. I agree with those who find Kmiec's reasoning and his Obama advocacy indefensible. But people may hold indefensible views, and engage in indefensible acts, in good faith. Church teaching provides clear lines that cannot be crossed without cutting oneself off from communion. Mere advocacy for particular politicians, even with very problematic views, is not such a line. Although Obama advocacy is (in my judgment) objectively wrong, it is wrong extrinsically, not intrinsically. (For example, Obama advocacy would obviously be morally defensible if, say, Obama were running against Hitler.) But good Catholics can disagree in good faith — though again, not always with equal plausibility — about what is or is not extrinsically wrong.

Among these rightly dismissing Kmiec's arguments is my long-time friend, Catholic writer and blogger Mark P. Shea. Mark is strongly critical of both major candidates, but he clearly sees — as most informed and non-dissenting Catholics see and as even most reasonably fair-minded observers can see — that anyone giving priority to fundamental Catholic moral concerns must regard Obama as far and away the more problematic candidate.

At the same time, Mark is, entirely legitimately, no fan of McCain. I've always had significant reservations about McCain myself, and in a recent blog post I discussed why I might not vote for him, particularly if he chose a pro-choice running mate. (He didn't, of course, and his choice potentially addresses some concerns while arguably raising others; I'll be posting more on this soon.) I am thus sympathetic to Mark's choice not to vote for either of the two major candidates, but to register a protest vote for a quixotic impossible candidate instead.

Where I think Mark goes wrong is in leaning toward the view that not voting for either of the two major candidates is not only a morally legitimate option, or even a morally preferable option, but the only morally viable option. Although he argues, far more credibly than Kmiec, that McCain is the less problematic candidate, Mark seems at times to feel that McCain is still problematic enough that McCain advocacy is also objectively wrong. This view has been maintained and defended even more assiduously (and problematically IMO) by Mark's co-belligerent, anonymous blogger Zippy Catholic.

Some caveats here are necessary. In leaning toward such views, Mark naturally means to express an opinion, not a definitive fact. It is an opinion about objective right and wrong, but still an opinion, and Mark would certainly acknowledge that it is an area of permissible dispute, and in principle he could be wrong. Second, I take it for granted that Mark makes no judgment about the culpability of McCain advocates, any more than either he or I judges Kmiec's culpability for his Obama advocacy. Third, Mark clearly doesn't put McCain advocacy on a par with Obama advocacy, either regarding plausibility or degree of evil. Still, it does seem that Mark feels or has felt that there are two unequal but objectively wrong choices — voting for either of the two major candidates — and only one morally legitimate course, not voting for either one.

I find this position untenable. In any contest between two or more viable candidates, I submit that it is always morally legitimate to support and vote for the candidate one regards as the preferable — or least problematic — viable candidate. (By 'viable candidate' I mean of course 'candidate with a realistic chance of winning.')

In fact, not only is it always morally legitimate, by default supporting and voting for the preferable or least problematic viable candidate should be the usual, preferred course of action. Other courses of action should be comparatively extraordinary, though in particular circumstances it may reasonably be judged preferable or more prudent to take another course.

For example, there may be legitimate reasons in a particular contest for considering it preferable (though not morally necessary) not to vote at all, or to vote for an admittedly nonviable, quixotic candidate as a form of protest. However, one can never rightly claim that it is morally necessary not to vote for any viable candidate, or that those who do support or vote for the least problematic viable candidate are (however sincerely) objectively wrong to do so.

Again, in a three-way contest, one may regard all three candidates as somewhat viable, but may still choose not to vote for the least problematic viable candidate, if one feels that the second–least problematic candidate is more viable and thus has a better chance of defeating the most problematic candidate. Others may feel, also credibly, that the least problematic candidate is worth supporting, even if he is a long shot.

Such decisions can be very difficult, because if opposition to the candidate viewed as most problematic is split among two challengers, the candidate viewed as most problematic by most people may eke out a victory. Whether this works out for the best or the worst, or to the advantage of one party or another, may vary with circumstances. From a democratic point of view, it is probably an unfortunate outcome, but for better or worse it is the nature of our current one-person, one-vote system. Whether another system would be better is a question for another time.

Another good question for another time concerns the nature of the system that yields the particular viable candidates we get. However that may be, once it becomes clear that one or another of a very small pool of people will in fact win the election, my thesis is that it is always morally legitimate to support and vote for the candidate one regards as the preferable or least problematic viable candidate.

In upcoming posts, I'll try to make the case for this thesis and answer objections to it. I will also discuss the particulars of fundamental moral principles and Catholic teaching in connection with the two candidates, and why I think McCain is the least problematic viable candidate.

For some, if I can make this case persuasively, this may be good news. Many, like Mark, may feel conflicted, opposing Obama but feeling unable to vote for the only viable alternative. Mark has said to me that he's not voting for McCain because he feels he can't; if felt he could vote for McCain, he would do so. I want to make the case that, in fact, he can if he wants to — and so can others.

To be continued...



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