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The future of America

Life issues divide Obama and McCain

Like many U.S. Catholics, Umberto Fedeli believes this year’s presidential election presents Catholic voters with a clear choice — one that hinges on the sanctity of human life.

“If you’re not right on that issue, it has me concerned about your compass or your direction on other issues,” said Fedeli, a member of Legatus’ Cleveland Chapter.

Life issues

When it comes to the life issues, there’s little doubt that the differences between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama are profound. According to a nonpartisan voter guide prepared by Priests for Life,McCain has voted to oppose Roe v.Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, while Obama has made unrestricted abortion a priority.

McCain also supported legislation providing protection for infants who survive abortion while Obama opposed a similar bill in the Illinois State Senate.

But with both McCain and Obama touting their positions on an array of other issues from the economy to the Iraq war, some Catholics may wonder whether a single issue like abortion should hold sway over others in their choice of a candidate.

After all, faithful Catholics should also be concerned about poverty, marriage and a host of other social issues. Many question whether war, for example, isn’t as evil as abortion — or whether providing healthcare for the poor isn’t as important as helping unborn children.

The answer, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is that “not all issues are equal.” The USCCB’s 2007 statement on political responsibility, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, draws a line between issues involving “matters of intrinsic evil” such as abortion and “affirmative obligations to seek the common good,” such as helping the poor.

Faithful Citizenship lays out 10 policy goals intended to help guide Catholics as they weigh the moral dimensions of their voting choices. Topping the list is protecting “the weakest in our midst — innocent unborn children” through an end to abortion, followed by such issues as immigration reform (on which Obama and McCain have nearly the same voting record), poverty, prejudice, peace, human rights and healthcare.

Guides developed by Priests for Life and Catholic Answers Action differ slightly in approach, but emphasize the pre-eminence of abortion and other life issues.

The Catholic Answers Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics identifies five non-negotiables involving intrinsically evil actions: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and homosexual “marriage.” The guide also says Catholics should “avoid to the greatest extent possible voting for candidates who endorse or promote intrinsically evil policies.”

All issues are not equal

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput has staunchly defended Catholic teaching on the life issues this election season.

“One of the pillars of Catholic social thought is this: Don’t intentionally kill the innocent, and don’t allow others to do it. That’s where our political reasoning needs to start,” he explained. In Render Unto Caesar, his new book about the Catholic citizen’s role in public life, Archbishop Chaput calls abortion “the foundational issue of our age.”

“Obviously we face many other issues this fall — the war in Iraq, the economy, the need for immigration reform and others,” the archbishop told Legatus Magazine. “These are urgent and important. But they can’t be used as an alibi or counterweight to avoid defending the unborn child.”

Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, said common sense also dictates that all issues are not equal. For example, he said, although every life has the same value, the number of those being lost through abortion far exceeds that of other tragedies, including war. The key difference, he added, is that in war, although innocent people are sometimes killed, the government does not authorize their deliberate killing, as is the case with every single abortion.

The U.S. bishops’ Faithful Citizenship document further notes, “It is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions…. In the end, this is a decision to be made by each Catholic, guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching.”

Conscience, however, is not a matter of personal preference or opinion, as Archbishop Chaput points out in Render Unto Caesar. “For Catholics, ‘conscience’ demands a mind and heart well formed in the truth of Jesus Christ. And these come foremost through the teaching of the Catholic faith.”

Archbishop Chaput is quick to point out that he doesn’t tell Catholics who to vote for. “I don’t do that,” he said. “But if we describe ourselves as ‘Catholic,’ then we need to act in accord with Catholic teaching.”

Dissenting Catholics

Nonetheless, there are Catholics who, while claiming to accept Church teaching on human life, support pro-abortion candidates.

Among these is constitutional law scholar Douglas Kmiec of Pepperdine University, who has outlined his reasons for backing Obama in a new book, Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Question about Barack Obama.

Although Obama is a co-sponsor of the Freedom of Choice Act, which would undo nearly all state and federal limits on abortion, including partial-birth abortion, Kmiec said he thinks the Democratic candidate has better ideas than McCain on how to reduce abortion.

McCain and the Republicans, Kmiec argued, are focused on overturning Roe v.Wade, which Kmiec considers a “failed and uncertain path” because it would return the matter to the states, allowing them to become pro-abortion.

Kmiec said Obama’s approach, while retaining legal abortion, would provide prenatal and income support, paid maternity leave and greater access to adoption as means of reducing the incidence of abortion.

Archbishop Chaput, however, said all public leaders should be working to offer abortion alternatives.

“But ‘pro-choice’ candidates have used this bogus approach while running for office for 35 years with virtually no results,” the archbishop said. “We still have more than 1 million abortions a year.”

Kmiec also argues that Obama’s positions on the living wage, healthcare, family home foreclosures and the needs of the disadvantaged are more consistent with the Church’s social justice mission.

But Archbishop Chaput said the problem with that line of thinking is that “there’s no way to justify or ‘balance out’ killing an innocent unborn child by weighing it against other social benefits. No amount of good social welfare legislation can excuse support for a phony ‘right’ to abortion.”

Catholic outreach

Both McCain and Obama have reached out to Catholic voters, who make up nearly a quarter of the country’s electorate.

McCain launched a Catholics for McCain effort in December, setting up conference calls with key Catholic leaders and organizing groups in various states, particularly battlegrounds like Ohio.

The Obama campaign followed suit in April, appointing a 26-member National Catholic Advisory Council. In late September, Obama’s campaign revived its religious outreach by announcing a “faith, family and values” tour in key battleground states targeting voters less concerned about abortion or same-sex “marriage.”

Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), national co-chair of Catholics for McCain, said the Republican candidate’s campaign resonates with Catholics on core issues like abortion, euthanasia and marriage — and on social justice matters such as immigration.

Fedeli, who co-chairs Catholics for McCain in Ohio, agrees.

McCain wants to create a culture where all Americans will want to serve an interest greater than themselves, Fedeli said. “He is shy to talk about his faith and doesn’t talk much about religion, but when he says things like that, he’s saying we are called to be men for others.”

Brownback told Legatus Magazine that McCain’s position on core issues resonates with Catholics, whose vote will be critical in this election.

“We’re one vote away from overturning Roe v.Wade,” Brownback said. “If McCain wins, we’re likely to get one to three Supreme Court judges. If Obama wins, he will get to appoint the same number and we could well lose the chance to overturn Roe for 20 to 40 years. That’s at the core of this election. I would hope people would pray about it before they vote.”

Judy Roberts is freelance journalist based in Graytown, Ohio.

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Resources for Catholic voters

Booklet: Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States. www.faithfulcitizenship.org

Statement: Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics. U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.usccb.org/prolife

Various: Voter guides comparing the Republican and Democrat presidential candidates and party platforms, Voting with a Clear Conscience and more. Priests for Life Political Responsibility Center. www.priestsforlife.org/elections

Booklet: Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics. Catholic Answers Action. www.caaction.com

Book: Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life by Archbishop Charles Chaput (Doubleday, 2008) Available at book stores everywhere or call toll-free (800) 726-0600.