Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On moral certainty

William J. Gould in Commonweal defends Doug Kmiec and criticizes the de facto pro-Republican "abortion is the only issue" posture of large segments of the Catholic Church. (If you don't know who Doug Kmiec is, you need to find out. You can start here, here, and here.)
In this political and religious climate, I find Doug Kmiec's support for Sen. Barack Obama a salutary and refreshing development. I say this as someone who does not fully share Kmiec's enthusiastic embrace of Obama or his high expectations regarding what an Obama presidency is likely to achieve. Instead I write as someone who has long been disenchanted with American politics and who fully expects that we will continue to be ill-governed no matter who wins the election.

Why then do I regard Kmiec's contribution in such a positive light? For two reasons. The first is that as a Catholic with a long history of support for the prolife cause, Kmiec's endorsement of Obama calls into question the notion that the GOP is the only acceptable political option for Catholics. Of course one might well counter that the Democratic Party is a far from welcome home for Catholic principles as well, and I would readily agree. But that's not really the point. At the moment, neither party is a good vehicle for the promotion of Catholic social principles. Catholics who truly understand and embrace the main ideas of the Catholic political and social tradition will find themselves politically homeless and regularly confronted with unattractive voting options. But if political homelessness is the characteristic condition of American Catholics, then the proper response of church authorities should be to acknowledge that lamentable situation rather than to offer de facto political endorsements—as they are coming perilously close to doing with the Republican Party. To the extent that Kmiec's vocal support for Obama challenges the movement toward a Republican hegemony within U.S. Catholicism, it performs a major service.

You should go read the whole article. It's better than my discussion will be.

The Catholic Church, to its credit, considers voting a moral responsibility, and rightly asks Catholics to think and pray about the moral consequences of their votes. The Catholic Church as an organization clearly and consistent with its own moral teaching considers abortion a special moral factor, calling it an "intrinsic evil," and stating that a vote for a candidate based on the support of an intrinsic evil is a mortal sin.

The problem comes when candidates are reduced to a single issue, especially an issue over which they have no direct control and at best a probable but not certain influence. A vote for Obama is not a vote for abortion. A vote for McCain is not a vote against abortion. Neither McCain nor Obama have the ability to stop or endlessly preserve legal abortion within the United States. This becomes more true as you move down the political food chain—senators, members of Congress, governors, mayors, etc. A vote for a candidate is a mortal sin if and only if the sole or primary guiding purpose behind that vote is the preservation of the right to an abortion. It is not unreasonable to vote for a candidate because of the probable outcomes of their positions on particular issues. It is, however, both unreasonable and dishonest to frame one particular probability in terms of moral certainty when speaking from the pulpit. It is perfectly right to ask and even demand that voters consider of the moral consequences of their actions, but you are also obligated to be clear on the fine points of moral responsibility.

Because civic responsibility is not discharged at the voting both, but extends into all aspects of day-to-day living. And letting the poor go hungry, supporting an unjust war which leads to the death of civilians, and complacency in the face of social injustice are intrinsic evils as well.

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