As the 2006 midterm elections approach, a battle of the booklets is likely in many U.S. Catholic venues.
First into the lists was “Voting for the Common Good: A Practical Guide for Conscientious Catholics,” published last month by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a group led by Alexia Kelley, an advisor to the Kerry campaign in 2004. While “Voting for the Common Good” acknowledges that not all issues are to be weighed equally in forming one’s public conscience and in voting, the booklet’s overall thrust is reminiscent of the now-badly-tattered “seamless garment” or “consistent ethic of life” approach to citizen responsibility promoted by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. It may also strike some as curious that the booklet’s only recommended reference for voters wishing to learn the Church’s social doctrine is the quadrennial publication of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Faithful Citizenship.
Now comes “Catholics in the Public Square,” written by Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix as part of the “Shepherd’s Voice” series being launched by Basilica Press (www.basilicapress.com). Bishop Olmsted takes a question-and-answer approach to controverted issues of Catholic conscience and political responsibility, and he doesn’t mince words. Thus, on the question of whether Catholics can ever differ with the settled teaching of the Church on moral questions that have become public policy issues, Olmsted writes that there can be legitimate prudential disagreements on the application of just war theory to a given conflict, or on whether capital punishment is justifiable in a particular circumstance. Yet he immediately goes on to add , “It should be emphasized, however, that, despite these examples, there are other [practices], such as abortion or euthanasia, that are always wrong and do not allow for the correct use of prudential judgment to justify them. It would never be proper for Catholics to be on the other side of these issues.”
Which is a point not well-emphasized, shall we say, by “Voting for the Common Good.”
Then there is the question of the relationship among our priority issues. Bishop Olmsted is quite clear that concern for other legitimate public policy issues of lesser gravity “can never justify a wrong choice” by voters (or, one assumes, legislators) “when it comes to direct attacks on innocent human life.” To buttress his argument, the bishop cites John Paul II’s teaching in Christifideles Laici [Christ’s Faithful Lay People]: “Above all, the common outcry which is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture — is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with the maximum determination.”
Which is also a point not over-stressed by “Voting for the Common Good.”
Finally, and without mentioning names, Bishop Olmsted demolishes the argument made by Alexia Kelley’s principal in the 2004 presidential campaign:
“…sometimes Catholic politicians mistakenly claim that they need to abandon their faith out of an obligation to respect those of differing opinions or to honor a political commitment inherent in their office. These claims are perhaps most frequently made when Catholic politicians claim to be personally opposed to the killing of innocent unborn children. Incredibly, it is sometimes claimed by such people that it would be inappropriate to support legislation protecting human life because doing so would impose their faith on others or somehow violate their oath of office. These claims are ludicrous. Protecting human life is not only a religious obligation, it is a human imperative, and it is an imperative for all people.”
“Voting for the Common Good” stresses that no political party fully embodies the social doctrine of the Church. That is true, obvious, and not-quite-the-point. If the guiding metaphor for Catholic engagement with American politics has shifted from the “seamless garment” to what the bishops, in 1998, called “the foundations of the house of freedom,” then there is an irreducible priority to the life issues — precisely for the sake of the common good.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.