In this first presidential election to feature a Catholic candidate on each major party’s ticket, the media have been abuzz depicting the American Catholic voter at a very difficult crossroads. The image is one of two competing, yet equally legitimate, versions of Catholicism, differing in the aspects of Catholic doctrine they emphasize in the public square. Each tugs at the voter’s conscience: on one side are the Church’s teachings on abortion and social issues; on the other is the Church’s mission to care for the poor. The delicate task of the Catholic voter, so the narrative goes, is to weigh the interests represented by these two camps and select the presidential candidate who better reflects the nuances of the voter’s own faith.
This narrative is nothing new, and it has always been wrong. It has been recited in every presidential election since abortion became a prominent national issue in 1973, when the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade forbade the states from democratically legislating on the issue. Based on this narrative, pro-abortion Democrats have garnered roughly half of the Catholic vote in every presidential election over the past three-plus decades, despite the Catholic Church’s clear opposition to legalized abortion.
Yet in this election, this narrative is more clearly wrong than ever before. Not only is the incumbent the most pro-abortion president ever to occupy the office, but he has also deliberately picked a fight with the Catholic Church by requiring Catholic employers to participate in the provision of abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization to their employees — all things the Church teaches are intrinsically evil. This divisive and unnecessary infringement on religious liberty by President Obama drew criticism from conservatives and liberals alike, and it prompted bishops, priests, and deacons in nearly every Catholic church in America to take to the pulpit in protest — an unprecedented event in American history.
And all this while the ranks of America’s poor have increased to record levels on Mr. Obama’s watch.
Mitt Romney is the only presidential candidate in this election whom Catholic voters can support while remaining true to their faith. All allegedly Catholic arguments in favor of Mr. Obama rely on gross misconceptions of Catholic doctrine. Given the magnitude of this election, it is worth addressing three of the most common misconceptions.
The first was on display in this year’s vice-presidential debate. When asked about his Catholic faith and the role it plays in his position on abortion, Vice President Biden responded that he accepts in his “personal life” the Church’s teaching that “life begins at conception,” but that he refuses to “impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews.”
Contrary to Mr. Biden’s characterization, Catholic doctrine on abortion is not limited to the simple premise that “life begins at conception.” Nor is it directed only at the individual actor to accept in his or her “personal life.” Rather, the Church teaches that citizens and their representatives must, by force of law, forbid the intentional taking of any human life, born or unborn. In the words of the American bishops: “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil.”
If Mr. Biden’s explanation were sound, then one could also say: “While I accept in my personal life the Church’s teaching that disabled persons are human beings having a right to life, I refuse to impose it on others,” or “While I accept in my personal life the Church’s teaching that persons of different ethnic backgrounds are all deserving of equal human dignity, I refuse to impose it on others.”
The Church’s teaching on abortion is clear. Pro-choice Catholics like Mr. Biden simply choose not to follow it.
The second major misconception is that, while life issues such as abortion may be important, they can be outweighed by other concerns, such as government programs for the poor.
The Church specifically denounces this moral equivalency. Intrinsic evils such as legalized abortion are categorically forbidden by Catholic doctrine, while questions of how best to care for the poor are left to human judgment. Again, the American bishops have been clear: “The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.”
The third and perhaps most widely held misconception is that, abortion issue aside, Mr. Obama and the Democrats are indeed closer to Catholic Social Teaching regarding the poor than Mr. Romney and the Republicans. Quite the contrary is true: while the Church does not take official positions on how governments should go about helping the poor, it does teach that governments should perform only those tasks that cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.
Catholic Social Teaching is built upon two core principles. The first is Solidarity, which holds that it is essential to act in favor of the well-being of all, particularly those who are most poor and marginalized from political influence. It recognizes that humans are created to live in community, and as such have affirmative duties to one another.
The second principle, which the left conveniently forgets, is Subsidiarity. This provides that social tasks ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized competent authority.
The reasoning behind this principle is twofold. As a practical matter, the needs of the poor are better served by those closer to them than by a national government — especially in a nation like ours that spans an entire continent. Often, top-down approaches to poverty only serve to perpetuate the problem. We see this today, with growing numbers of Americans on food stamps and record numbers living in poverty.
Subsidiarity is also essential to protecting liberty. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative.” There is no better example of this than the Obama administration’s “contraception” mandate. The enactment of a top-down government approach to health care enabled this infringement on the religious liberty of Catholic individuals and institutions, many of which have played a far more integral role in caring for the poor than the federal government ever will.
This presidential election is a moment of truth for American Catholics. When they go to the polls, they will decide what truly lays claim to their hearts and minds: Catholic Christianity, or modern liberalism.
The crossroads is real. But only one of those roads is the Catholic road.
Joseph Petros is an associate at the law firm of Warren and Young PLL in Ashtabula, Ohio. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Notre Dame Law School, where he served as executive editor of the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy.