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Conscientious Voting
Doing injustice.


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Ramesh Ponnuru

The Washington Post has published an angry attack by Joe Feuerherd on this country’s Catholic bishops. (He closes by damning them.) He takes the bishops to be edging up to the proposition that he has put his soul in danger of eternal damnation by voting for Barack Obama (or any pro-choice politician).

Feuerherd doesn’t take the tack that it is wrong in principle for the bishops to suggest that some types of political behavior can endanger people’s souls. It is hard to see how he could take that tack, given that he appears to believe, first, that there is such a thing as an eternal soul that can be damned or saved, and second, that moral choices can affect the outcome. Nor does Feuerherd argue, exactly, that the bishops are wrong to regard abortion as a grave injustice. He says that he is himself pro-life. Evidently, then, he believes that abortion is the unjust killing of innocent human beings, and the “right” to abortion therefore amounts to a license to commit an injustice of the gravest kind.

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Feuerherd makes three arguments. First, he writes that other moral issues should matter too. Second, he writes that the bishops’ moral calculus has (pro-Republican) results that are too partisan. Third, he writes that pro-choice Democratic candidates, if elected, might do more to reduce the abortion rate than nominally pro-life Republican ones would.

As to the first argument: The bishops do not suggest that conscientious citizens should be single-issue voters. They do say that voters should will justice for the unborn, which precludes voting for a pro-choice candidate because he is pro-choice and also precludes voting for such a candidate without ascribing to the injustice of killing the innocent the profound weight it is due. The bishops do not deny what is obviously true, that many other political issues have moral dimensions. In almost all cases, however, the moral issues at stake are less grave than those involved in abortion (at least if you accept the premise, as Feuerherd appears to do, that abortion is what pro-lifers say that it is). In almost all cases, as well, Catholics who agree on the relevant moral convictions may legitimately disagree about the correct policy to instantiate that conviction. (People who agree that illegal immigrants are children of God may nonetheless disagree about the implications of that view in practice.) In the case of abortion and related issues, differing prudential judgments are much less a factor. Obama disagrees with pro-lifers on goals (protecting an entire class of innocent human beings against a legal license to kill them), not just methods. (More on that below.)

The second point is true but not persuasive. It angers Feuerherd that the Church says that conscientious citizens may support the Iraq war or “oppose immigration reform.” The argument that legitimate prudential disagreements exist in these cases gives Catholic Republicans “convenient cover,” he thinks. But the reason Catholic Republicans have “cover” on these issues is that their position does not contradict Church teaching. If the Church is wrong to teach what it teaches, then Feuerherd needs to explain why. If it is right, however, then it is not the Church’s fault if Republicans tend to line up better with those teachings than Democrats do.

Finally, Feuerherd asks, “[I]s it fair for a Catholic like me to suspect that the liberal economic policies of the Democratic candidate, whether Obama or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, will result in less dire poverty and thus perhaps fewer abortions? And isn’t that supposed to be the goal?” Anyone who wants to cast a ballot on this assumption has a moral obligation to investigate whether it is, in fact, true that 1) Democratic policies would reduce poverty much more than Republican ones would and 2) that abortion and poverty rates correlate in as straightforward a manner as Feuerherd idly (and conveniently) supposes. I am not aware of research that corroborates point two, let alone both of them taken together.

And there is another problem with this argument, which is that a reduction in the number of abortions is not the only goal that pro-lifers should have. Also important is that the law stop treating unborn children as subhuman creatures who may legitimately be denied the protections of the law against unjust killing. Obama himself may be perfectly sincere in willing that fewer women exercise the (supposed) right to abortion even while he supports keeping that option legal and making it subsidized. I have no reason to doubt that he is. But he also wills that unborn children be denied the basic legal protection from homicide that you and I enjoy. The Catholic Church wants voters to take that injustice seriously; more seriously than Feuerherd seems inclined to take it. But of course it cannot (and has no ambition to) force any voter to do anything.



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