Politics & Policy

Faith and Works

Responding to the Bishops' questions.

During the debates, John Kerry oozed smarm about his “great respect” for people who actually believe what his Church teaches. He also let slip that he supports government-funded abortion. His rhetoric about what roles his faith can and cannot play in his political life added new dimensions to cafeteria morality.

You might have thought that Kerry’s transparent picture of faith without works wouldn’t exactly win him converts among his coreligionists. But the polls belie those expectations. The Pew Research Center tracked a shift among white Catholics before and after the debates: from 49 percent and 39 percent for Bush and Kerry, respectively, to 43 percent and 50 percent. ABC News saw a 14 percent negative personal rating of Kerry turn into a 9 percent positive rating. Zogby has found Bush losing his summer lead.

Did Catholics fail to see through the man wise in his own eyes? Perhaps. But another factor to consider is that, over the same period, there was a pushback of newspaper ads and after-Mass lectures seeking to give Catholic Democrats explicit permission to vote for their candidate. Through equivalence on moral matters, those citizens are free to vote according to their partisan preferences. If Catholics are to take seriously their much-touted role as “a swing voter group,” however, they ought to apply wisdom rather than “common knowledge” to such questions as the ten that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has posed to them.

1. After September 11, 2001, how can we build not only a safer world, but a better world–more just, more secure, more peaceful, more respectful of human life and dignity?

The key to all of these goals is the spread of freedom. A lack of justice, of security, of peace does not indicate a dearth of motivation, but rather an impediment. It is true that unethical business practices or corrupt bureaucracy can fill that negative role, but they can be constrained through protest and reform. The lesson of 9/11 was that purer forms of iniquitous ambition still exist in the world. And as Saddam Hussein amply demonstrated, some impediments cannot be removed through rhetorical pressure and paper condemnations.

2. How will we protect the weakest in our midst–innocent unborn children? How can our nation not turn to violence to solve some of its most difficult problems–abortion to deal with difficult pregnancies; the death penalty to combat crime; euthanasia and assisted suicide to deal with the burdens of age, illness, and disability; and war to address international disputes?

Catholics often see these questions as crystallizing their dilemma, a choice between death and death: abortion and euthanasia (Democrats) or capital punishment and war (Republicans). The parallels do not apply, however; no politician supports a national policy on war that is as uninhibited as policy on abortion currently is. Similarly, no Republican argues that the death penalty ought to be as expedient and without checks as the Democrats believe abortion ought to be.

The latter is the most common either/or construct. Even accepting that political realities require us to grudgingly overlook one or the other, however, the choice is clear as a matter of magnitude. Since 1977, when the moratorium on executions ended, about 940 convicted criminals have been put to death. In the same time period, on the order of 40 million unborn human beings have been aborted. That’s approximately one adult afforded an extended process of appeals and judgments for every 42,500 children killed with little or no forced consideration or even waiting period.

3. How will we address the tragic fact that more than 30,000 children die every day as a result of hunger, international debt, and lack of development around the world?

We are certainly called to concern for those who were born into less-fortunate circumstances than our own, and charity will sometimes require the forms and infrastructure of government. Still, charitable acts mustn’t undermine interaction as peers. In the case of international debt, forgiveness of loans can be a boost to a changing society–as in Iraq–but as a regular practice, it reduces partners to the roles of giver and recipient. The best way to get the impoverished out of debt is to help them to pay it off. In this light, the backlash against outsourcing is a belittling impulse–countries may beg, but they may not compete.

Infrastructure can be built with international aid, but long-term development is a process that must flourish from within, requiring profitable industry. Here again, those aforementioned impediments to freedom must either democratize their ambitions or face international will to excise them.

4. How can our nation help parents raise their children with respect for life, sound moral values, a sense of hope, and an ethic of stewardship and responsibility? How can our society defend the central institution of marriage and better support families in their moral responsibilities?

We must bolster and renew public institutions that are currently under attack even as we seek to reclaim ground lost in the fight over public morality. The defense requires a constitutional amendment that simultaneously halts the corrosion of marriage and stands as a warning to those who have goaded our judiciary into activism. The counteroffensive requires, for one thing, the re-involvement of religious groups in public activities, such that the principle of separation between church and state ceases to require bias against their working together.

5. How will we address the growing number of people without affordable and accessible health care? How can health care better protect human life and respect human dignity?

Many compassionate people believe that healthcare can, in large part or small, simply be added to the social concerns that we address through government action. As other nations have seen, however, a socialized medical industry can tend toward rationing and judgments of patients’ worthiness. Add in murmurs about euthanasia even for minors, as well as Kerry’s admitted support for publicly funded abortion, and the prospects begin to become terrifying.

If Catholic Charities in California isn’t sufficiently religious to deserve exemption from laws requiring the subsidization of birth control, how long could publicly run healthcare withstand pressure (or lawsuits) to pay for procedures that even large majorities of Americans find detestable?

Some Catholics, myself included, would argue that the solution for supplying universally accessible healthcare lies in the opposite direction: again, more freedom. Shift the ethos from plans to purchases and decouple healthcare from employment. Encourage citizens to set aside money for the bulk of their expenses and to purchase insurance for emergencies. Then remove public-policy restrictions on private groups, including religious organizations, that wish to pool resources or make healthcare a matter of charity.

6. How will our society combat continuing prejudice, overcome hostility toward immigrants and refugees, and heal the wounds of racism, religious bigotry, and discrimination?

Conservative Catholics might be puzzled that this question applies to voting at all. With the exception of immigration and refugees, these are all matters to be addressed by social aspects of public life, such as religion.

As for immigration, while neither candidate seems inclined to see the situation in this way, a key component of overcoming hostility is to increase public confidence that immigrants have arrived and remain in this country by following reasonable rules to which the public has consented. As illegal aliens drain public resources–especially if they provide cover for terrorist infiltration–the escalation of hostility is inevitable.

7. How will our nation pursue the values of justice and peace in a world where injustice is common, desperate poverty widespread, and peace too often overwhelmed by violence?

Once again, the single greatest contribution to this goal would be the removal of impediments to freedom. A swift and decisive consequence for the perpetuation of injustice will stand as powerful motivation to modernize attitudes.

Furthermore, poverty around the globe will diminish if poor nations can utilize their advantages in ways that capitalize on high-tech changes in the global economy. Even as Western nations force out such revenue clots as dictators and disproportionate bureaucracies, they must not overzealously insist on First World standards in the Third World.

8. What are the responsibilities and limitations of families, community organizations, markets, and government? How can these elements of society work together to overcome poverty, pursue the common good, and care for creation?

Although the fact is obscured by its abstract nature, this is the underlying consideration that must inform every other answer. The easy assumption too often made is that “responsibilities” apply mostly to government, while “limitations” apply mostly to families, communities, and markets.

In providing a response, the beginning principles should be freedom and faith. The challenge that voters currently face is to resist the hollow promises and dubious “plans” that make easy assumptions into unifying policy ideas. Above all, issues must be approached with honest realism.

9. When should our nation use, or avoid the use of, military force–for what purpose, under what authority, and at what human cost?

When war is forced upon a nation, nobody in his right mind disputes that its use of military force is licit. The first difficulty, therefore, is in judging when war becomes a matter not of choice, but of necessity. In a world of rogue states and weapons of mass death, the line between preemption and reasonable self-defense blurs, and the suspicious interests of international organizations and supposed allies must be approached honestly, without a veneer of insupportable sacrosanctity.

Moreover, if we are to take up the bishops’ call to “humanize globalization,” we must develop a radically new understanding of the global community–as one of people rather than of ruling classes. War can be a defense of foreign people from their own leaders. An international body, therefore, that is not internally democratic and whose members are not accountable to their people cannot be deemed beyond scrutiny. Circumstances may arise in which our nation must reject the suspect resistance of the United Nations in order to force regime change elsewhere, and it will not always be possible to draw lines between our own self-interest and the humanitarian needs of those we liberate.

10. How can we join with other nations to lead the world to greater respect for human life and dignity, religious freedom and democracy, economic justice, and care for God’s creation?

A consolidated world government will not foster freedom and democracy, but rather will attract those with selfish designs. The United States must join with other nations by confirming that they are independent nations, free to act in their own interests. Economic justice will follow liberty if global politics do not interfere and if wealthy nations take the risk of improving themselves.

Overall, the bishops’ questions do not represent permission by innuendo to vote for John Kerry. Taking seriously our duty to view the world with honest, faith-guided eyes, it is clear which candidate presents the most hope for fostering the type of world toward which we are called to work. And it isn’t the guy who would say to the Church, as he said to Elizabeth Long during the second debate, “I know the morality that’s prompting that question, and I respect it enormously. But….”

Justin Katz is the author of the Weblog Dust in the Light.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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