IS IT morally permissible for Catholics to vote for politicians who espouse a pro-choice position on the abortion issue?
Some Catholics claim that voting for a candidate favoring abortion is clearly immoral.
Traditional Catholic teaching, however, rejects that simplistic claim and recognizes situations in which individuals can in good conscience vote for pro-choice candidates.
In their 2004 statement, Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops restated their long-standing position:
"We do not wish to instruct persons on how they should vote by endorsing or opposing candidates. We hope that voters will examine the position of candidates on the full range of issues, as well as on their personal integrity, philosophy, and performance."
The bishops go on to note their own position on a variety of life issues: consistent opposition to abortion coupled with support for programs which assist pregnant women; a preference for peaceful resolutions of conflicts with war only as a last resort; serious questioning of the legitimacy of the pre-emptive or preventive use of force; stronger barriers against the use of nuclear weapons with the eventual goal of eliminating them; reduction of our "disproportionate role" in the global arms trade; elimination of the death penalty as cruel and unnecessary, and opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia combined with wider health care coverage and more effective palliative care.
In a letter to the American bishops, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, drew on traditional moral teaching to make this distinction: while it would be wrong for Catholics to vote for candidates precisely because of their permissive stand on abortion, a Catholic who opposes abortion could vote for such a candidate "if there are proportionate reasons."
This suggests, for example, that a Catholic could in good conscience vote for a politician who does not favor a constitutional amendment banning all abortions, but supports the bishops' position on war, poverty programs, the arms race, discrimination, and the death penalty.
In the real world of politics, public officials are often faced with difficult choices about complicated legislation which includes provisions dealing with abortion.
In a recent article on his dispute with Bishop Raymond Burke on the abortion issue, U.S. Rep. David Obey, who has represented Wisconsin's seventh district in Congress for 35 years, offers a glimpse of the complex world of legislative politics.
After noting that his Catholic faith has been a powerful influence on his political views, Representative Obey says he agrees with the church "that abortion in most cases is wrong" and has more than 60 times voted for limitations on a woman's right to choose, including the ban on late-term abortions.
Although he does not think a woman has an absolute right to choose an abortion any time during her pregnancy, he believes it is unconstitutional and unenforceable to require a woman to give birth if she has been raped or her life or health is at risk.
He believes there is "a competing set of equities on the part of the woman and the fetus that are far more complicated than some people on either side of the issue care to admit."
His approach is to sort out these equities in individual cases, guided by his moral vision and respect for the pluralistic nature of our society.
According to Mr. Obey, his clash with Bishop Burke occurred when the bishop demanded that he vote against a bill ensuring women in the military access to services at military hospitals, including abortion. He recognized the right of the bishop to instruct him on moral matters and to make an attempt to persuade him on how to vote on any public matter.
At the same time, he rejected the efforts of the bishop to dictate "how the power of law should be brought to bear against Americans who do not necessarily share our religious beliefs on abortion."
Representative Obey told Bishop Burke that he hoped no member of the armed services would seek an abortion, but that he would not vote to deny women stationed in Iraq the use of a military hospital for any purpose. The bishop responded by telling him to refrain from receiving Communion.
In clarifying his position, Representative Obey cited the influential theologian John Courtney Murray, who argued that Catholics should "repudiate in principle a resort to the coercive instrument of law to enforce upon the whole community moral standards that the community itself does not commonly accept."
Thus, legislators must consider whether a total ban on all abortions would be obeyed by most people and whether it would be enforceable against the disobedient.
Mr. Obey's prudential judgment, which he admits could be wrong, is that such laws "would be unenforceable and would tear this society apart."
At the same time, he applauds the efforts of the Catholic hierarchy to make a persuasive case in the public forum against permissive abortion laws.
The case of Representative Obey provides a concrete context for further reflection.
Despite all the publicity generated by Bishop Burke, and a handful of his episcopal colleagues, we should remember that the vast majority of American bishops have chosen to follow the traditional practice of allowing individuals to determine their own worthiness for Communion.
Following the distinction employed by Cardinal Ratzinger, it is clear that Catholics are free to vote for candidates, like Mr. Obey, who support many Catholic positions but are convinced that laws banning all abortions are currently unenforceable in our polarized society.
It is incorrect and unfair to label Catholic politicians like Mr. Obey as pro-choice or pro-abortion.
It could be argued that his approach has a better chance of actually reducing the huge number of abortions (more than a million a year in our country) than an absolute ban, which would be unenforceable.
Finally, Catholic politicians who hold views similar to Representative Obey would be more acceptable candidates to some pro-life advocates if they explicitly promoted a public discussion of practical ways to reduce the number of abortions, a goal shared by many citizens on both sides of the issue.
The Rev. James Bacik is pastor of Toledo's Corpus Christi University Parish.