Some Catholic thinkers, leaders, and even bishops have seemingly implied that voting for former Governor Mitt Romney is the only viable option for Catholic voters of good conscience. But is it this true? When Catholics go to the polls, there is simply never a perfect choice. As has long been the case in American politics, both parties fail to embrace the wide spectrum of Catholic social teaching fully. Rather, Catholic voters must weigh church teaching and choose party platforms and candidates that, in their opinion, will do the most good for greatest number of people.
Might a closer examination of key issues through a lens of Catholic social thought reveal that there is actually no clear choice? Perhaps both Romney and Obama embrace certain parts of Catholic social thought, yet fail to promote key tenets as well? Maybe Catholics who support Obama aren’t at odds with the church, but instead see his policies as more in line with Catholic social teaching?
Romney supports overturning Roe vs. Wade, a development that would result in the criminalization of abortion in many states (though he has since backed off a bit from this view). Many pro-life Catholics support the re-criminalization of abortion, but if the ultimate goal is reducing the number of abortions, and given the current political reality, this might not be the most effective pro-life tactic. Some Catholics have argued that stronger funding for programs that serve pregnant women, infants, and families will actually reduce the number of abortions even if they remain legal. These programs that may suffer, and perhaps be eliminated, by a Romney Administration.
When Romney chose Ryan as his running mate, he implicitly endorsed a budget that would dramatically reduce funding for social service programs, ask the states to care for the poor without as much federal aid, and reduce or eliminate FEMA, a particularly troubling proposition in light of the tragedy still unfolding in New York and New Jersey. Catholic voters should be particularly concerned with how we as a society treat the poor. Romney has proposed massive tax cuts for the wealthiest, believing it will stimulate economic growth and thus expand opportunity for the lower and middle classes. But this is the same economics approach tried by former President Bush that ended in disaster for the nation as a whole and the poor in particular.
On immigration, Romney has proposed that the government make life so unbearable for the undocumented, including forbidding them from obtaining drivers licenses or access to employment, that they choose to “self-deport.” He frequently refers to these human beings by the pejorative and indefensible term “illegals” and has ruled out support of the DREAM Act, a proposed law that would give the children of the undocumented a chance at a better life in the US, bringing them out from the shadows and welcoming them fully into society. Comprehensive immigration reform that respects and upholds families and the dignity of the human person has long been a priority of Catholic bishops, and though Romney has certainly tried to give the appearance of moderation on the issue, his true views are seemingly hostile and lack the compassion even of other Republicans, including former President George W. Bush.
The use of unmanned predator drones is one area where Catholic voters should take issue with both the President and Romney. As I’ve written previously, there are too many unanswered ethical and moral questions about the use of drones, including the loss of civilian life and an era of endless war with limited accountability.
Romney is by all accounts a devoted husband and father and his work in his church is admirable and at times inspiring. But his ability to oscillate wildly on key issues depending on what his audience wants to hear is troubling. I cringe when I hear the phrase “flip-flopper” thrown about in a pejorative way because I believe evolving on an issue can be demonstrative of intellectual growth and curiosity as well as a willingness to face new facts and try different approaches. I also understand that in political life, it’s sometimes necessary to pivot left and right and back to center to get through primary contests and win general elections. But the way that Romney has embraced extreme positions to satisfy the fringe elements of the Republican Party and then deny ever holding these views to win back moderate voters is something else entirely. It’s left even fellow Republicans wondering what their candidate actually believes, unsure if there he has an agenda or if he is animated simply by a want of power so great that he is willing to lie repeatedly with a straight face to the American people. Last week, Romney produced a television commercial that was so blatantly disingenuous it caused the head of a major American auto company to denounce it as politics at its worst. Does Romney’s ambivalent relationship with the truth call into question his effectiveness as a leader?
Prominent Catholics have articulated a strong case for President Obama’s re-election. The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne notes that Obama is the only candidate focused on the truly Catholic idea of community and the belief that we are indeed our brother’s keeper. He wrote in Time magazine that Obama is fighting for a vision of “a country whose Constitution begins with the word we, not me, and that the private success we honor depends on a government that serves a common good and remembers the most vulnerable among us.”
The President certainly isn’t without flaws. He initially overstepped with the HHS contraception mandate, his rhetoric on abortion can be extreme and even outside the mainstream, his expanded drone program lacks moral clarity, and the braggadocio surrounding the killing of Osama bin Laden is at times troubling. But he has done much to advance the common good.
Among his successes, he expanded healthcare to tens of millions of Americans, long a goal advocated for by Catholic bishops (and he has committed to working with Catholic organizations to find a solution to the contraception mandate controversy). He ended the war in Iraq and committed to bringing home all combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014. He directed an end to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, allowing openly gay and lesbian members of the military to serve, thus further eroding unjust discrimination that even the Catholic Church says must be avoided. His policies generally strengthen the social safety net, which includes many programs that ultimately reduce the number of abortions. He is a pragmatist who preaches personal responsibility but believes that government does indeed have a role to play in addressing the challenges facing America and its citizens.
Obama and Romney are both decent men who want America to thrive, but their visions about how this looks in practice are starkly different. I highlight the troubling aspects of Romney’s proposals not to tear him down, but to show that Catholic voters have a difficult decision to make and that Romney might not be right for all Catholics.
President Obama recognizes the inherent value of community, the plight of the marginalized, the need to stand with the poor, and the dignity of all human persons. For Catholics, there is a choice on Tuesday, and those voting with their Catholic conscience would do well to take another look at the record of this President on issues close to their hearts.
Michael J. O'Loughlin