Doug Kmiec’s ‘Can a Catholic Support Him?’ Asks the Wrong Question
9/20/2008 Catholic Online
Doug Kmiec asks the wrong question. The proper question is not “can” but “should”. The word “can” addresses the issue of capacity and ability. “Should” examines the morality of that choice, what is our duty?
On Wednesday I received a personal copy of my friend Doug Kmiec’s latest book entitled “Can a Catholic Support Him?” The book is subtitled “Asking the Big Question about Barrack Obama”. I appreciate being mentioned in his Acknowledgement of the book with these words “Deacon Keith Fournier’s writing and editing of Catholic Online is courageous and wise”. So, I write this review to be faithful, to a friendship I value, to the claim in the acknowledgment of this book and to the truth. Doug asks the wrong question. The proper question is not “can” but “should”. The word “can” addresses the issue of capacity and ability. Any Catholic can exercise their right to vote in any manner in which they choose. The Church to which Doug and I both belong does not tell people how to vote, in the sense of which candidate to choose. “Should” on the other hand examines the morality of that choice given our obligation to exercise our freedom with reference to the truth.In short, what is our duty? Sadly, in his argumentation in this book, Doug confuses or conflates the two. It is on this that I completely disagree with Doug Kmiec and am compelled to make that disagreement widely known.
Our Catholic faith proclaims the existence of a profound body of Moral teaching, a subset of which is called “Catholic Social Teaching”. At its foundation is the insistence that every human life has an inviolable dignity and must be protected against unjust aggression from conception, through every age and stage of life, up to and including natural death. This is not a single “issue” but a framework through which all moral considerations and the positive law itself must be viewed. Human rights, indeed freedom itself, are goods of the human person, not free floating concepts. They require human persons to both receive them and to exercise them. Catholic Moral teaching is also rooted in an affirmation of the existence of a Natural Law which is knowable by all men and women because it is written on the human heart. This is the basis of the very hierarchy of rights which Doug Kmiec has spent his career attempting to espouse and train others to serve. To the believer, this Natural law is understood to be a participation in the Divine Law and is further expounded upon by Revelation. However, its existence is an objective reality and does not require one to have any religious belief. It is also binding on all men and women. For example, it is always and everywhere wrong to take innocent human life and it is always and everywhere wrong to kill our neighbor (outside of a legitimate exercise of self defense). Ascribing to these truths does not require one to be a religious believer. In fact they form the very core of Western positive law and the Jurisprudence which it has birthed.
Voting, like any human action, involves an ordering toward an end. Doug attempts in this little book to explain the morality of human action but does so incorrectly and inadequately. I ask my readers to examine the section entitled the “Morality of Human Acts” in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Par. 1749 -1761) and Doug Kmiec’s short treatment on Page 135 of his little book. Better yet,read the Servant of God John Paul II’s Encyclicals entitled “The Gospel of Life” and “the Splendor of Truth” and then consider Doug Kmiec’s approach to analyzing the morality of a human act. Doug is at best misinformed, at worst, teetering on serious error. It is immoral to vote in a manner which fails to protect innocent human persons from being unjustly killed. This is what occurs in every procured abortion, human persons are killed. It is immoral to vote in a manner that fails to include all of the poor, including children in the first home of the whole human race (their mothers womb) within the obligation we owe to one another in solidarity. Doug and his candidate are right to emphasize that we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper, but wrong to then exclude an entire class of brothers and sisters, the unborn, from the protections of the positive law. Doug contends that the choice he promotes in this book is morally acceptable. He asserts that both major Party candidates for the Presidency are actually not Pro-Life and are in favor of the current approach to abortion. Therefore he maintains he can make what he argues is a prudential judgment as to which pro-abortion candidate he supports. He even tries to borrow the excellent refutation of the analysis he offers, the recent letters of Archbishop Charles Chaput and Francis Cardinal George, to try to support his claim. This is sophistry.
Doug maintains that Senator McCain’s position in favor of the overturning of Roe v Wade is simply a “Federalist position” and not a truly Pro-life stance. He argues (contrary to his own past claims) that the reversal of Roe v Wade will not really affect the state of the current law protecting abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy as a “right”. He confuses position with application. John McCain’s quick response to Pastor Rick Warren’s question on when human rights attach to human persons (“at conception”), as well as his pro-life record, demonstrate that his position is Pro-life. He recognizes that the neighbor in the womb is a human person. Yet, he is a Federalist and believes that the decision to outlaw the killing should be returned to the States, that is application. I favor a Constitutional Amendment protecting the inalienable Right to Life and recognizing the personhood of our first neighbor.I am an abortion abolitionist. However, as an officer of the Court like Doug, I know that the reversal of Roe opens up the field to securing protection of the children and will at least slow the shedding of innocent blood while we work on outlawing the act. I think he does as well but has backed himself into a corner.Doug’s candidate promises to sign the “Freedom of Choice Act” as soon as he is sworn in to office. This will ensure the continued failure to recognize the child’s right to life. The best his candidate has to offer is a comment that abortion is a “moral issue”. His responses at the Saddleback forum on this issue were abysmal. As to the so called “changes” in the Democratic platform and his candidate’s comments on the need to decrease the number of abortions, it is meaningless in light of his stated position. Doug and I used to agree that Senator McCain was wrong on his support of stem cell research. After all, every so called “extraction” of stem cells from a human embryo takes a human life. But now it appears that Senator McCain is beginning to recognize this and is moving closer to consistency. His candidate is not.
Finally, throughout this little book Doug vacillates between acknowledging the existence of objective moral truths which should govern human behavior and contending that someone could deny their existence, claim that such a denial is a “deeply held religious belief” and we should form our positive law to accommodate them under some misguided understanding of religious liberty and pluralism. Doug, what if a group insisted that children were not persons until they were able to walk? After all, they maintained, mobility is what makes them truly autonomous and therefore “persons”. What if they also claimed that their position was a deeply held religious belief? Would you make the same argument? Well, the argument you now defend, that the child in the womb can be killed, without any protection against this objective violation of the Natural Law, is effectively the same argument. How can you take solace in the Senator from Illinois saying that he believes this type of killing is a “moral issue” but continuing to insist on calling it a “right”?
These two arguments are repeatedly presented in this little book as if repetition makes them more acceptable. It does not. Along with them we read Doug’s story of being wrongly denied communion, his story of how he came to admire and support Barrack Obama and the other articles he has written in the past trying to justify his endorsement. I refuse to join those who personally attack Doug or question the sincerity of his Catholic faith. I do however vehemently disagree with him. I just found out that he will soon speak all over the Country trying to persuade other Catholics and other Christians to his position. I know that Catholics can be wrong; witness Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Joe Biden as only two recent examples. However, I really did not expect Doug Kmiec to join with them in incorrectly stating the position of our Church. Doug and I became friends partly through conversations over policy issues. He knows I could never be accused of being what he now rejects as a “Religious Faith Partisan” (RFP’s). Like him, I might be considered a “Reagan Democrat”, at least in the sense that I left the Democratic Party when it abandoned children in the womb and I voted for Ronald Reagan. For me, the last great authentic Democratic candidate was Governor Bob Casey, a truly Pro-life, Pro-freedom, Pro- Marriage and family, Pro-Poor and Pro-Peace candidate. His courageous “Compact for Care”, had it been adopted by the Democratic Party, would have changed the history of that Party and of our Nation.I am a Catholic who believes in Catholic Social teaching. I maintain that the principles it offers, if applied, would bring about an authentically just society. The problem is that many Catholics do not know the Social teaching of their Church or have wrongly allowed “experts” on the “left” or the “right” to interpret what it is for them. Sadly, Doug has now joined them in this book, offering another incorrect and incomplete presentation of Catholic Social teaching.
My efforts to apply Catholic Social teaching to my own exercise of political participation have placed me, at times, outside of the realm of acceptability in both major political parties. They have elicited negative reactions from the so called “right”, the so called “left” and many others in between. For example, my opposition to capital punishment has not found an ear in the leadership of either major political party in the US. My opposition to the initial foray into Iraq as having been unjustified under any interpretation of the so called “just war theory”, placed me in opposition to “neo-cons” on the “right” and “left”. It even placed me on the other side of this issue from Doug Kmiec, at least initially. I have expressed concerns over a market economy which places profits over people, families and the common good, noting that it can devolve into economism or what the late Servant of God John Paul II rightly called “savage capitalism”. This position has evoked some of the most rancorous responses. However, the recent events on Wall Street and the domino effects in the global markets have simply proven that the danger not only exists but threatens true freedom.
I have opposed what is sometimes called “libertarianism” in American politics, contending it is antithetical to Catholic social thought. I understand there are types of “libertarianism” which have grown up in the American political climate which would cause some proponents to take exception to this claim. However, the two theories begin with two entirely different reference points in their “anthropology” (understanding of the nature of the person) and their vision of freedom. Libertarianism is individualist and atomistic in its definition of ‘freedom”, viewing government as some kind of necessary evil and basing social relationships on a kind of Hobbesian contract. Catholic social thought positions freedom within a vision of the human person as naturally (and supernaturally) created (and recreated in Christ) for communion. It asserts that governing is a part of our relational identity. Truly good governance begins with the smallest governance, the family and should give priority to the principle of subsidiarity. We were made for one another and we find our human fulfillment only in giving ourselves to the other. Then there is that other vital principle, a principle of social charity called solidarity, which insists that we are “our brothers (and sisters) keeper”.
Doug and I shared a common frustration with an approach in some circles to equate “Republican” or “Conservative” with Catholic. He had read my efforts to remind people that “Catholic is the noun”. I was intrigued by his efforts to propose ideas more in keeping with Catholic social thought. However, I never expected he would fail to oppose another unjust war, the war on the womb. That is the effect of his endorsement. His candidate is an abortion Hawk. Medical science has confirmed what our conscience has told us all along, the child in the womb is one of us, a human person and, our neighbor. We should not allow the continued prosecution of this unjust war on children in the womb. In his well written introduction to this book Martin Sheen credits Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day’s influence on his own Pro-Life and Pro-Peace position. Yet, both opposed abortion without any hint of compromise.I would welcome an opportunity to meet Martin Sheen. He seems to be one of the last consistent liberals.
It was Mother Teresa, whose anniversary we recently commemorated, who said it so clearly: “America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe v. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships. It has aggravated the derogation of the father’s role in an increasingly fatherless society. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts — a child — as a competitor, an intrusion, and an inconvenience. It has nominally accorded mothers unfettered dominion over the independent lives of their physically dependent sons and daughters. And, in granting this unconscionable power, it has exposed many women to unjust and selfish demands from their husbands or other sexual partners. Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his humanity. The right to life does not depend, and must not be declared to be contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent or a sovereign.”