The “Catholics for Obama” Syndrome

In the 2008 election, Barack Obama clearly stated his intention of making unrestricted abortion the law of the land. And in spite of warnings from some bishops that a vote for him would be sinful, 54 percent of Catholics got on the Obama bandwagon. Arguably, without the Catholic “factor” in swing states, Obama would not have won. President Obama has subsequently packed his cabinet with Catholics. Catholic congressmen led the battle to include abortion coverage in implementing universal health care. How to explain such a definitive departure from an unbroken tradition of opposition to abortion, beginning even in the first centuries of Christianity?

Educated and sophisticated Catholics, fully aware of where an Obama presidency was heading, often justified their support of Obama by pointing out that aborting over a million babies annually in the United States was just “one issue” in the social-justice portfolio. Other issues such as stopping the war in Iraq and fighting poverty could be regarded as equally important. Often they would cite the “seamless garment” metaphor of the late Cardinal Bernardin. They were apparently unaware or uninterested in the fact that Bernardin himself explicitly deplored the “other issues” interpretation in a 1988 interview published in the National Catholic Register.

But if the conscience of many Catholics is so different from that of others, what is the explanation for the discrepancy? Aside from the oft-cited circumstances that helped assure an Obama victory in the last election – namely, “Bush derangement syndrome,” the financial crises, the dissatisfaction with the Iraq occupation, etc. – other factors germane to the Catholic electorate need to be taken into account:

1) Long-standing Catholic affiliation over many decades with the Democratic Party seemed to many (in contrast with the Republican stereotype as the “Party of the rich”) to have values more akin to Catholic social-justice ideals – ideals that led many Catholics to participate in civil-rights movements during the late 1960s. The election of a black president in 2008 symbolically became the final crowning of those efforts with success.

2) Abortion, for some reason, is not widely viewed as an issue of social justice. When trusted Democratic leaders like Ted Kennedy (largely as a result of a two-day meeting with theologians at Hyannisport in 1964), Al Gore, and John Kerry shifted ideologically from being pro-life to “pro-choice,” the shift was taken as being a mere blip on the political radar screen rather than a sea-change in moral principles or the sacrosanct “liberal” interpretation of human rights. Unlike the case of slavery in the nineteenth century, when public awareness of the plight of oppressed fellow humans could hardly be avoided, the victims of abortion are almost completely invisible. It is much easier than in the case of slavery, which nagged at the conscience of onlookers, to ignore the painful destruction of pre-born children. If abortion is homicide, it is an anomalous case of almost purely private homicide. Any public displays of the effects of abortion in our culture are classified as “obscenity.” Teenagers, for example, have been forbidden by their school principals to wear T-shirts with pictures of aborted fetuses.

3) Possibly the most important (and most subtle and unappreciated) factor influencing the Catholic rejection of the Christian tradition, however, is the change in attitude towards contraception in the wake of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae vitae. We find from consistent polling that the vast majority of Catholics, in tandem with most other Christians, have no problem with the marital use of contraceptives. This has logical implications. a) If a married couple has a natural right to sexual intercourse, without any corresponding duty to be open to procreation, a logical conclusion would be to view any unintended pregnancy that results as an infringement of one’s rights. Once the link between sex and openness to giving birth has been broken, the fetus may easily take on the aspect of an unwelcome intruder, who may be refused “hospitality” – a prohibition which in this case quickly leads to death. b) A not-insignificant corollary from the rejection of Humanae vitae is a wholesale loss of respect for papal authority. Thus when many Catholics speak of “the spirit of Vatican II,” they are thinking of the famous panel of experts consulted by Paul VI regarding contraception, the majority of whom dissented from the teaching of Humanae vitae. The traditional authority of the papacy regarding matters of “faith and morals” has now been reinterpreted, for example by Notre Dame theologian Fr. Richard McBrien. In a widely disseminated newspaper column, he declared that doctrinal truths are worthy of Catholic fidelity, but not moral pronouncements.

The disregard for the pope’s moral authority, however, extends beyond contraception to other issues. If non-procreative sexual intercourse is licit for married couples, why not for non-married couples who love each other? Why not for committed gay or lesbian couples? Or polygamists? And if contraception fails for any of these committed and loving heterosexuals, what is this but an unfortunate “conflict of rights,” which may (sadly) have to be adjudicated in favor of the contraceptors?

Once we contemplate such factors, the ongoing Catholic participation in the reversal of two millennia of Christian tradition regarding abortion becomes easily understood, if lamentable. And we must understand that in order to reverse it, we are engaged in a multi-pronged debate over more than the immediate protection of life, which must be won across the board or the potent forces in our world that have produced the culture of death will inevitably return with coordinated attacks from several directions at once.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • thank you for your insightful article – we need more professors like you who write and teach the truth!!

  • blue8064

    John McCain Not Pro-Life Either
    John McCain was not pro-life either. First of all, he voted for embryonic stem cell research. In addition, in September 1995, he voted to REQUIRE that states have family caps in their welfare policies, a provision where welfare payments are not increased for additional children born to welfare mothers; and to REQUIRE that states deny support for minors who bear children out of wedlock. These are all pro-abortion–the fact that these were requirements makes them all the more clearly pro-abortion.

  • jacob

    So I tried to tell just these kinds of Catholics that I thought it was a sin to vote for Obama..they won’t talk to me anymore.

  • H. Ross Howard

    Malcolm Muggeridge saw it Clearly
    An insightful article, professor. And you rightly state that if the forces that brought about the Culture of Death are not turned around, they will eventually consume us. Malcolm Muggeridge, even before he became a Christian, saw it clearly: “What I want to say is that in [Humane Vitae] the finger is pointed on the point that really matters: namely, that through human procreation the great creativity of men and women comes into play, and that to interfere with that creativity, to seek to relate it merely to pleasure, is to go back to pre-Christian times and ultimately to destroy the civilisation that Christianity has brought about…If there is one thing I feel absolutely certain about, it is that. One thing that I know will appear in social histories in the future is that the dissolution of our way of life, our Christian way of life and all that it has meant to the world, relates directly to the matters raised in Humanae Vitae.”

  • Ars Artium

    If ever, now.
    Professor Kainz: Thank you. Please continue to teach us. In order to do more good than harm, we must offer rational, difficult-to-refute arguments. I do not think it is possible to exaggerate the importance of good teachers, certainly, if ever, now.

  • Joe

    The Party of Death
    What the 2008 election demonstrates, once again, is the blind stupidity of the American voter, including the Catholics who voted for Obama. Firstly, how can one claim to be a Catholic, such as the wayward Richard O’Brien, when one chooses to cherry-pick the teachings of the Church. If you favor abortion, gay marriage and women’s ordination you can easily become a Protestant and have your way. After all, isn’t that what religion is today? Finding a set of beliefs YOU can live with and which fit your lifestyle. I hold no brief for either political party – they are both equally noxious – and hold my nose when I vote Republican, which has been labeled the Party of No. Better, however, than being the Party of Death. Finally, Obama’s pledge to get us out of the war may have duped some, but 18 months after his inauguration, the war in Iraq continues unabated and the violence in Afghanistan increases on the heels of his ordering 30,000 more US troops into combat. Nietzsche’s dictum of turning evil into good (the Nobel Peace Prize confirming) is once again validated in the modern world.

  • JBL

    Excellent, Needed
    This is an excellent and needed statement of what is at stake and how we must proceed.

  • James Danielson

    Homosexuality and Contraception
    It is clear that the contraceptive ethos leaves society without an argument against homosexual marriage. When the assumption is taken that pleasure alone justifies sex, then it is no longer possible to make any but an academic distinction between sex and sodomy. This is so because the separation of sex from procreation renders available any port in a storm. After separating the communicative from the procreative aspects of sex, any argument against the legal recognition of the committed relationships of homosexuals will be seen only as “mean-spirited,” “homophobic” prejudice.

  • Chris

    It’s all in a name.
    If I may paraphrase a past president. It all depends on what your definition of Catholic is. I can assure you that my definition differs vastly from that of Ms Pelosi, Mr Kerry, most of the Kennedys, et al. When was the last time anyone heard a priest tell his congregation to leave their Catholicism in the pews when they exit the church, but that is precisely the excuse for so-called Catholic politicians. They claim their position as servants of the public somehow trump their moral duty as a Catholic. Unfortunately, there are many who buy into that argument and claim full time status as a Catholic while giving part time service to the teachings of the church.

  • Joe

    It is always refreshing to get a splash of cold truth in a time of lukewarm acceptance of daily evils as the norm. The transvaluation is nearly complete. The 7 deadly sins have been either converted to virtues or at worst, maladies requiring therapy of various kinds.

  • Joe

    “So I tried to tell just these kinds of Catholics that I thought it was a sin to vote for Obama..they won’t talk to me anymore. “..count your blessings.

  • Not an Obama vs. McCain article
    It never fails in discussing this topic that someone misses the whole point of the topic as blue8064 does above by introducing the irrelevant “John McCain was not pro-life either” canard. The key difference is that while most pro-lifers never believed John McCain to be “pro-life” they nevertheless understood that he was a better alternative than the aggressively abortion promoting Obama. They also understood as most of the “Catholics for Obama” camp that Professor Kainz describes do not, is that abortion is not just one among many social ills. And that even if John McCain or any other Republican was 100% pro-life on each issue that this group would still not vote for him. This is a well written article that addresses some key points.

  • Harry

    Let us not forget that until LBJ’s Great Society in the 1960s, Aid for Dependent Children (ADC) became Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), eliminating the bar to aid for bastards. The father had to step up for the mother to qualify for dependent assistance. If he didn’t, or wouldn’t, Mom was on her own. That was a rather inhibiting factor for casual sex. Or as Milton Friedman starkly stated, “If you pay for more bastards, you get more bastards.”

  • John Abel

    I have read many articles on this subject, including several from TCT but this is the best ever. I plan to send copies of this article to several of my family and friends. THANK YOU PROFESSOR KAINZ!!

  • Jill

    Now on Facebook
    GREAT article! And I’m so glad to have that “Share” button now so that I can post my favorite TCT articles on my Facebook.

  • Liz

    The Catholic Church has had Cafeteria Catholics for at least the past 40 yrs as a misinterpretation of Vat II which our priests and bishops failed to correct – there are still pockets of these clery to be found everywhere. Until they are gone, and Benedict XVI replaces bishops with traditional (read orthodox) men, these misinterpretations will continue. Stand firm in your faith. And, if they don’t want to hear it, shake the dust off your feet and move on. Truth always prevails.

  • Degrees of Not Pro-Life
    blue8064 says, “John McCain was no pro-lifer either.” When faced with a choice between two candidates who are not pro-life, a Catholic is morally obligated to vote for the candidate who represents the least extreme position. By no stretch of the imagination can one claim that Senator McCain is more extreme than President Obama on abortion. The choice to not support the Obama campaign was clear to anyone with a properly formed conscience.

  • hoome

    Ah, the fruits of Vatican II!