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, 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.