Acton Commentary

Catholics and the Election


Presidential elections are a revealing time in American life: the “silly season” they are often rightly called. Yet, such a time may also force discussion of issues that otherwise evade public consciousness. This is true for religious people as well.

Millions of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and others have tried to come to terms with what their own faith implies for what they should do on Election Day. Intensifying the matter is the way in which the parties court their votes by subtly appealing to a variety of religious sensibilities without crossing that invisible line that exists in a society that values religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

The repeated theologically untutored commentaries of Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi on what the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church on the matter of abortion is or is not, ensured an ongoing dialogue on religion and society in general and the Catholic Church in particular. It also made the work of pro-Obama Catholics more difficult as they saw scores of Catholic bishops -- even some known for their moderation -- publicly correct these misstatements.

A wide range of forums were scheduled to address these issues, and I've received my share of invitations to speak at them. So it was that I received from a Ms. Stephanie Beck Borden an invitation to a symposium on "Catholics and the 2008 Presidential Election" sponsored by the innocuously named Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, of which she is the Ohio director. Upon further inquiry I was told that her group was “a non-partisan organization and our board represents a diverse cross-section of people across the political spectrum.” I was informed that the exchange was to be “moderated” by Gail Collins, an opinion writer for the New York Times, and Joe Feuerherd of the National Catholic Reporter.

At this point I was skeptical of the organizer’s self-description, so I made a further inquiry only to discover that other invitees reside squarely within this camp as well, including Fr. Thomas Reese of Georgetown, the former editor of America magazine, and Douglas Kmiec, author of “Can Catholics Support Him?” (I will presume you know to whom ‘him’ refers, as well as what Kmiec’s answer to the question was.)

The Catholic Alliance web site contains the usual progressive litanies, focused on ending poverty and war (I hope they succeed), and promotes various links to papers attacking "excessive wealth" and endorsing rights to safe working environment, unions, and jobs. There is also a doctrinal endorsement of what can only be considered the conventional environmentalist agenda, plus a disarmament campaign on foreign policy.

But when I pressed Ms. Beck Borden, she seemed surprised by the notion that I might question her objectivity and said that the co-sponsoring organization (The Brueggeman Center for Dialogue) was “committed to, well, dialogue” and as if to add a final assurance said, “The Center is housed on the campus of Xavier University which can hardly be considered a den of liberalism.”

My point is not to argue with the stated agenda or even the progressive approach to religion and politics (that could wait for the forum). What I take issue with is why Ms. Beck Borden was so reluctant to state it. One would be naïve not to notice that it is, in fact, a left-tinged agenda. There is nothing wrong with that as such. But why not say, “Fr. Sirico, my comrades and I are hoping to gain some credibility for our positions among those Catholics wavering about voting for Obama by inviting you to an event we are organizing in order to gang up on you and perhaps another conservative in front of our student body, and we would like you to come for the party”?

What Ms. Beck Borden did not know about me was that I don't mind an old-fashioned debate. I rather like them, having been well-tutored in the forensic arts over the Sunday dinner table in my working-class, Italian-American kitchen in Brooklyn. Such early formation has caused me to never shy from confrontations on points with which I am in disagreement and about which I have some knowledge. I would like to discuss politics and theology with these folks. It turned out that I had other commitments during this time, so I couldn't accept the invitation in any case. But what I found most interesting was the apparent inability of the organizers to see that their forum had a biased agenda that might be fairly described as progressive.

This was all brought to the fore recently when Catholic League President Bill Donohue noted that Catholics in Alliance received $100,000 from George Soros, a multi-million financier of left wing political agendas. Donohue observed that Catholics in Alliance receives money from Soros because there is no legitimate source of revenue from within the Catholic Church to fund a pro-abortion agenda.

I'm not saying that such events need to invite a representative of a minority point of view. It is their event after all. But a bit of honesty would certainly be welcome.

My main point here is not that people on the left are being dishonest about what they are doing but that they suffer from what I call the NPR Syndrome, which is the tendency to ignore all the tell-tale signs of being on the Left.

Those infected with the NPR Syndrome come to think of themselves as holding the normal, fair, objective, reasonable, and responsible perspective on all things considered, and think of anyone who might dissent from their view as someone with a bias who is mostly only worth hearing in order to be dismissed and proven wrong. They speak of dialogue often, but to take the event to which I was invited as an example, I feared it would have largely been a monologue, with a few token conservative voices to spice things up.

I have a generally favorable view of the business economy, the free market, of free labor contracts, low taxes, and I admit to being a defender of the right of enterprise, especially when one considers the alternative. Naturally, such efforts need to be placed in a juridical context and ethically grounded. If you say that these points of view puts me on the right side of the political spectrum, I might try to clarify that I consider myself to be a true liberal (in the old sense of the word), but I would certainly understand why you consider me to be a conservative.

The religious left, however, is different. And part of the reason, I believe, has to do with a self-inflicted blindness as to the full range of opinion that is possible within the framework of religious ethics. No particular school of economics is canonized, after all. But surely it is not enough to mouth slogans of justice and the common good. It is possible to favor the rights of the poor and the common good and believe that free markets and charity are the best overall means to achieve them. It is possible to believe in the rights of all people and hold the opinion that liberty is their best guarantee.

Perhaps once the dust of the political season has settled (if it ever does), we will be in a better position to resume this discussion. I would ask my progressive friends to consider that they really do have a point of view on politics, that it doesn’t follow necessarily from Christian theology, that others may disagree with them in good faith, and, finally, that it would be beneficial to everyone to be respectfully honest about their disagreements.