KARL KEATING'S E-LETTER

 

March 16, 2004

 

TOPIC:

 

READERS SOUND OFF ON THE VOTER'S GUIDE

 

Dear Friend of Catholic Answers:

 

As I note at the end of each E-Letter, I'm not in a position to answer (let alone solicit!) comments. Writing this E-Letter is not my full-time job, and I want to keep it that way.

 

Still, many people reply to what I write here, and I read each e-mail that comes in. A very few I answer myself, and a few others I forward to our staff apologists. The majority of the messages I just read and try to learn from.

 

The February 24 E-Letter was mainly about Catholic Answers' "Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics." Let me share with you a few of the comments I received.

 

NOT INCLUSIVE ENOUGH

 

David Ewing had these comments:

 

"While I am adamantly opposed to all the mortal sins you listed, I cannot in good conscience vote for the current administration and/or their cronies & subordinates. Whereas they do hold to Church teaching in their moral/sexual positions, they completely ignore--if not repudiate--teaching about helping one's fellow man, the environment, international cooperation, etc. Why not give any emphasis at all to those important issues, Karl? Are they of no import? Or are you, when it comes to politics, just a right-wing Fundamentalist with a rosary?"

 

Before I answer Mr. Ewing (I respond to his last question at the end of this E-Letter), let me present comments from others readers who have opinions similar to his.

 

Bob Storch wrote:

 

"Your simplistic five 'non-negotiable' Catholic issues is not smart voting. ... The right to life extends beyond the womb. Where do candidates stand on the death penalty? The right to life extends to the quality of life. Where do candidates stand on education and health care? The right to life extends to the dignity of work. Where do candidates stand on jobs, trade, and taxes? ... Narrowing the voting process to a simplistic five-issue check-off is not smart."

 

Lynn Norris said "ditto":

 

"Your assertion that 'serious' Catholics should vote for a candidate based solely on any one of the five issues outlined (important though they are) is truly frightening. There are numerous critical moral issues that require conscientious examination and evaluation by people of faith when deciding who should get their vote. ... Your suggestion that some Catholics are voting 'dumb' based only on the five issues on the list is offensive to 'serious' Catholics."

 

Ronald J. Jebaily said pretty much the same thing:

 

"This time you have gone over the top. Single-issue voters are dumb by definition, and Catholics who vote only on a candidate's pro-life v. pro-choice position are dumber still, because we are raised on the whole of the Church's social teaching. It is the fallacy of our time that abortion is the last remaining sin. Our Catholic faith should inform our complete value structure so that we can make effective political choices with regard to all the issues facing us, including abortion."

 

Each of these four correspondents labors under one or more misunderstandings.

 

1. The "Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics" doesn't tell the reader which candidates to vote for but which to vote against: Candidates who are wrong on any of the five "non-negotiables" should be eliminated from consideration. Then choose from among the remaining candidates based on other issues. No matter how good he may be on "jobs, trade, and taxes," a candidate who favors homicide (which is what four of the five non-negotiables are) shouldn't get your vote.

 

2. So far as I know, no candidates for any offices are running on platforms that favor racism, which is why that issue wasn't included among the non-negotiables. But assume there were such candidates. Would you argue that it would be permissible to vote for them, on the theory that they might be right on all the issues except race?

 

Of course not. You would say their pro-racist position should exclude them from consideration, since racism is a vile thing. As vile as racism is, the killing of innocent people in such things as human cloning and euthanasia is worse.

 

By crossing off our lists the racist and the candidate who supports any of the five non-negotiables, we don't become one-issue voters, because we go on to take into account other, lesser issues. What we accomplish with this methodology is to declare that some things are beyond the pale and that candidates who want to vie for our votes need to qualify themselves minimally by passing a certain threshold.

 

3. Issues such as education, health care, the environment, jobs, trade, and taxes are all important--but on them Catholics are permitted a wide liberty. On the five non-negotiables, there is only one possible position for a conscientious Catholic to take: complete opposition. The Church mandates no such uniformity on these other issues.

 

Consider taxes. How should the tax code be structured? Should we stick with the current system, should we go back to much steeper rates, or should we change to a flat rate for everyone? There is no "Catholic position" here, since any of those systems can qualify under Catholic principles. You may argue in favor of soaking the rich, and I may argue in favor of doing away with income taxes entirely (or the other way around), and neither of us exceeds the bounds of Catholic principles.

 

Consider jobs. Should we institute government-created jobs, as was done during the Depression? Should we foster jobs by lowering corporate tax rates? Should we give tax breaks to small businesses to help them get off the ground? Any of those positions may be advocated by a Catholic--or opposed by a Catholic. Again, the Church doesn't mandate a particular arrangement--this is true even though particular prelates may argue for one solution or another.

 

Consider education. Should more money be spent on public schools? Should less? Should some arrangement, such as vouchers or tax credits, be made available for private, including religious, schools? Should home economics classes be scrapped? Should the phonics system be used? Again, a Catholic is free to support or to oppose any of these positions. There is no Catholic party line. Nothing in the creeds tells us whether "Huckleberry Finn" should be assigned reading or whether students should be mandated to attend physical education classes.

 

4. The voter's guide did not give any "emphasis" (to use Mr. Ewing's word) to these other issues because they aren't black-and-white the way the five non-negotiables are. They are at a different level morally.

 

No one ever claimed that "abortion is the last remaining sin," to use Mr. Jebaily's phrase. But abortion is such a heinous sin that people advocating it should forfeit our votes. If a candidate is wrong on such a basic issue, what trust can be put in his judgment when it comes to a lesser matter, such as what tariff rate, if any, should be applied to sugar? We would not reward a racist with our vote, so why should we reward someone who is wrong on abortion or the other non-negotiables?

 

5. The complainants seem to operate from a "seamless garment" approach, but that approach, over the last two decades, failed to advance the Church's teaching on the lesser issues while giving nominally-Catholic politicians "cover" to do nothing at all on the non-negotiables. In theory the "seamless garment" sounds great. In practice it has been a failure.

 

The fact is that issues are not all on the same level morally. Whether a child dies through abortion is more important than whether a child gets a free school lunch. Moreover, there is an official Catholic position on abortion, but there is not one on free school lunches. One can favor or oppose a school lunch program and be considered a good Catholic, but one can't favor abortion and be so considered.

 

6. Finally, to answer Mr. Ewing's most pressing question: No, when it comes to politics, I am not "just a right-wing Fundamentalist with a rosary." I am a Catholic with a rosary.

 

NAMING NAMES

 

Nancy Weiland had a different complaint:

 

"You state you will not 'name names.' I feel very strongly that in order to bring about change, you cannot be vague or oblique. Most people need to be hit over the head before they truly understand the message and what's at stake, and in order to do that, you really must 'name names'!"

 

Tracey Kelly went much further:

 

"Man, oh man. ... I stopped reading 'cause I was getting really disgusted. ... I don't care what reasons you chose not to mention specifically what politicians or parties were against very basic Catholic and Christian principles ... the bottom line is the same. ... If you don't have the guts, how can you be an example for those you are trying to persuade? I'm sick."

 

Perk up, friend! No need to get ill over this. Let's think things through.

 

Our voter's guide makes it clear that the principles it conveys should be applied to all political races, not just those at the national level. Catholic voters should demand the same accountability from candidates who are running for state and local offices as they do from those running for national office. After all, those running for lesser offices, if successful, will be running for greater offices in the future.

 

In this election year thousands of offices are up for grabs, and tens of thousands of names are appearing on ballots. The "Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics" is only ten pages long. To "name names" fully, we would need to print not a booklet but a phone book. That's not in our budget.

 

Maybe my correspondents are thinking chiefly in terms of a few national races. Would there have been room to evaluate the candidates, say, for president and maybe a few senatorial races?

 

Sure, but that would leave readers with the false impression that they have done their duty when they have applied the five non-negotiables to those races. We wouldn't want that to happen. We want readers to hold all candidates, no matter how obscure the offices, to the same standards, for the reasons given in the guide itself.

 

WHY WASN'T CAPITAL PUNISHMENT LISTED?

 

Chris Harris smelled a plot:

 

"I'm rather disappointed in your litmus test (oops, voting guide) for

several reasons, but foremost: It appears to me that you purposely omitted capital punishment from your list of non-negotiable issues, expressly so the person who is currently President of the United States (who is very much pro death penalty) will pass your litmus test! Please tell me this is not so!"

 

Okay: It is not so. There was no effort to fashion a list that would allow a particular politician to "pass" or to get off easy.

 

As I discussed in the March 2 issue of the E-Letter, contrary to what many people think, the Church does not demand opposition to capital punishment--so, yes, we "purposefully omitted capital punishment" from the "Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics," but for a very good reason.

 

Mr. Harris is at liberty to oppose the use of the death penalty and to oppose candidates who support it. Other Catholics are at liberty to support the use of the death penalty and to support candidates who support it. Capital punishment just isn't something that qualifies as a non-negotiable issue, no matter how strongly a particular person may feel about it.

 

PRO MULTIS or PRO OMNIS?

 

Jackie Gere had a question but not a complaint:

 

"I wanted to let you know that I love the voter's guide. I ordered 100 to distribute. I do have a question on the title. Why isn't it a voter's guide for all Catholics? Would you please explain why you chose to put the word 'serious' in the title? I anticipate that as I distribute the guides I may get questions on this."

 

Whew! I appreciate getting off the hot seat for a moment. Here are the reasons:

 

1. The only Catholics who will apply their faith in the voting booth are, almost by definition, serious people.

 

2. "Voter's Guide for Catholics" sounds bland. The title sounds better, maybe even a little intriguing, with "Serious" in it.

 

3. The title flatters the potential reader by implying that he is serious. This makes it more likely that he will read--and use--the guide. (Imagine the effect on the booklet's distribution if the title had been "Voter's Guide for Airhead Catholics.")

 

Until next time,

 

Karl

 

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Join Jimmy Akin, Rosalind Moss, Tim Staples, Thomas Howard, Bishop Colin Campbell, and me for a week of beautiful fall scenery and invigorating large- and small-group events, including daily Mass, rosaries, and fun on-shore excursions.

 

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The content of this E-Letter is copyright 2004 by Karl Keating.