The Magazine

More Catholic Than the Pope

Joe Biden's and Nancy Pelosi's ill-fated ventures into theological disputation.

Sep 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 03 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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So what's Joe Biden to do? What, for that matter, is any Catholic supporter of Obama to do? The ledge on which they are trying to stand is crumbling beneath their feet. Douglas Kmiec, a former legal counsel in the Reagan administration, has gotten the most publicity for his Catholic praise of the Democratic ticket. Indeed, he's made a new career for himself out of being a Catholic Republican who supports Obama: pouring out op-eds, delivering speeches, and penning a just-released book, Can a Catholic Support Him?--Asking the Big Question About Barack Obama.

The title is a tease, as you might expect. "What's wrong," he writes, "is for Republican partisans to claim" that support for abortion is Obama's position. "It's not. Rather, Obama believes there are alternative ways to promote the 'culture of life,' even given the law's sanction of abortion." The trouble, of course, is that Obama has given little indication he believes anything of the sort, and, in the months Kmiec spent writing the book, the Democrats have systematically undermined its premise by explicitly endorsing Roe v. Wade and refusing any concessions that abortion might be even a necessary evil.

In response to it all, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden were reduced to the idiocy of trying to argue theology on the Sunday morning shows, and Kmiec's claims have dwindled down to a kind of old-fashioned double-effect argument: The Republicans are so wrong about other issues, especially the Iraq war and the economy, that Catholics should vote for the Democratic party and accept the Democrats' support for legalized abortion as an unintended consequence.

Who's likely to be convinced by such a position? Republicans have occasionally tacked away from pro-life voters. There's a solid argument to be made that the fact of Sarah Palin's nomination, together with the visual presentation of her family at the Republican convention, made as strong a pro-life argument as it's possible to make. Still, in the convention's acceptance speeches--an hour and a half of speechmaking from McCain and Palin--the issue was explicitly mentioned only once, with the brief phrase "a culture of life" coming in a laundry list late in McCain's speech. And pro--lifers have been made nervous by McCain's recent answer to a science group's questionnaire, in which he affirmed his support for "federal funding for embryonic stem cell research," though he insists on unspecified limits. His campaign has announced that it is airing radio ads about stem cells. Embryonic? Adult? Reprogrammed pluripotent cells? The ad doesn't say, but the fact of the ad is not reassuring.

Still, here is where the doctrine of double effect might actually have some purchase. Abortion is so grave an evil that some errors from McCain might be acceptable. Polls over the last few elections consistently show much weaker Catholic opposition to embryonic stem cell research than to abortion.

As it happens, those same polls consistently show little that can be identified as a uniquely Catholic vote, once the presidential election has narrowed down the choice to the two parties' candidates. The Democratic primaries did seem to reveal a Catholic identity among some voters: Hillary Clinton won 70 percent of Catholics in Pennsylvania, and she beat Obama by 10 percentage points or more among Catholics in two-thirds of the states where exit polls asked for religious identification. But those numbers precisely matched her victories among white voters with lower-middle-class incomes and blue-collar jobs in the old Rust Belt. For that matter, they mostly came at the end of the primary cycle, when a backlash against Obama was setting in. Once Catholic Republicans are added, in the broader setting of a national campaign, the likelihood is that Catholics will vote much the way the rest of the nation votes.

And yet, there remains that question of abortion. Things have tightened over the last few years, the Catholic position is firmer in the public's mind--firmer in the Catholic mind, for that matter. McCain was a long way from the pro-lifers' first choice for a Republican nominee, but the Democrats this election cycle are determined to force the issue. They've pushed, and they've pushed, and they've pushed, until Catholics are falling off the cliff. Poor Doug Kmiec and his sad question, "Can a Catholic Support Him?" As a matter of good conscience, the answer looks increasingly like no, a Catholic can't support Obama. And as a matter of political fact--well, that's starting to look like no, as well, isn't it?

Joseph Bottum, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is editor of First Things.