As a Catholic, I think Sen. Barack Obama is the best candidate for President of the United States. I say this not despite, but rather because of his nuanced position on abortion. As we see a resurgence of the culture wars in this election, particularly in the days following "pro-life" Gov. Sarah Palin's selection as Sen. John McCain's running mate, my past experience as a conservative Catholic single-issue voter seems relevant. I'm writing this for my sisters and brothers who still are those kinds of Catholic voters.
I started my freshman year at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, when I was barely 17, skipping my senior year of high school in my enthusiasm to get started on Catholic higher education. I quickly joined Students for Life, the campus pro-life group, and began spending Saturday mornings with 6 am mass and an hour drive to Pittsburgh to pray in front of the abortion clinic. That first year I was a bus captain on the trip to Washington, D.C. for the March for Life, as well as head of the Students for Life Prayer Team. I was interviewed on the conservative Catholic TV station
EWTN as a young pro-life leader.
On my breaks from school, I worked at my hometown's Catholic bookstore, where I reorganized the books based on theological theme and offered customers advice about saints, prayer, and the like. I also volunteered at the local crisis pregnancy center, where we offered free pregnancy tests, infant formula, children's clothing, and other services to help women who were pregnant and needed extra support. I went to daily mass and weekly confession, as I had since high school. I marched in the occasional local abortion protest. I read theology in my free time.
I was, in other words, the perfect Steubenville Catholic student: devoted to my prayer life, diligent in my studies, involved in student life, and passionate about the pro-life cause.
My Steubenville honeymoon was not to last, however. For while I prayed for an end to abortion and the conversion of souls, I also saw the depressed ex-steel town in which the university resided, and I felt a disconnect between the spiritual fervency on campus and the poverty
surrounding it. I was ashamed to have the money to be a full-time student when the neighborhoods next door to the university were filled with dilapidated houses and people forced out of work when the steel mills closed. Big questions started plaguing me: Was it really enough to make these people observant Catholics, as the general thinking on campus went? Were all of their socioeconomic problems really caused by the fact that they used birth control? Would overturning Roe v. Wade really be enough to solve the poverty, under-education, and chronic unemployment rampant in the town and the world?
I started wondering why, in my class on Catholic social teaching, the professor only highlighted the parts of the Catholic tradition that condemned communism and promoted free trade. What about teachings against corporate corruption and exploitation of workers? The
general assumption that a good Catholic voted Republican began to grate on me, because so many of the GOP policies were in direct violation of Catholic teaching about human dignity. How could the party of unregulated corporate greed be the party for solidarity with
the poor? I started wondering if maybe more could be done to solve the abortion problem by addressing the socioeconomic causes, rather than the obsession with overturning Roe v. Wade that filled our thinking. I started seeing the need for systemic change - the need to question, as
Dorothy Day put it, "this dirty rotten system" of unfettered free market capitalism.
At last, I realized that to be a good Catholic had nothing to do with being a good Republican, and that in fact there is a proud tradition of a Catholic Left. And so someone smashed in my car window and ripped off my "What would Jesus bomb?" bumper sticker, my small protest
against the Iraq war. My peers called my house "the liberal nest of sin." At parties people sometimes asked me how I could even call myself a Catholic.
It is those voices that I hear again in the enthusiasm over "pro-life" Gov. Sarah Palin, whose views on criminalizing abortion seem to trump her well-documented personal record of corrupt and cronyistic bullying. So for those of you who insist on being "single issue"
voters this election, I suggest that you may do well to dig under the tired rhetoric of Republicans feverishly seeking your votes and consider the following.
Why, in 12 years of a Republican-controlled Congress (1994-2006), 6 of which with a supposedly pro-life Republican President (2001-2007), has no human life amendment to outlaw abortion come up for a vote? Could it be that the GOP may have some motivating interest in keeping abortion legal indefinitely as an issue to galvanize voters at election time, winning Republicans easy
And if you actually want to reduce abortions, you may do well to note the findings in the 2008 study by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, showing the role that economic factors have on the decision to abort, and also how addressing those factors actually reduces abortions.
If, after all this, you still want to vote for Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin - well, then, by all means do. Freedom of conscience is an important aspect of the Catholic teaching, too. But please stop acting like it's the only authentically "Catholic" way to vote; even the U.S. bishops disagree.