Judging the Candidates
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio
Diocese of Brooklyn
September 6, 2008
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Candidates for political office regularly speak out on moral issues. This is certainly acceptable since our Constitution upholds the separation of church and state. The separation envisioned by our founding fathers was intended as a protection for the free exercise of religion. In his letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury in 1801 Thomas Jefferson concluded that the First Amendment was intended to prevent the establishment of a state church as was the case in some of the original thirteen colonies.
The wall of separation, as some have interpreted it, protects the church from intrusion by the government; however, it does not separate religion and faith from politics, much less conscience from the action of a citizen. Values drive public policy. Unfortunately, it seems that in our society today, values that stem from one’s religious beliefs have less importance than values that arise from ideologies. We will see many examples of this as the election comes closer.
At a recent candidates forum sponsored by the Reverend Rick Warren, the pastor of the Saddleback Church in California, which boasts a congregation of 40,000 each Sunday. (The Diocese of Brooklyn has an average Sunday church attendance of 240,000.) Pastor Warren was able to summon the candidates, separately of course, to answer a series of questions. After a coin was flipped to determine questioning order, he first spoke with Mr. Obama and then with Mr. McCain.
There were two questions, from the transcript of the televised question and answer period, that I believe are of critical importance for Catholic voters to understand. The first question is: “At what point does a baby get human rights?” Each candidate had an opportunity to answer this question. Mr. Obama believed that this was a scientific and theological question and the answer to which was “above his pay grade”. Specifically, his answer was, “Well, I think that whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that questions with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade. But let me just speak more generally about the issue of abortion because this is something obviously the country wrestles with. One thing that I’m absolutely convinced of is there is a moral and ethical content to this issue.”
Mr. Obama went on to say that he is pro-choice, but not pro-abortion, a distinction which is hard to make. But he tried to seek common ground by promising to reduce the number of abortions, citing that our current President, who opposes abortion, has not been able to reduce the number of abortions during his tenure. When asked if he had ever voted to reduce abortions in his own tenure in the Senate, Mr. Obama was not able to respond directly and recognized that if “you believe that life begins at conception, then — and you are consistent in that belief, then I can’t argue with you on that because that is a core issue of faith for you.
The issue that life begins at conception is probably the issue which most confuses people. It is not through a belief or a tenant of religious faith that we know that life begins at conception, but rather by a scientific fact, a fact which over the past 150 years has been proven by scientific research. That the fertilization of an egg begins the life process, which will result, barring any unforeseen circumstances, in the birth of a child, is an irrefutable scientific fact. Whatever the various stage of human development, zygote or fetus, the creation of the fertilization process is human at all times. Here is the crux of the problem for our society, a human being gains human rights when his or her life process begins. And the slippery slope is that when you can end a life at the beginning, if a logical process is followed, you can also end a life in its final stages.
When Mr. McCain was presented with the exact same question, his response was more direct. He stated, “At the moment of conception.”
Certainly, it is important that we compare the answers and voting records of both candidates on this critical issue of conscience for all Catholic voters.
Another question along these same lines was presented to Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, on Meet the Press, on Sunday, August 24. She was asked by the moderator, Tom Brokaw, “If Senator Obama were to come to you and say, ‘Help me out here, Madame Speaker. When does life begin?’ what would you tell him?” She responded by saying that she was an ardent, practicing Catholic and had studied this issue for a long time. She cited the teaching of St. Augustine from the early centuries of the Church and seemed to be evasive regarding when life began. Rep. Pelosi went on to say in regard to Roe v. Wade that, “Roe v. Wade talks about very clear definitions of when the child—first trimester, certain considerations; second trimester; not so third trimester. There’s very clear distinctions.”
I am not sure what the distinctions she was trying to make, unfortunately she sounded confused. Mr. Brokaw tried to correct her saying, “The Catholic Church at the moment feels very strongly that…(life begins at the point of conception).” Rep. Pelosi countered that, “And this is like maybe 50 years or something like that. So again, over the history of the Church, this is an issue of controversy.” What I believe, Rep. Pelosi was referring to is the fact that when scientific knowledge was not available to the Church and there was theological discussion regarding the point of animation, when does a fetus become a person? However, the Church in the First Century, in the most ancient Christian document known as Didache stated that “You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.” This is quoted in the Catholic Catechism. The truth of the matter is that the Church has always been clear about its prohibition of abortion. Despite questions that surrounded the moment of animation the Church imposed various penalties depending on the time of an abortion. We should all be outraged that Speaker Pelosi would claim to be an ardent and practicing Catholic while espousing views that distort history and are contrary to the teachings of the Church.
It is unfortunate that elected officials, even when they recognize that they are dealing with an issue of public policy which touches on questions with profound consequences, sometimes equivocate and try to find loopholes in order to support political positions. It is hard to believe that any Catholic in this country today could not understand the Church’s clear teaching that abortion is always wrong under any circumstance and that life begins at the moment of conception.
A second interesting question that was posed to Senators Obama and McCain was simply stated, “Define Marriage.” Mr. Obama responded by saying, “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now for me as a Christian — for me — for me as a Christian it’s also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.” When next asked, “Would you support a Constitutional Amendment with that definition?” he responded, “No, I would not.” When asked, “Why not?” Mr. Obama answered, “Because historically — because historically we have not defined marriage in our Constitution. It’s been a matter of state law that has been our tradition.”
On the other hand, when asked for the definition of marriage Mr. McCain responded, “A union — a union between man and woman, between one man and one woman, that’s my definition of marriage.” He went on to say that he would favor a Constitution Amendment defining marriage, if the Federal Court decided that his home state of Arizona had to observe what the state of Massachusetts had decided, believing that these decisions should be the province of each state.
It has been said that all comparisons are odious; however, comparing the positions of candidates is exactly what we must do in the current political debate. It is never easy to follow the reasoning of another person, much less the reasoning of political candidates who try to play to the crowd. Clarity and being definitive, however, are two characteristics of politicians that should be most admired.
As we put out into the deep waters of the upcoming Presidential election, we are called upon to be attentive to what the candidates espouse and to their respective parties’ platforms, and to judge each in light of the teachings of the Catholic Church.