A Jesuit’s Case for Barack Obama

Deal W. Hudson
September 28, 2008

A few days ago Rev. Ray Schroth, S.J., posted “Why This Priest Votes for Obama” on the NJ Voice blog. Father Schroth teaches humanities at St. Peter’s College and is presently working on a book about Rev. Robert Drinan, S.J.

Father was careful in making his endorsement: “I do not say this from a pulpit. I imply no moral obligation that you accept my ideas.” Fair enough. Every American citizen has the right to express support publicly for a candidate or a political party, as an individual.

Yet Father Schroth invoked his priesthood in the title of his post. Why not call it “Why I Am Voting for Obama”? The careful separation of his endorsement from his priestly authority is at odds with his title; he wanted to explain why as a priest he will vote for Obama. For most Catholics, his words carry the weight of priestly authority regardless of his stated qualifications.

“I simply argue that Obama, more than his opponent, represents a chance for justice and peace,” he summarized. Okay, let’s look at his argument. (I take Father Schroth at his word that in replying to him, I am not disrespecting his office but engaging in a discussion he initiated.)

He begins, in good Thomistic fashion, by presenting an objection to his endorsement of Obama. “One school of thought says that because of the separation of church and state and because the priest has a religious role requiring him to rise above politics, he should not… identify himself with any candidate or party.” He answers that objection by pointing to the example that “Jesus and his followers often alienated the political and religious establishments of their day.”

I agree, although as an ex-Protestant I do feel a certain discomfort when a Catholic priest makes the What-Would-Jesus-D0 move. He then points to the popes and bishops who have opposed communism and “those who contradict church teaching on abortion, marriage, and other issues.” Reading this, I wondered where it was going. After all, both Obama and his Catholic running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, contradict church teaching on abortion and marriage.

Father Schroth notes the “handful of bishops” who have declared themselves willing to deny communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion on demand. He does not dismiss the Church’s opposition to abortion but links it with our obligation to “identify with the poor,” end the death penalty, seek “economic fairness,” and oppose the Iraq War on the grounds that it does not meet the standards for a just war.

Before expressing his support for Obama, Father Schroth once again alludes to the impact of his priestly vocation on his political judgments. “The values that made me become a priest permeate everything I do,” he writes. His declaration of those values – his Thomistic sed contra – should be read in full (my emphases):

Those principles are that our love for one another must reach beyond the boundaries of family, nation, or creed and that national policy should above all protect the weak. For me, this includes laws that would lessen the number of abortions, mostly through social and economic reform rather than by sending women who have aborted to jail.

To summarize, Father Schroth moves from his understanding of how love operates in the political sphere, to protect “the weak,” to a specific recommendation on how to oppose abortion. It is preferable to lessen the number of abortions, he argues, than to pass laws against them.

It’s unsettling that anyone who believes as strongly as Father Schroth in protecting the weak would be content with lowering the number of times the weak are killed rather than seeking to eliminate that practice altogether. We often hear politicians talk about eliminating poverty, eliminating injustice, eliminating war, because they are not desirable in any way.

So why not wish for the elimination of abortion? Why would someone who believes so deeply in a love that first and foremost protects the weak recommend anything less than that?

Father Schroth concludes: “Therefore I will vote for Barack Obama for president and encourage anyone who reads this to do the same and to pass the word.” I don’t see how Father Schroth reaches this conclusion from his premises. (Like Doug Johnson at National Right to Life, I fail to understand how he can believe an Obama administration would make any intentional efforts to reduce abortions.)

But Father Schroth is not content with a mere endorsement. He claims Obama “is a genuinely religious man whose social policies, more than his opponent’s, resemble Catholic social teaching. Above all, he opposed the Iraq war.” A few paragraphs earlier, he noted the Church’s defense of the unborn and marriage, which Obama clearly contradicts. But then Father Schroth bases his claim on the Iraq War, a prudential matter.

This reliance on moral equivalency in politics is what enables Catholics to ignore Obama’s obvious extremism on abortion and marriage. That Father Schroth is writing a book on Father Drinan is appropriate. The section on Father Drinan in my recent book Onward, Christian Soldiers is titled “A Jesuit Priest Invents the Catholic Pro-Abortion Politician.”

Unfortunately, Father Drinan’s legacy lives on among the Catholics who support Barack Obama.

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