Four years ago, as an obscure columnist for a great western newspaper, I got into an argument with the Roman Catholic clergy over abortion.
Some Catholic bishops had suggested that John Kerry be denied the sacraments because, as a politician who believed in keeping faith and politics separate, he did not act to outlaw abortion. Others implied that merely voting for Kerry for president was an occasion of sin for Catholics.
So, I wrote a column comparing my church's leadership with the Taliban. Which, truth be told, was a little over the top.
I acknowledged as much to an irate local bishop, and he graciously promised to pray for my soul, and I thanked him and we left it there. But now that the dispute over Catholics and politics has been revived in this election cycle, the rest of my argument bears repeating.
First off: It is not a sin for a Catholic to vote for Barack Obama or other Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. Indeed, it may be morally preferable.
As a matter of church doctrine, Catholics are free to vote for any candidates whose stands they like on foreign policy, the economy, or other issues.
And as a matter of practical politics, Catholic voters who vote Republican because they think the GOP is a strong foe of abortion have been sold a bill of goods.
In the 35 years since Roe v. Wade guaranteed a right of abortion for women, the Republicans, though dominating American politics, have consistently failed to take the tough political steps necessary to outlaw the practice.
Ultimately, the absolutist position taken by antiabortion forces has been counterproductive. By focusing so much on overturning Roe v. Wade and refusing to work with pro-choice politicians on pragmatic steps that would actually reduce the number of abortions, they've let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Truth be told, there is nothing that Democratic Party leaders would like more than to make abortion safe, legal, and rare.
If they really believe that abortion is an abominable sin, Catholic conservatives should seize the opportunity to work with pro-choice Democrats on the "rare" part of that equation and save tens of thousands of potential lives each year.
Some years back, when I was covering the U.S. Supreme Court, Douglas Kmiec was my go-to guy when I needed a brilliant conservative legal scholar to interpret the court's complex rulings for me and my readers.
Kmiec worked in the Reagan White House and taught at Notre Dame and Pepperdine. He is a devout Catholic and opponent of abortion and caused something of a stir this year when he endorsed Obama for president.
Obama "wants to move us beyond the 35 years of acrimony that have done next to nothing to reduce the unwanted pregnancies that give rise to abortions," Kmiec explained to the New York Times in August.
Even if—miracle of miracles—the antiabortion forces should succeed in overturning Roe v. Wade, it would in no way end the practice in America, Kmiec noted.
"There is a widespread misconception that overturning Roe is the only way to be pro-life. In fact, overturning Roe simply returns the matter to the states, which in their individual legislative determinations could then be entirely pro-abortion," said Kmiec. "I doubt that many of our nonlegally-trained pro-life friends fully grasp the limited effect of overturning Roe."
So, "consider the choices: A Catholic can either continue on the failed and uncertain path of seeking to overturn Roe, which would result in the individual states doing their own thing—[which would] not necessarily, or in most states even likely, [be] protective of the unborn.
"Or, Senator Obama's approach could be followed, whereby prenatal and income support, paid maternity leave, and greater access to adoption would be relied upon to reduce the incidence of abortion," said Kmiec.
And, though Kmiec won't say it, I will.
If the Catholic clergy truly believes that abortion is so intrinsic an evil—a sin above sins—then it's time to blink at the lesser transgressions of birth control and sex education. Not just in America, but around the world.
You want to reduce the number of abortions? Distribute condoms and show teens how to use them.
There's still some confusion among Catholics about the politics of abortion. After Kmiec endorsed Obama last spring, he was chastised from the pulpit by his priest at mass and denied the sacrament of Communion. Cardinal Roger Mahoney had to intercede and ordered the priest in question to send Kmiec an apology.
Catholic voters may hear all sorts of warnings and misinformation in the closing days of this election. So, again, it bears repeating: It is not a sin to vote for Obama.
And you might just be doing the right thing.