Moral Gerrymandering

By Tom Rosshirt

March 30, 2012 6 min read

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum may be entering the final month of his campaign. He may lose both Wisconsin and Maryland on Tuesday. Then he faces three long weeks till the next contests — a gap that will encourage a stream of Romney endorsements. He may hold on for the sake of winning Pennsylvania on April 24, or he may quit sooner to avoid the embarrassment of losing his home state. Either way, it's not too early for an epitaph.

Santorum, the most pious presidential candidate since Pat Robertson, has been unusually explicit about his moral values and his Catholic faith. He has said to Bill O'Reilly: "Bill, you're a Catholic. Catholic Church teaches that contraception is something you shouldn't do." He has said that contraception is "not OK, because it's a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be." He also said, "I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."

If a candidate wants to declare himself a devout Catholic and make that a defining feature of his candidacy, it follows, then — as the night follows the day — that he's going to be held to that standard. As Santorum knows, as you judge, so will you be judged.

Here we go.

On Oct. 10, 2002, in the U.S. Senate — with the Orwellian logic that the best hope for peace is a vote for war — Santorum supported the resolution to authorize the president to invade Iraq. He closed his speech with this line: "To do or expect anything less is to shirk our moral obligation to meet the national security obligations of our country."

The Catholic Church acknowledges the moral obligation of public officials to defend the country with force — under certain conditions. But these conditions were not met in the case of the Iraq War.

On Sunday, March 16, 2003, three days before the war, Pope John Paul II implored: "There is still time to negotiate; there is still room for peace; it is never too late."

Two months after the invasion, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) was asked about Pope John Paul's position on the war, and he answered, "There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq."

Cardinal Ratzinger also said, "The concept of a 'preventive war' does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church."

He would know. In 1986, he was appointed by Pope John Paul II to chair a commission of 12 cardinals and bishops to draft the catechism, which sets four conditions for a just war, all of which must be met:

—"The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.

—"All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.

—"There must be serious prospects of success.

—"The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated."

Why is it important to obey church teaching on contraception but OK to oppose two popes and the church's catechism on the Iraq War?

Santorum has made a similar decision on the question of torture. In May 2011, he challenged Sen. John McCain's statements against torture, saying: "He doesn't understand how enhanced interrogation works. I mean, you break somebody, and after they're broken, they become cooperative."

"Breaking somebody" is not an activity that is blessed by the church. John Paul II's encyclical "Veritatis Splendor" lists a number of acts that are "intrinsically evil" — that are evil "always and per se ... and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances." Among these acts are "physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit."

A man who cherishes his Catholicism as much as Santorum does must have powerful reasons for departing from church teaching on torture. I wonder what they are.

That brings me (finally) to the aim of this column, which is not to go after Santorum, but to use him as an example to make this point:

No one is perfect or perfectly consistent. Everyone has moral strengths and weaknesses. And perhaps the greatest weakness is the moral gerrymandering that we all do (and political parties do obsessively), which is to draw squiggly lines on a moral map of the policy terrain — circling, expanding and highlighting the areas in which we appear more virtuous and shrinking, shading and explaining away the others and then piously arguing for the higher moral importance of the areas we preselect.

Of all the phony things we do in politics, this is the phoniest — and that helps explain the mess we're in. It's hard for people to do phony things and then sit down and have a real discussion.

Tom Rosshirt was a national security speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and a foreign affairs spokesman for Vice President Al Gore. Email him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Rosshirt and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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