When George Ryan ran for governor of Illinois in 1998, he brought to the gubernatorial race impeccable credentials as a Midwestern conservative. A Republican pharmacist from Kankakee, he joined the Illinois legislature in 1970 as a law-and-order candidate. Later, he could boast, "I supported the death penalty, I believed in the death penalty, I voted for the death penalty.
During his tenure as governor, Ryan oversaw one execution; but this experience triggered a flood of moral anguish. A study released after the execution revealed that one third of the 285 capital convictions in Illinois since reinstating the death penalty were reversed because of fundamental error. No fewer than 13 men were completely exonerated. In January 2003, shortly before he left office, Governor Ryan issued a blanket commutation that saved 156 inmates from execution because he was convinced that capital punishment could not be justly administered. Confronted by the facts, Ryan stretched his thinking to embrace a greater and more consistent life ethic.
In this 2004 election year, many Catholics feel no one candidate reflects fully the social teachings of the church. No candidate appears to have stretched his thinking to adequately include the life issues that range from abortion to cloning, from fair trade to a living wage, from poverty to war.
The U.S. Catholic bishops in their document Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility highlight our moral priorities. The church must protect human life, pursue social justice and practice global solidarity. Unfortunately, politics pivots around ideology rather than principle. Presidential candidates bow to special interests, big contributors and assorted political realities. So how can a Catholic choose a presidential candidate?
Some voters emphasize abortion to the exclusion of other political considerations. While the right to life stands as a primary human right, getting the child born does not finish our moral, economic and political responsibilities to defend life. Indeed the bishops proclaim a consistent life ethic. Human life is also assailed by hunger, poverty, violence, the death penalty and modern warfare. The bishops write: "A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the church's social doctrine does not exhaust ones responsibility toward the common good." A single-issue voter trivializes the complexity of the life process.
At the heart of political decision-making stands the common good. That common good, constrained by political realities, consists of the moral values necessary to achieve a just society. The bishops ask, "What kind of nation do we want to be? What kind of world do we want to shape? Presidential candidates project that vision. Sometimes voters get half a loaf; sometimes only a slice must suffice.
The example of George Ryan could prove instructive. People of faith might vote for the candidate most open to life issues. Which candidate might stretch his thinking to embrace a greater and more consistent life ethic? Who possesses enough integrity to admit mistakes, apologize, change and show genuine compassion?
Since a president appoints key administrators, which candidate will select people respectful of the immigrant, the working poor, the most vulnerable people in society? Which candidate will hold corporations responsible for the care of creation and the rights of workers? Which candidate has the vision to alleviate global poverty by fair trade and challenge terrorism through international law and collaboration among nations?
Political greatness is defined as someone who puts the common good ahead of party and career. Given the political climate today, how can people of faith set the expectation for a candidate to meet that challenge?