Part 2: The Complexities of Voting

The following is part two of a seven-part series summarizing Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States, a document originally issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2015 (USCCB). Part one addressed the Church’s role in a secular society and our duty as Catholics. This article, part two, addresses the complexities that often arise in assessing a candidate’s position. 

We Catholics are called to form our own consciences in light of the objective moral teachings of the Church. The disparity between our culture’s moral relativism and the Church’s commitment to objective moral truth leads to many complexities for Catholics when it comes to making political decisions. Unless we form our consciences in light of human reason and the Church’s teachings, we will fall into error, failing to live the Gospel in our public lives. 

Fundamentals of Political Decision Making 

Now, conscience is not merely a feeling about what we should or should not do, but rather “the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, 17). Through forming our own consciences, through doing our own homework, through prayerful deliberation, and through exercising the virtue of prudence, we can address political and social questions in the right way. 

First, before we make any decisions, we must remember that the Church teaches that “a good end does not justify an immoral means” (20). Though we can differ regarding how we respond to a social issue, we cannot attempt to solve a problem, such as abortion, by doing something immoral to achieve that goal. Otherwise, our actions will likely negatively affect the rights and dignity of others. 

Secondly, we need to know that there are some actions that we can never do or defend “because they are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor” (22). These we call “intrinsically evil.” A prime example is the taking of an innocent life, such as through abortion and euthanasia. “A legal system that violates the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is fundamentally flawed” (22). Of course, we must not forget that defending the right to life includes responding to the basic needs of the poor, too. 

Two Temptations

When it comes to the right to life, we face two temptations. We can fail to adequately uphold it by treating the right to life as simply one issue among many. Or we can focus on it so much that we dismiss other serious threats to human life and dignity such as: environmental degradation, racism, the use of the death penalty, unjust war, torture, ignoring the poor, pornography, redefining marriage, compromising religious liberty, and unjust immigration policies. The USCCB says, “Although choices about how best to respond to these and other compelling threats to human life and dignity are matters for principled debate … this does not make them optional concerns” (29). The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said:

… a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility toward the common good. (Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life)

Sorting Through Complexities

We need a well-formed conscience and prudence when it comes to political life because if we knowingly support any policy that undermines a fundamental moral principle we “cooperate with evil” (31). When we encounter morally flawed laws, we ought to try our best to restore justice, even if we’re only partially successful. Incremental improvements may one day lead to a fully just law. However, we ought never abandon the “full protection for all human life from the moment of conception until natural death” (32).

Not all issues “carry the same moral weight” (37), so we need to be especially careful that we oppose policies promoting intrinsically evil acts. Sometimes, Catholics face difficult choices when it comes to voting. But a Catholic cannot “vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act … if the voter’s intent is to support that position” (34). On the other hand, a candidate’s opposition to a particular intrinsic evil doesn’t necessarily justify a vote for them if they support other immoral issues that threaten human life. At the same time, we must also consider a candidate’s commitment, character, integrity, “and ability to influence a given issue” (37).

As the USCCB summarizes:

As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet if a candidate’s position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support. (42)

What happens when all candidates hold positions that promote intrinsic evils? “[T]he conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods” (36). 

The Catholic Church does not endorse political candidates. The USCCB says, “In the end, this is a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching” (37). Whomever we vote for, we ought to take our political choices seriously because our decisions “not only have an impact on general peace and prosperity but also may affect the individual’s salvation” (38). 

In the end, we need to allow our love for Christ and the Eucharist to “shape our thoughts, our words, and our decisions, including those that pertain to the social order” (38). In other words, our worship of God extends not only to our relationship with others but also to our public witness. This is true for all, but especially Catholic politicians themselves. This isn’t to say that we are advocating for “Catholic interest” in politics. Our goal as Catholics isn’t self-interested. Our goal is to promote “the truth of the dignity of the human person, as discovered by reason and confirmed by revelation” (39). 

In part three, we will address the four principles of Catholic social teaching: human dignity, subsidiarity, the common good, and solidarity. 

Read the full text of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States.



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