Skip to main content

Being Catholic and Voting in 2016

Printer-friendly version
October 6, 2016

By Gerald D. Coleman, P.S.S.

September 26, 2016

THE CHALLENGE

We are in the midst of a contentious Presidential season while also facing significant ethical questions on the November ballot in California, e.g., marijuana legalization, gun control, healthcare and drug prices, repealing or altering the death penalty. The major candidates for the Presidency have deeply divided opinions on numerous issues and neither come close to fully supporting important principles in Catholic social teaching. This quagmire has led many Catholics to the decision to remain passive and not vote at all.

This is not a wise judgment especially in light of Catholic teaching. The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults teaches that “Catholics have the duty to vote, to participate in the political arena, and to help shape society in light of Catholic teaching.”[1] This directive is based on the belief that the Church is missionary and “through participation in political life – either as voters or as holders of public office – they [Catholics] work for increasing conformity of public policy to the law of God as known by human reason and Divine Revelation.”[2]

The Bishops make this same point in Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship, their 2016 guidelines for Catholics as we consider candidates and ballot propositions in this election year.[3] Faithful Citizenship points out that “as Catholics we are called to participate in public life” (no. 1) and cites Pope Francis’ statement that the Church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.”[4] In the Catholic tradition, “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation.”[5]

Despite this quagmire, the November ballot measures and the contentious presidential contest require the thoughtful Catholic to vote in this election. Skipping the ballot box altogether is not a wise judgment in light of Catholic teaching.

Politics in our country “unfortunately … often can be a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites, and media hype.”[6] The Church “calls for a different kind of political engagement: one shaped by moral convictions of well-informed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak and the vulnerable.”[7]

“The fact that much of our political rhetoric has become very negative and that political polarization seems to have grown should not dissuade us from the high calling to work for a world that allows everyone to thrive.”[8] Faithful Citizenship offers principles and guidelines on how we can and should fulfill this goal.

 

GUIDING PRINCIPLES

Respect for the dignity of every person is at the core of Catholic moral and social teaching. Faithful Citizenship states, “It is appropriate and necessary for us to bring this essential truth about human life and dignity to the public square.” (no. 10) As Faithful Citizenship details, honoring the

dignity of all persons is wide­ ranging. Some actions are so deeply flawed because they are “opposed to the authentic good of persons” and “are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor.” (no.

22) Prime examples are the intentional taking of human life in abortion and physician­assisted suicide.

Other examples include destructive research on human embryos, genocide, torture, the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, racism, treating workers as mere means to an end, subjecting workers to subhuman living conditions, treating the poor as disposable, redefining marriage. (nos. 22­25)

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith teaches that a “well­formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts these fundamental contents of faith and  morals.”

Other concerns cannot be dismissed or ignored because they pose “serious threats to human life and dignity.” (no. 28) Examples include environmental degradation, unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, pornography, compromising religious liberty, unjust immigration policies. (nos. 28­30)

In their 1998 document “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics,” the United States Bishops wrote, “Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, housing, and health care… If we understand the human person as the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ – the living house of God – then these issues fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house.” (no.  22)

Consequently, all attacks against the dignity of human life strike at the house’s foundation. The examples given here provide important benchmarks that help us rightly fulfill our duty and right to vote conscientiously.

 

HOW TO VOTE CONSCIENTIOUSLY

Faithful Citizenship points out that we all sustain a “serious and lifelong obligation to form [our] consciences in accord with human reason and the teaching of the Church.” (see nos. 17­18) Conscience is the voice of God “resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling [11] us to do what is good while shunning what is evil.”   The formation of conscience includes several elements: a desire to embrace goodness and truth, a willingness and openness to seek the truth by prayerful reflection, studying Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church, and an examination of the facts. [12]

Not all choices are morally acceptable, e.g., the direct destruction of human life, genocide. We must develop within ourselves the virtue of prudence in order “to discern our true good in every [13] circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.” As detailed above, not all courses of action are morally acceptable. It is our serious responsibility to form and re­form our conscience in order to “discern carefully which public policies are morally sound.” (no. 20) Faithful Citizenship offers four pillars of the Church’s social teaching, which serve as “primary and fundamental parameters of [14] reference” in helping us to properly form our conscience. These pillars anchor our commitment to [15] always defend the dignity of human life and to build up a “culture  of life.”  (nos. 44­56)

●      The Dignity of the Human Person: calls us to oppose all activities that contribute to what Pope Francis has called “a throwaway culture.” Examples include human trafficking, overcoming poverty, and combating terrorism.

●      Subsidiarity: e.g., the family based on marriage between a man and a woman is the first and fundamental unit of society and the sanctuary for the creation and nurturing of children.

●      The Common Good: every person has the right to life, access to those things required for   human decency (food, shelter, education, healthcare), the right to free expression of religious beliefs, the right to decent and just wages, adequate benefits and security, the opportunity for

legal status for immigrant workers, and the duty to care for God’s creation, our “common [16] home.”

●      Solidarity: we are one human family, whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences; we must welcome the stranger among us including immigrants   seeking work; we must sustain a preferential option for the poor, which is a basic test for any society.

 

MORAL STANDARDS FOR VOTING

Based on these four pillars, Faithful Citizenship offers significant examples we should consider when voting for a candidate or a ballot measure: (nos. 64­90)

●      Health care for all and effective and compassionate palliative and hospice    care.

●      End the use of the death penalty.

●      The use of torture is fundamentally incompatible with the dignity of the human person.

●      Weapons of mass destruction are fundamentally   immoral

●      Pursue progressive nuclear disarmament.

●      Uphold the meaning of marriage as a lifelong exclusive commitment between a man and a woman, and as the source of the next generation and the protective haven for children.

●      Oppose all efforts to undermine the ability of faith­based groups to preserve their identity and integrity.

●      Protect the right of employers to provide health care in accord with their moral and religious convictions.

●      Work for a comprehensive reform of immigration   policies.

●      Condemn human trafficking as a “crime against   humanity.”

●      Support parents who have a fundamental right to choose the education best suited for their children.

●      Support reasonable restrictions on access to assault weapons and    handguns.

●      Combat unjust discrimination.

●      Promote vigorous enforcement of obscenity and child   pornography.

 

DIFFICULT CHOICES

A Catholic’s political views must be consistent with the Church’s moral and social teachings. [17]

We must promote policies that encourage human flourishing. Faithful Citizenship teaches that in voting we must consider a candidate’s position on issues affecting human life and dignity, as well as issues of justice and peace. We “should consider a candidate’s integrity, philosophy, and performance.” (no. 41) In Deus Caritas Est (2006), Pope Benedict XVI addressed our responsibility to vote: “This duty is more critical than ever in today’s political environment where Catholics may feel politically disenfranchised, sensing that no party and too few candidates fully share the Church’s comprehensive commitment to the life and dignity of every human being from conception to natural death. Yet this is not the time for retreat or discouragement; rather, it is a time for renewed engagement.” (no. 29)

Faithful Citizenship situates this ennui with wise advice: “Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well­formed conscience… A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy of promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position.” (no. 34, italics  added)

The document continues with a prudent guideline: “At the same time, a voter should not use    a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other    important moral issues involving human life and dignity. There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan   preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil… (We) may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance … morally flawed positions and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods… These decisions should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, and ability to influence a given issue. In the end, this is a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching.” (nos. 34­37)

“We cannot fail to call the faithful to prayer. The struggles that we face as a nation and as a global community cannot be addressed solely by choosing the ‘best candidate’ for political office. No, in addition to forming our consciences, we must fast and pray, asking our loving and gracious God to give us the ability to effectively proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ through our daily witness to our

faith and its teachings. Let us all take to heart the urgency of our vocation to live in the service to    others through the grace of Christ and ask humbly in prayer for an outpouring of the grace of the Holy Spirit on the United States of America.” [18]

 

[1] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (2006), p. 380.

[2] Ibid., p. 501.

[3] This booklet updates the 2007 document of the same name but includes papal teachings of Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, as well as recent developments in the United States in both domestic and foreign policy on such issues as abortion, physician-assisted suicide, redefinition of marriage, the narrowing redefinition of religious freedom, wars, terror and violence.  The document can be downloaded at www.usccb.org.faithfulcitizenship

[4] Evangelii Gaudium, no. 183.

[5] Faithful Citizenship, no. 13.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

5   Evangelii Gaudium, no. 183.

6   Faithful Citizenship, no. 13.

7  Ibid.

[8] Ibid., no. 63.

9  Ibid., no. 63.

10 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (2002), no. 4.

11   See Catechism of the Catholic Church, no.  1778.

12 In his 1971 book Christian Ethics and the Community, James M. Gustafson developed a similar process for conscience­formation by suggesting a four­point grid: Theological (prayerful reflection and discernment), Anthropological (how acts affect me and others), Contextual (the set of circumstances surrounding my decision­making), and Ethical (the principles that must be considered).

13   Catechism of the Catholic Church, no.  1806.

14   See Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, no.  221.

15   Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, no.  77.

16   Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, no. 77.

17 Robert A. Sirico, The Wall Street Journal, ,

18   Faithful Citizenship, Introductory Note.