Voting from a Catholic perspective
As we approach Election Day, this topic “Voting from a Catholic Perspective” is very timely. “Why should we even consider this?”, some might ask. What does voting have to do with my Catholic faith? I imagine most of you who are here tonight recognize the important connection between faith and politics. You recognize our call and responsibility to be faithful citizens, not just citizens. This is part of our Catholic identity. The motto of Bishop Dwenger High School expresses this truth: “citizens of two worlds.” Saint Augustine used the expression “citizens of two cities,” the city of God and the city of man. We are citizens of both. We can’t forget this truth. Jesus Himself taught us: “We are in the world, but we are not to be of the world.” We are citizens of two cities, two worlds: earth and heaven, human society and the Church.
Pope Saint John Paul II reflected on this union that exists from being members of the Church and citizens of human society. He wrote: “There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called ‘spiritual’ life, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called ‘secular’ life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social relationships, in the responsibilities of public life, and in culture.” Saint John Paul warned about the grave consequences that come when faith is separated from life and the gospel is separated from culture (Christifideles Laici 59). The Second Vatican Council taught that the split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age” (Gaudium et spes 43). We see this grave error in many Catholic politicians and elected officials in the United States who shirk their responsibility as Catholics, their duties to God and to the Church, in making political choices at odds with the most deeply held truths of our faith regarding human life and dignity. We must reject this error and avoid it when we vote. When we go into the voting booth, we shouldn’t leave our faith outside. We must not renounce our citizenship in heaven or our citizenship in the Church when we exercise our American citizenship. We don’t cease to be citizens of heaven, members of the city of God, when we exercise our right to vote as American citizens, as citizens of the earthly city.
As members of the city of man, the earthly city, we engage in politics. We have political responsibilities, like voting. We have a duty to be good American citizens and good citizens of the state of Indiana and of our local cities or townships. In order to be a faithful citizen of the two worlds, the two cities, of God and man, we must have a correctly formed conscience. And then, we must make political choices based on well-formed consciences. To do so requires good moral discernment and the virtue of prudence in making our decisions, including our decision of whom to vote for for various political offices: president of the United States, senators and representatives on the national and state levels, and also local officials.
In the document of the U.S. bishops “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which I will be referring to throughout this talk, we say the following: “Catholics have a serious and lifelong obligation to form their consciences in accord with human reason and the teaching of the Church. Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere ‘feeling’ about what we should or should not do. Rather, conscience is 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. Conscience always requires serious attempts to make sound moral judgments based on the truths of our faith” (#17).
Like other matters of decision-making in our lives, it is essential when it comes to political choices and voting that we make prudent decisions in light of a well-formed conscience. The bishops explain that there are several elements included in the formation of conscience: “First, there is a desire to embrace goodness and truth. For Catholics, this begins with a willingness and openness to seek the truth and what is right by studying Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church… It is also important to examine the facts and background information about various choices. Finally, prayerful reflection is essential to discern the will of God. Catholics must also understand that if they fail to form their consciences in the light of the truths of the faith and the moral teachings of the Church, they can make erroneous judgments (#18).
After explaining the formation of conscience, the bishops’ document has a section on the virtue of prudence. This is very important. It has to do with discernment, looking at the alternatives, for example, when considering legislation, what policies to support or oppose, and which candidate to vote for in an election. The Catechism teaches that prudence enables us to “discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (#1806). Clearly, this is important in making all kinds of choices in our life – to act with prudence. This includes our political choices. “Prudence shapes and informs our ability to deliberate over available alternatives, to determine what is most fitting to a specific context, and to act decisively. Exercising this virtue often requires the courage to act in defense of moral principles when making decisions about how to build a society of justice and peace” (#19).
As Catholics, we are blessed to have a rich body of social teaching that helps us to form our consciences. The Church’s social doctrine has developed through the centuries. Its essential source and foundation is in Sacred Scripture and Tradition. It involves faith interacting with reason. These are the two paths of the Church’s social doctrine: revelation and human nature. The Church’s social doctrine is knowledge enlightened by faith. It is part of the Church’s moral teaching. “By means of her social doctrine, the Church shows her concern for human life in society, aware that the quality of social life…depends in a decisive manner on the protection and promotion of the human person, for whom every community comes into existence. In fact, at play in society are the dignity and rights of the person, and peace in the relationships between persons and between communities of persons. These are goods that the social community must pursue and guarantee” (Compendium #81).
The Church’s social teaching should inform our consciences to recognize and fulfill the obligations of justice and charity in society. This social doctrine implies responsibilities in society, including political obligations. We are called to put the Church’s social teaching into action. To vote from a Catholic perspective is to vote with a conscience that has been formed by the teachings of the Church, including her social teachings which have particular relevance when it comes to choosing our leaders in society, our civil authorities and elected officials.
I will now summarize the four fundamental principles that are at the heart of Catholic social doctrine, principles that should inform our political decisions, including our voting.
#1 The principle of respect for the life and dignity of the human person, from the moment of conception to natural death. This is the first and fundamental principle of Catholic moral and social teaching. A person with a well-formed conscience recognizes that every person is created in the image of God and his or her life must be respected and cherished as sacred and inviolable. If one follows his or her well-formed conscience in this most fundamental area, he or she will always oppose laws and policies that violate human life or weaken its protection. He or she will always oppose legalized abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and the destruction of human embryos for the sake of research. He or she will always oppose racism, genocide, unjust war, terror, and torture. Here we are speaking about what the Church calls “intrinsic evils,” actions that are always and everywhere wrong. They can never be justified. We have an obligation to reject and always oppose intrinsic evils. Besides these, what we can call “negative duties,” there are also “positive duties” that we have regarding respect for human life and dignity. We should support laws and policies that promote respect for human life and dignity, like support for expectant mothers, care for the elderly, the sick, and the poor and vulnerable. The Catholic Church teaches a consistent ethic of life.
When it comes to discerning whom to vote for in an election, it is vitally important that we look at the candidates and the party’s positions on these very important issues regarding human life and dignity. As I said, this is the first and fundamental principle of Catholic moral and social teaching. If a candidate supports the legalization of an intrinsic evil like direct abortion or euthanasia, it is extremely problematic for one who has a well-formed conscience to vote for that person. If a candidate is a racist, it is extremely problematic for one who has a well-formed conscience to vote for that person. Is it even morally permissible to vote for such a candidate? Though as Catholics, we are not single-issue voters, the bishops say that “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” (FCFC #42). I know many Catholics who, for example, in conscience, refuse to vote for any pro-choice candidate. This is a legitimate choice. I also know other Catholics who do decide to vote for a pro-choice candidate. Is this ever permissible? Again, the bishops give us some guidance here.
#1 The bishops state the following: “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy 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. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil.” (#34) Let me give an example: it would be a serious sin to vote for a pro-choice candidate if the intent is to support the legalization of abortion. That’s formal cooperation in grave evil.
#2 Can one ever vote for a candidate who promotes an intrinsic evil? A question comes up a lot that is asked something like this: “Bishop, I reject this candidate’s support of abortion or I reject this candidate’s support of same-sex marriage, but can I vote for him or her because I really support his or her concern for the poor or I think he or she will protect our nation better and work for peace? The bishops say the following: “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsic evil may reasonably decide to 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” (#35). This would be a matter of very careful moral judgment. One could ask, for example, what would be truly grave moral reasons to vote for a pro-choice candidate? I was recently discussing this question with a few people. One said that he thought it would be legitimate in the case of the other candidate being one whom he thought would not protect us from a nuclear war. Recently, I read an article about a talk by Bishop Flores of Brownsville, Texas. He was very concerned about the possible deportation of undocumented Central American immigrants/refugees in his diocese. He said they would likely be killed back in their home countries. He said deporting them would be like driving a woman to an abortion clinic to have her unborn child killed. We could debate these things, what would be the other morally grave reasons permitting one to vote for a candidate who holds a position promoting an intrinsic evil? The fundamental point is that we would need other morally grave reasons to vote for such a candidate.
#3 Another situation we can face is when both candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act. Here’s what the bishops say: “When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the 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). Some will speak of the latter position as “voting for the lesser evil.” Now, we never know for sure who would do less harm, but I think this is an acceptable approach. We’re dealing here with a prudential judgment. One can carefully discern to vote for the candidate one believes would do less harm or one could carefully discern to abstain from voting for either candidate.
I hope I have been clear in articulating the complexity of these matters. “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” is very helpful for us in treating these different scenarios. The bishops are very clear that we must avoid what we call “moral equivalence,” the view that all issues carry the same weight. They don’t! Respect for the life and dignity of the human person is the most fundamental principle we should consider when making our voting decisions. Likewise, we have a moral obligation to oppose policies promoting intrinsically evil acts. These have what the bishops say is “a special claim on our consciences and our actions.” We must avoid the extreme called “moral equivalence.” It is a distortion of the Church’s defense of human life and dignity. “The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.” (#28). So it is wrong, for example, to say that abortion is equal in gravity to an issue like the minimum wage or even the death penalty. Some issues are more important than others in that they involve more serious moral issues. All issues are not morally equivalent.
Now this brings me to another very important point, a position that is an opposite extreme, namely, dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity and only being concerned about abortion and euthanasia, for example. We must be concerned about these other issues that involve human life and dignity, like the death penalty, poverty, war, world hunger, health care, justice for immigrants, defending religious liberty, etc. The teachings of Jesus, the teachings of the Church, require that we not be dismissive about these other threats to human life and dignity. The bishops say: “Although choices about how best to respond to these and other compelling threats to human life and dignity are matters for principled debate and decision, this does not make them optional concerns or permit Catholics to dismiss or ignore Church teaching on these important issues.” (#29). Our Catholic faith is an integral unity. We have a responsibility to promote the common good in its totality and be concerned about all threats to human life and dignity, while not falling into making all issues morally equivalent.
#2 The common good. I think it is very helpful to look at our political decisions within the framework of what the Church calls “the common good.” This is a very important principle of Catholic social doctrine. After all, we should choose leaders whom we believe will serve the common good. And, by the way, the common good is not just the good of Americans. Catholic teaching insists that we must serve the universal common good (CCC 1911). The Church teaches that “it is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies” (CCC 1910). We should vote for candidates whom we believe will best serve the common good, our national good and the universal common good.
What do we mean when we talk about the common good? A succinct definition is found in Gaudium et spes #26 and is quoted in the Catechism (#1906): it is “the sum of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” Notice that the common good concerns the life of all! But one can’t speak of serving the common good if one doesn’t protect the most fundamental human right – the right to life. This is the right that makes all other rights possible. The principle of the common good really presupposes the principle of respect for the life and dignity of the human person. At the same time, the right to life doesn’t exhaust the common good. It’s not enough for public officials to guarantee the right to life of the unborn. They also have the duty to respect and protect people’s other rights, including those that are required for human decency, things like food and shelter, education and employment, health care and housing, freedom of religion, and family life. The right to true religious freedom is also a basic human right – the right to live our faith without coercion by the government, the right to live our values. This is part of the common good. The narrowing redefinition of religious freedom in our country is a grave concern of the bishops, because this threatens both individual conscience and the freedom of the Church to serve. The redefinition of marriage is also a grave concern. True marriage between one man and one woman is the vital cell of society, but it has been redefined in a way that is contrary to nature and does not serve the common good. This redefinition by the courts and political bodies, and increasingly by American culture itself, cannot be justified by our faith nor by right reason.
The common good also requires peace. The Catechism teaches the following: “The common good requires peace, that is, the stability and security of a just order. It presupposes that authority should ensure by morally acceptable means the security of society and its members. It is the basis of the right to legitimate personal and collective defense” (CCC 1909). This is very important. We obviously don’t want leaders who are not committed to our national security, the security of our families and communities. We want leaders committed to peace in our communities and in the world. This is a requirement of the common good. And, as I mentioned earlier, unjust war, terrorism, and torture are intrinsic evils.
Keeping in mind the life and dignity of the human person and the common good, there are also two very important principles of Catholic social doctrine intimately connected to human dignity and the common good, namely, the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity.
#3 Subsidiarity. Pope Saint John Paul II gave a very good definition of subsidiarity: “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (Centesimus Annus 48). This is part of human dignity as well. The family, of course, is the first and fundamental unity of society. It should be defended and strengthened, not undermined, by the state. A very practical example in Indiana is the issue of parental choice in education. As Catholics, following the principle of subsidiarity, we oppose the position that education is primarily the right of the state. No, it is the right of the parents, whom the state should support. It is wrong for the state to usurp the right of parents to choose the schools their children must go to or to make it impossible for them to choose, for example, Catholic schools by insisting that their tax dollars only go to support public schools. Basically, subsidiarity means that larger institutions in society should not overwhelm or interfere with smaller or local institutions (FCFC 48). Now this doesn’t mean that the state should never interfere. If a community or institution of a lower order doesn’t adequately protect human dignity, for example, the state should intervene. This gets to the next principle: solidarity.
#4 Solidarity. Solidarity is clearly an obligation of our faith, an obligation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It has to do with justice and charity. Not surprisingly, the labor movement in Poland under Communist oppression adopted the name Solidarnocz, Solidarity, because it was inspired by Catholic social teaching and Pope John Paul II who taught so beautifully about the principle of solidarity. We must be concerned about our fellow human beings and their welfare, especially the poor. Pope John Paul wrote: “Solidarity is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 38). Solidarity has to do with the good of our neighbor. It includes concern not just for our fellow Americans, but for all people. It includes concern for the social conditions of all: the poor, immigrants, the sick, the suffering, the oppressed, and the persecuted. Solidarity is a principle and a virtue. Only when there is solidarity is there true peace. The motto of Pope Pius XII was “peace is the fruit of justice.” John Paul took this and said that we can say today “with the same exactness and the same power of biblical inspiration that ‘peace is the fruit of solidarity’.”
Before finishing, I wish to emphasize that my role as a bishop and the role of our priests is to hand on the Church’s moral and social teaching, to help Catholics to form their consciences correctly. Some people get upset because we don’t endorse or oppose particular candidates or political parties. Other people get upset when we discuss issues like I have presented tonight – they see it as meddling in politics. I’m not here to tell you who you should vote for. We do not endorse or oppose particular candidates. Lay people can do so, can run for public office, work with political parties, etc. Bishops and priests can’t. But we do have the right and the duty to vote, just as you do. As Catholics, we all have an obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society. We must bring to the public square what our faith teaches about human dignity, the sacredness of human life, the truth about marriage and the family, the dignity of work, economic justice, care for the environment, etc. These aren’t optional topics of our faith. We bring our principles, principles so important for society and culture: the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. We must bring our moral convictions to the public square. We contribute to the wellbeing of our society and culture when we do so. We Catholics bring a consistent moral framework for assessing issues, political platforms, and campaigns. We also bring our experience as a Church in health care, education, and social services (cf. FCFC). Still, in this increasingly secularist culture, many wish to silence us; they don’t want to hear our voice in the public square.
In this talk, I’ve explored some core principles that should illumine our consciences as we prepare to vote. I have also alluded to various important issues to consider when voting. As Catholics, there are many issues we are deeply concerned about. Our faith requires us to be concerned, for example, about the ongoing destruction of over one million innocent human lives each year by abortion and about the ever-growing movement to legalize physician-assisted suicide in more states. We must be concerned as Catholics about both the decline of marriage and its redefinition. We must be concerned, as Pope Francis so often reminds us, about the excessive consumption of material goods and the destruction of natural resources, which harm both the environment and the poor, as well as economic policies that fail to prioritize the poor at home or abroad. We cannot ignore the deadly attacks on our fellow Christian and religious minorities throughout the world. Nor can we ignore the broken immigration system in our country and the worldwide refugee crisis. We must be concerned about the wars, terror, and violence that threaten every aspect of human life and dignity. And we should be deeply troubled by the narrowing definition of religious freedom in our country.
In preparing to vote, we should consider all these issues (remembering that not all are morally equivalent) as we evaluate the candidates up for election to various offices on the federal, state, and local levels. Some offices have more responsibilities than others regarding certain of these issues. That needs to be taken into consideration also as we prudently judge before voting.
I think it is also important to look at the character of the candidates up for election. I think it is important to evaluate them and their political parties on how they measure up to the principles I’ve been talking about. These principles are not optional for Catholics – they are part of our faith. We cannot and must not ignore them: human dignity, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. We must look at the candidates’ positions on a lot of issues, recognizing at the same time, that some issues are more important than others.
I encourage all of you to think deeply and clearly before you vote. Study the issues and the candidates in light of Church teaching. Be sure that your conscience is well-formed. Exercise prudence in your choices. Don’t put being Democrat or Republican ahead of your identity as a Catholic, as a disciple of Jesus Christ. I encourage you to be brave in the public square, not to be afraid to stand up for the truth of the Gospel. The culture of our nation is affected by its values. The Church and all its members have a responsibility to bring our values to the public square. As the founding fathers of our nation knew very well, the health of our democracy requires a foundation, God-given inalienable rights, in order for our nation to endure.