Election Circumstances Create Difficult Decisions for Catholic Voters

by Jeffrey Lindholm


This year’s presidential race has proven to be one of the most extraordinary elections in recent memory. For many of us, this is the first election in which we can vote. Voting allows the public to lend their voice in the political realm. Yet many people are not thrilled at the prospects of this year’s candidates for president. Catholic voters beg the question, “How should I vote as a Catholic?”


Every four years, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) produces a voter guide, with the 2016 edition titled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. It calls upon Catholics to vote, especially because Catholics have a moral obligation to vote (Faithful Citizenship, 9). Faithful Citizenship calls us time and time again to protect “the dignity of the human person from conception until natural death.” The result is the prioritization of abortion as the primary issue raised by Faithful Citizenship. As a voter guide in this election’s circumstances, it appears that Faithful Citizenship fails to encompass all the necessary ingredients to be a useful voter guides for Catholics.


Professor Cathleen Kaveny, professor of Law and Theology at Boston College, takes a similar stance on Faithful Citizenship: “[Faithful Citizenship] is more of a compact view of Catholic Social Teaching.” Kaveny believes the USCCB guide is simply an issue guide, which is not helpful for the upcoming election. In her book Law’s Virtues, she explains what is wrong with the definition of an issue:


“In common usage, [an issue] gestures vaguely toward a topic or a question. In our current political climate, the term can refer to a complex cause with many problems… the working of an entire sector of life; it can refer to a morally objectionable practice, whether legal or illegal; it can refer to a particular legislative proposal; it can refer to a deliberate policy or decision by a governing body; and it can refer to a fundamental value that operates through many spheres of life.” (Law’s Virtues, 201).


This issue with the ambiguity of the definition of an issue is what makes Faithful Citizenship not useful, argued Kaveny in an interview for The Torch. She says, “An issue can be just about anything in our time, but when it comes to evaluating a candidate based on just issues, we run into a dilemma.” The dilemma she and other Catholics face lies in one simple line in Faithful Citizenship:


“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. 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.” (Faithful Citizenship, 18)


This statement by the USCCB makes it almost impossible to vote for a single candidate based on the “intrinsic evils” that they seemingly support. To make matters more difficult, the USCCB claims that if one votes for an individual that supports an “intrinsic evil,” then he or she can only do so “for morally grave reasons” (Faithful Citizenship, 18).


Professor Kaveny responds to the dilemma by pointing out that the USCCB’s guide doesn’t say enough about the candidates themselves. Kaveny says, “The USCCB talks a lot about issues, but the Catholic Tradition has a great deal of notes about virtue, but the USCCB fails to implement them. How about the virtues of justice and prudence? Instead of asking whether a candidate supports abortion, why don’t we ask whether he or she is just or prudent?”


Even more importantly for conflicted Catholics in the election, Kaveny points out that “we are not responsible for the candidate’s positions if we are not intending to support an ‘intrinsic evil.’” This fact dispels the notion that we cannot vote for someone who supports abortion because he or she supports abortion. As then-head of the CDF, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, points out in a memorandum to Cardinal McCarrick in July 2004,


“A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for holy communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”


Ratzinger brings up a critical point that we should not evaluate a candidate based on a single moral issue. So how should we evaluate him or her? Kaveny says that there are four criteria that all voters should consider: competence, character, collaboration, and connections. In doing this, Kaveny argues that these criteria allow for proper evaluation of a candidate’s temperament for office, which, Kaveny says, Faithful Citizenship does not address.


As November 8 nears, Catholics will head to the polls to cast votes for the next president. There is no denying that the Catholic bloc plays an important role in elections. So how should we cast our vote? Kaveny makes this profound statement: “This election creates a sense of despair. We are the Kingdom of God after all. It is our moral duty to make the world better.”


If it’s our moral duty to make the world better, let’s start at this election. We are charged with making the world a better place. Even if we are not President of the United States, we can still play a role in the common good. As the election nears, it is our duty to ponder who can make America better for the common good. May we vote that way this November 8.

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