The Faithful Vote
At a Mass I attended recently, the priest gave an interesting homily on Luke 12. He explained that, depending on our choices in life, God’s spiritual fire could either be cleansing or destructive. While this seemed reasonable, his comments about voting during this election season were debatable. He challenged the congregation to choose either the path of life, which he defined as being anti-abortion or a path of destruction. That seemed to be a rather stark choice based on only one moral life issue, albeit the predominant one in the United States. It is common knowledge that in recent decades the sole Christian “litmus test” for candidates running for office has been the issue of abortion, which is certainly a grave sin (or evil). Even Catholic politicians tend to limit their pro-life platforms to opposing abortion, however laudable that commitment that may be. Some voters guides even imply that, unless one votes for only those candidates who say they are against abortion—regardless of their actual commitment or record involving other morally grave issues—that person is not a “serious” Catholic.
In the official US Catholic voters guide, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops makes clear that “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” (34).
Although the bishops do cite the moral evils of abortion and euthanasia as sociopolitical priorities to oppose, Catholic voters must consider the full range of moral issues. That is, when considering candidates who espouse being pro-life, we cannot overlook their positions regarding the full range of important moral issues. The bishops wisely state that, “The Church’s teaching is clear that a good end does not justify an immoral means” (20). In other words, choosing a candidate must not be based solely on whether he or she opposes one grave moral evil like abortion, regardless of its “preeminence,” if that candidate also supports other immoral policies, such as capital punishment.
Further, we as Catholic voters must consider each candidate’s “commitments, character, integrity, 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” (37).
For example, a politician may claim to be pro-life, but do their overall actions and rhetoric reflect that commitment? If he or she is an incumbent, does the officeholder’s record indicate loyalty to the party over serving the people or the common good? As the bishops point out, “It is important for all citizens ‘to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest’” (41). In these morally challenging times, we don’t have the luxury of simply voting for someone without fully considering that candidate’s record of commitment across many morally grave issues.
The Church also emphasizes the moral significance of the common good, which figures prominently in its social doctrine.
The bishops reiterate their call for a “renewed kind of politics” that focuses more on moral principles rather than polls, on the weak rather than the strong, and on the common good instead of narrow interests (61). In his ecological encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis quotes Pope Benedict XVI: “Love for society and commitment to the common good are outstanding expressions of a charity which affects not only relationships between individuals but also ‘macro-relationships, social, economic and political ones.’ …Social love is the key to authentic development” (231). During this pandemic, we have witnessed social love on a daily basis, when ordinary citizens have worked together to help save lives—by everything from wearing masks and practicing social distancing, to providing health care and food.
In choosing elected officials, it is also important to assess the accuracy of the information we receive, to ensure our consciences are well-informed (18).
In today’s world of information overload, it is often difficult to determine whether a story, report, or claim is actually true, and if it originates from a reliable, unbiased source. If we get our information from news or social media that is one-sided, for example, then we are more likely to interpret issues with a similar “filtered” viewpoint. Simply accepting that information is factual is not sufficient to make well-informed decisions, particularly those involving the important civic duty of voting: “It is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods” (34). To ensure objectivity, one should consult well-vetted sources that offer fact-based information and balanced reporting. Further, our individual opinions on issues are also molded by our own experiences and knowledge. For example, if someone has lived through a tragedy involving a moral evil, then he or she is more likely to focus on that issue when it comes to choosing a candidate. Ultimately, we are obliged to follow Church teachings on Election Day, with well-informed consciences that are grounded in morality and faith.
It’s true to say that, in today’s partisan environment, many Catholics are conflicted when it comes to voting their conscience, especially since no candidate is pro-life in every respect. A candidate may oppose abortion but support immoral policies in other areas involving human life, health, and dignity. Some policies that disproportionately impact the poor and vulnerable, who are a priority of the Church, may include: interning those fleeing violence and oppression, increasing corporate profits while reducing benefits for the poor, and eliminating environmental regulations that protect human life and health, particularly for the ones who can afford it the least, who are priorities of the Church. “While the common good embraces all, those who are weak, vulnerable, and most in need deserve preferential concern. A basic moral test for any society is how it treats those who are most vulnerable” (53).
The bishops caution against misusing moral distinctions “as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity” (29).
They cite several examples, including racism, unjust war, and environmental degradation. At the same time, the bishops urge us to avoid the temptation to distinguish between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity, with taking an innocent human life always being unacceptable (28). Although Pope Francis affirms the Church’s defense of the unborn, he also states: “Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, and [victims of] every form of rejection” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 101).
So, given the apparent complexity of “forming our consciences,” what can we as Catholic voters do when a candidate seems inconsistent in issues involving human life and dignity?
Fortunately, the bishops offer some wise guidance when moral choices seem unclear. In a not-so-well-known section of Faithful Citizenship, the bishops explain that “there may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons” (35). The bishops make clear, however, that this is not intended to condone voting for a candidate who, for example, supports abortion, “if the voter’s intent is to support that position” (34). If we back a candidate or party because he or she supports a grave evil, we participate in that evil ourselves. We are complicit by our cooperation. Sometimes we might be justified in supporting candidates despite the fact that they endorse a great evil, but only if our support for the lesser of two evils is made with the intent of advocating for a lesser evil (for example if two candidates favor abortion, but one at least seeks to limit it). Even the saints offer us some guidance regarding moral dilemmas like these: St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, put forth his “principle of double effect.” This doctrine generally states that an action that results in both good and bad outcomes is morally permissible if one does not intend to directly commit the immoral act.
These points are key considerations for a voter like myself who is passionate about the natural environment, that is, creation. “Care for the earth and for the environment is a moral issue,” the bishops assert. “Protecting the land, water, and the air we share is a religious duty of stewardship and reflects our responsibility to born and unborn children, who are most vulnerable to environmental assault” (86). I have personally witnessed how God’s creation has been neglected, exploited, and decimated in what amounts to only a blink-of-an-eye of its existence. Poorer populations suffer the most when land is exploited for resource extraction, water is contaminated from factories, and forests are clear-cut for agriculture or development. Families in these areas suffer from lack of food and clean water, loss of their ways of life, vector-borne disease, and even death. It is worth asking how those suffering from such tragedies can experience true human dignity?
The existential threat of climate change also impacts poorer regions more, since those populations are less able to cope with changes in weather, natural resource availability, and forced migration (Faithful Citizenship 51, Laudato Si’ 25).
With my background in science, I consider myself well-informed about environmental issues, and I’m acutely aware of the grave threat that human-caused climate change poses to all life on the planet. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis states that “the climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all….linked to many of the essential conditions for human life” (LS 23). This is tragically illustrated by considering the millions of deaths from drought, flooding, famine, and disease wrought by climate change (IPCC, 2018). The connection between climate change and the unborn becomes obvious when one considers that, according to Save the Children, these harsh conditions have led to more perinatal and infant mortality in many of the poorest countries. The bishops enjoin us: “We have a moral obligation to protect the planet on which we live—to respect God’s creation and to ensure a safe and hospitable environment for human beings, especially children at their most vulnerable stages of development….Our Conference offers a distinctive call to seriously address global climate change” (51, 86, emphasis theirs). One way to heed this call is to consider climate change when choosing policymakers. Voting for pro-environment candidates who also happen to support abortion does not imply advocating for the latter; rather, the overarching intention can be to help save lives by saving creation. “We are part of a global community charged with being good stewards of the earth’s environment, what Pope Francis calls ‘our common home,’ which is being threatened. These challenges are at the heart of public life and at the center of the pursuit of the common good. They are intertwined and inseparable” (2). We, as a faith community and as a society, must ultimately recognize that caring for creation is indeed worthy of our commitment to human life “in all its stages.”
We are now at a turning point when it comes to many social problems of moral gravity that are primarily affecting the poor and vulnerable.
Although the global pandemic and racial injustice are the most obvious, climate change continues to threaten all life and is on track to become irreversible in the very near future. “The current and projected extent of environmental degradation has become a moral crisis especially because it poses a risk to humanity in the future and threatens the lives of poor and vulnerable human persons here and now….These are not optional concerns which can be dismissed” (29, emphasis added). Thus, while opposing abortion is one way to help protect life, combating climate change is, too: one concerns individual action to protect the unborn, the other involves collective action to protect the unborn, the living, and the entire planet—our “common home.” In advocating for both of these seemingly disparate but connected moral issues, we evangelize our respect for all life.
This election, we are called to consider the big “life” picture, with due consideration to morally grave issues like abortion, but also to those—like climate change—that harm the innocent and vulnerable.
The bishops explain that “Catholic social teaching provide(s) a moral framework that does not easily fit ideologies of ‘right’ or ‘left,’ ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ or the platform of any political party” (55). We must, instead, choose candidates based on a well-informed moral conscience and then hold them accountable. As long as we do so, guided by Catholic social teaching and the Holy Spirit, each of us can still be considered a “serious” Catholic. A
Michael Wright, a father of three, is a retired NASA engineer and a licensed social worker in Pennsylvania. He has authored national publications on the environment and faith, including the booklet 10 Things Pope Francis Wants You to Know About the Environment and Catholic Update: Pope Francis and the Environment (Liguori Publications), as well as articles in National Catholic Reporter and U.S. Catholic. He is a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America.