Each time a presidential election approaches in the United States many Catholics struggle with the question of who to vote for. Despite the bizarre circumstances of this year’s political choices, it does not make our decision-making as followers and friends of Christ any different. In the spirit of Ignatian discernment and decision-making I hope to offer you some guidance on how to approach your role in the political life as an intentional Catholic. It must first be said that our involvement in public life ought to extend beyond the presidential election. Each person has a responsibility to be just as intentional in their state and local elections, knowledge about ballot measures, even considering writing letters to their congressperson. But since the presidential election gets so much attention this is where we stand right now.
Many questions arise: Can I vote for a Democrat? Can I vote for someone who is not consistently pro-life? Isn’t abortion the primary issue I must base my vote on?
Since our bishops are supposed to share with us the wisdom of Catholic teaching, I will reference their quadrennial document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. The document is founded on Catholic social teaching, especially these four core principles: the dignity of the human person, subsidiarity, the common good, and solidarity. Let’s look at what the bishops actually say before we engage the Ignatian tradition of discernment.
Let’s answer the first question on many people’s minds. How do the pro-life issues play into my vote? The bishops’ document does speak of “intrinsically evil acts” that violate the dignity of the human person, which must never be supported. These include not only abortion or the death penalty but human cloning, genocide, and torture. They even extend this to racism, subhuman living conditions, and exploiting workers. “The right to life implies and is linked to other human rights—to the basic goods that every human person needs to live and thrive.” The bishops make it a point to quote John Paul II who said that we must be aware that no single government official may be able to overturn a pro-abortion law, but “he or she may work to improve protection for unborn human life.” This is an important consideration. What does it mean when a candidate claims to be pro-life? What holistically are they going to do to prevent or reduce abortions? How does their pro-life ethic extend to other issues like care for the elderly and dying, torture, discrimination, war, and nuclear armament?
Single issue voting?
The bishops are clear: “As Catholics we are not single-issue voters.” The Catholic social ethic “does not treat all issues as morally equivalent nor does it reduce Catholic teaching to one or two issues. It anchors the Catholic commitment to defend human life, from conception until natural death, in the fundamental moral obligation to respect the dignity of every person as a child of God.” The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith tells us we cannot isolate one element of Catholic social teaching to the detriment of the entire teaching. That being said, it’s clear no candidate fully aligns with the whole of Catholic teaching. One person may be opposed to abortion but support the death penalty. Another might be in favour of fair wages and living conditions for workers but is not quick to condemn racial discrimination. As Catholics, our faith transcends politics and parties.
Some have criticised the bishops’ Forming Consciences document as telling people to vote Republican without explicitly saying it. The document actually is quite holistic in its approach of how Catholics should form their consciences. It emphasises the whole of Catholic moral principles with a particular focus on “intrinsically evil acts”, which it does not reduce to abortion.
So can a Catholic vote for a Democrat? What about someone who supports abortion rights? Keep in mind that quite often all of the candidates hold a position that supports an intrinsic evil like euthanasia, nuclear arms, abortion, torture, racism, or the death penalty. That is our reality in 2016. In this case the bishops present two options:
- Choose not to vote for any candidate.
- “Vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.”
When one chooses to vote for a candidate who holds a morally evil position one cannot vote with the intention of supporting that position. In other words, you can vote for a candidate who happens supports abortion rights only if you do not intend to support that position. Rather, your intention to vote for them would be because they are more likely to do more moral good in their political office, and wholly support the common good; not because you want to ignore the issue of abortion. Here is the bishops’ language:
- “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.”
- “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.”
The Ignatian spiritual tradition can offer some advice on how to discern our decision. Our intent should not be to place the entirety of our country’s moral progress on a single governmental official. That would be foolish thinking. We ought to think more holistically, remembering that as individuals we also have responsibilities to the state, like civic engagement, letter writing, protesting, etc.
In Ignatian discernment the first step would be to ask the Holy Spirit to help guide you toward making the best choice you can. Acknowledge that no candidate is perfect.
The second step is centred in the head. Be objective. Make a list of the candidates and their positions and how they align with Catholic social teaching. How do you weigh the importance of the issues? Ask yourself how much the candidate would be able to influence the various issues. Also consider the ways you might contribute to moral good in society. How would you get involved in positive social change? Are there state or local measures you should support?
The next step would be to consider your heart. This is more subjective. In other words, what are your emotions and feelings that surround the various candidates? Do you feel you trust one more than the other? What’s their heart like? Do they seem sincere in their desire to help the common good of all people or just a few? Do they seem to care about human dignity? Does your gut point you toward one person more than another?
When November 8 comes, make the best choice you can, weighing all parts of your discernment, ultimately trusting God’s goodness.
Read the bishops’ entire document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.
Here’s a one-pager on Catholic social teaching.
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