By Patricia Pitkus Bainbridge
Director, Respect Life Office
There’s an old adage that says one should never discuss religion or politics in polite society. It was thought that broaching either subject in conversation might result in a heated discussion. Because there was, and is, no shortage of opinions on both topics, the general consensus was that it was better just not to talk about either. Fortunately, religion and politics are no longer taboo subjects —although both still may result in impassioned discourse.
While our discussions must be characterized by civility, we need to be courageous and speak the truth. Some individuals and groups either misunderstand or, in some cases, ignore the teachings of the Church when it comes to voting.
The Church Shouldn’t Be Involved in Politics
While the Church may not be partisan, she can and should be involved in the political process. As the Bishops write in Faithful Citizenship: “In the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue; participation in the political process is a moral obligation.”
The Church has long spoken out on issues of a political nature—civil rights, nuclear disarmament, war, homelessness, poverty, capital punishment, global trade, immigration and the environment.
Yet, the same Catholics who would applaud the Church’s political involvement in these issues are typically the very ones who say, “the Church should not be involved in politics” when they are challenged to consider a vote for candidates who are most likely to limit abortion. It is almost as if they are attempting to justify their decision to vote for pro-choice for abortion candidates.
The Church Can’t Tell Me How to Vote
While the Church does not and cannot tell the faithful which particular candidate to vote for, the Church does have a responsibility to properly instruct the faithful on those moral principles which must be considered when voting.
In Living the Gospel of Life, the Bishops write:
We encourage all citizens, particularly Catholics, to embrace their citizenship not merely as a duty and privilege, but as an opportunity meaningfully to participate in building the culture of life. Every voice matters in the public forum. Every vote counts. Every act of responsible citizenship is an exercise of significant individual power. We must exercise that power in ways that defend human life, especially those of God's children who are unborn, disabled or otherwise vulnerable. We get the public officials we deserve. Their virtue — or lack thereof —is a judgment not only on them, but on us. Because of this, we urge our fellow 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.”I’m Not A Single-Issue Voter
Pax Christi-USA (in an attempt to attract Catholic voters to its way of thinking) claims, “A candidate for office must understand that the Church stands against any policy or course of action which diminishes life, dignity or the rights of the human person: abortion, capital punishment, war, scandalous poverty, denial of healthcare, mistreatment of immigrants and racism, to name but a few. All are essential issues to a ‘pro-life’ voter.”
A thorough reading of Pax Christi-USA’s writings fails to convince the reader that they truly care about offering any protection for the unborn.
Recognizing that all the issues mentioned above by Pax Christi-USA should be of concern to Catholics, there are two major problems with the statement. First, there is no mention of embryonic stem cell research, fetal tissue research, euthanasia, assisted suicide, human cloning, or homosexual “marriage.”
Secondly, what Pax Christi-USA and other like-minded organizations fail to acknowledge is that there is a hierarchy of moral issues. Pope Paul II and the USCCB have made it very clear that the fundamental right to life is the source of all other rights. Writing in Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II says, “the fundamental right and source of all other rights….is the right to life, a right belonging to every individual. “
In 1974 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the Declaration on Procured Abortion which stated in part: “The first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental—the condition of all the others. Hence it must be protected above all others.“
The 2001 USCCB Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities addresses the interrelated, but morally disproportional issues of the various assaults on human life when it states:
To focus on the evil of deliberate killing in abortion and euthanasia is not to ignore the many other urgent conditions that demean human dignity and threaten human rights. Opposing abortion and euthanasia “does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing and health care” (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 23).We pray that Catholics will be advocates for the weak and the marginalized in all these areas. “But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community” (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 23).
Hence, not voting for a candidate who opposes abortion and, instead, voting for a candidate who is pro-choice for abortion but opposed to capital punishment and war would not be in conformity with the moral norms of the Church. The Church teaches that abortion is an intrinsic evil while capital punishment and war are not.
I’m Going to Vote My Conscience
It is not unusual to hear those who are planning on voting for pro-choice for abortion candidates use the “I’m going to vote my conscience” mantra as if that declaration will somehow excuse their decision to ignore the moral teachings of the Church when they enter the voting booth.
It is true that “[a] human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience…[y]et it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed” [CCC #1790]. In order to follow our conscience, that conscience must be well formed. As the Catechism #1799 states, “Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them.”
Conscience is not a feeling or a vague idea or opinion that something is right or wrong. A well-formed conscience has to do with objective truth based on the teachings of the Church.
For those who proclaim, “God will guide me” as they vote, I pray that that is true. However, this sentiment is often expressed by those who reject certain moral teachings of the Church when they vote. Let us never forget that true guidance comes from proper formation.
When you cast your ballot, be certain that you are being guided by the unwavering moral teachings of the Church and not political propaganda or party affiliation. As Archbishop Charles Chaput commented, “If we’re sincere about our faith, ‘conscience’ can never be used as an excuse for dismissing what the Church teaches.”