It has always been a mystery to me why some priests and bishops seem to find it necessary to make public statements or make public appearances that align themselves with—or worse—seem to endorse a particular political party or a specific candidate. As leaders in the church our role is to advocate for Catholic values and principles, not to endorse particular parties or candidates. Unfortunately, when you listen to some clerics, it almost seems as if the Catholic Church is a wholly owned subsidiary of one major political party or the other.
As a church we articulate and teach moral rights and principles. We then apply these moral principles to specific issues and situations. It is not an exact science, but it does help people to discern, and inform their consciences as they decide which candidate(s) to support. Unfortunately, because we apply our moral teachings to a wide array of issues, Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. How do we make these difficult choices?
In their 2007 statement: “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”, the bishops of the United States put it this way: “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism if the voters 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 #34)
In a later version of Faithful Citizenship, the bishops highlight eleven acts that they say are intrinsically immoral: (1) abortion, (2) euthanasia, (3) human cloning, (4) embryonic stem cell research, (5) genocide, (6) torture, (7) wartime targeting of non-combatants, (8) racism, (9) treating workers as mere ends (e,g. subjecting them to subhuman living conditions), (10) treating the poor as disposable, and (11) same-sex marriage. Numerous voters’ guides put out by various Catholic groups tend to emphasize certain priorities from this list. In point of fact, though, “All the life issues are connected, for erosion of respect for the life of any individual or group in society necessarily diminishes respect for all life. The moral imperative to respond to the needs of our neighbor – basic needs such as food, shelter, health care, education, and meaningful work – is universally binding on our consciences and may be legitimately fulfilled by a variety of means.” (Faithful Citizenship #25)
Clearly neither of the major political parties or candidates supports all the moral positions of the Catholic Church in regard to a consistent ethic of life. There is no “perfect fit” for Catholics in regard to a political party or candidate. “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.” (Faithful Citizenship #35)
So where does this leave us? Well I would suggest four things.
First, everyone, and perhaps most especially Catholics in leadership positions, needs to tone down their rhetoric and turn up their Christian charity. If we are to convince people of the rightness of our beliefs, increasing the volume and invective of our words is not the answer. If our words and actions don’t come from a place of love and respect, it will soon be obvious that treating people, particularly those with whom we disagree, with dignity, decency and respect is not an essential part of our Christian beliefs. I think Jesus would weep at this.
Second, everyone, and perhaps most especially Catholics in leadership positions, need to stop judging others. In this regard, in a recent homily Cardinal Blasé Cupich of Chicago said: “There should never be a time or a moment in which we judge others and their faith journey and say that a person is not Christian enough or Catholic enough.” Jesus was clear about not judging others. I think we need to take his words seriously.
Third, Catholics need to form their consciences. In regard to conscience The Second Vatican Council was clear: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged.” (Pastoral Constitution on The Church in the Modern World #16)
Our conscience, however, is more than just what one thinks or feels at a particular moment. Our conscience must be formed. In 2017, Pope Francis speaking in a video message to a conference organized by Italian bishops on his 2016 document on family life, “Amoris Laetitia” said “The contemporary world risks confusing the primacy of conscience, which must always be respected, with the exclusive autonomy of an individual with respect to his or her relations,” Pope Francis also said, though: “priests must inform Catholic consciences but not replace them.”
How does one form a conscience? We do it through prayerful discernment, dialogue with others, study of our church’s teachings, spending time in reflection, and by being open to God’s grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Fourth, and most importantly, everyone—and perhaps most especially Catholics in leadership positions—needs to pray—and pray long and hard. I am fond of saying that in my own life I have found that prayer changes things, and the thing that it changes the most is me. When we pray and are open to God’s grace, we can’t help but be kinder, more charitable, more accepting, more respectful, and especially more loving.
When we inform our consciences, pray, and ask for the guidance of God’s Spirit—and if we are open to that Spirit—I believe we will make wise and good choices when we go to the polls.