Conscientious Catholic voters face difficult choices this Election Day. Like both of this year’s presidential nominees, few U.S. politicians fully endorse the church’s social ethic, a moral framework that defies the ideological and partisan categories of American politics. In frustration, some might say it would be easier if Catholic bishops simply told us for whom to vote. Appropriately, they do not. Nonetheless, some Catholic leaders and commentators imply that the bishops have done exactly that. But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has chosen to focus instead on how Catholics should form their consciences in advance of the election.
In their document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship , published almost a year ago, the bishops called Catholic voters to prayerful reflection on the principles of Catholic moral and social teaching. First among these fundamental ethical principles is the dignity of the human person and his or her consequent right to life, “the most fundamental human good and the condition of all the others.” Issues that involve direct attacks on life itself, such as abortion or euthanasia or unjust war, therefore, should be the first concern of Catholic voters. Our duty to protect innocent human life, they wrote, “has a special claim on our consciences and our actions.”
At the same time, the bishops reminded us of the breadth of our moral responsibility. “Catholic teaching about the dignity of life calls us to oppose torture, unjust war, and the use of the death penalty; to prevent genocide and attacks against noncombatants; to oppose racism; and to overcome poverty and suffering,” they wrote. “Nations are called to protect the right to life by seeking effective ways to combat evil and terror without resorting to armed conflicts....”
Some have argued—misleadingly—that our moral obligation to defend innocent human life means that it is never morally permissible for a Catholic to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights. Yet the bishops have articulated conditions under which it may be possible. Given the specific choices facing voters, disqualification of pro-choice candidates is neither automatic nor universal. While it is never permissible to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights “if the voter’s intent is to support that position,” it may be permissible for a voter who rejects a candidate’s pro-abortion rights position to vote for the candidate, according to the bishops, “for truly grave moral reasons.”
Wisely, Faithful Citizenship does not specify what counts as grave moral reasons. What might they be? The voter is required to speculate: The likelihood of reducing the abortion rate? Leading the campaign to support stem cell research on adult cells instead of fetal cells? Opposing preventive war and torture? Providing health care for the uninsured? Readiness to join a new international regime to curb global warming? Salvaging the American economy?
The right to life, rooted in the dignity of the human person, necessarily implies rights to all the goods of human life, including peace and security, a home, health and employment. As Pope Benedict himself noted when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “a political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility toward the common good.” In other words, Catholics are not automatic single-issue voters, regardless of the issue. Catholic social teaching is a unity and must be applied accordingly.
A candidate’s character also matters. A voter’s decisions, according to the bishops, should also “take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity and ability to influence a given issue.” Political history should also count. Repeated failure by a candidate or a party to make good on campaign promises must be calculated into a voter’s judgment. Prudence requires voters to remember that in choosing a political candidate, they are not choosing an amalgam of ideas and policies but a person in a specific and delimited political situation. Prudence also requires voters to recall that there are different ways of responding to compelling social problems that are morally acceptable.
Conscientious voters have a momentous decision before them. Catholics should be grateful that the bishops instruct us on how to form our consciences, but not for whom to vote. As Pope Benedict XVI has noted, “the church does not impose but freely proposes the Catholic faith.” The church’s teaching, therefore, is not a political platform, nor is it a penal code that can be cited in part without reference to the whole. But neither can it be ignored, for its principles make sure and certain demands on the consciences of voters where, ultimately, the election of 2008 will be decided.