October 17, 2008


On deciding how to vote

If you are really observant, you might have noticed that an election campaign is taking place. We are being bombarded incessantly by campaign materials.

You are going to be reminded frequently of your right, and your obligation, to vote on Nov. 4—or earlier if you do it by absentee ballot. We agree with that, but we would also like to emphasize your obligation to be a well-informed voter.

The U.S. bishops’ document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” agrees that “in the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation.”

The key words are “responsible citizenship” because an earlier document issued by the bishops, “Living the Gospel of Life,” stressed that we must “see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest.”

Like the U.S. bishops, we are not going to tell you how to vote. But, also like the bishops, we are going to tell you that each individual should vote in accordance with his or her properly formed conscience.

The Church recognizes its obligation to help shape the moral character of society. It enhances our nation’s tradition of pluralism by bringing to the political dialogue a consistent moral framework.

To help you be a well informed voter with a properly formed conscience, we have been publishing a series of essays, written by experts at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, on various topics included in the document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” We see these essays as a blueprint on how Catholic social teaching should affect political participation by Catholics.

We have observed in this space before, and the bishops’ statement repeats it, that no party and few candidates share the Catholic Church’s comprehensive commitment to human life and dignity. It would be easy for us to decide whom to vote for if some of the candidates held positions completely in line with the teachings of the Church, and had the experience, integrity and expertise required of good civil servants, but unfortunately that is not the case.

That is why we must exercise the virtue of prudence. The bishops’ statement says, “Prudence shapes and informs our ability to deliberate over available alternatives, to determine what is most fitting to a specific context, and to act.”

Each Catholic might respond to our country’s or our state’s problems in a different way, but we must do it within the context of protecting human life and dignity, and in building up a more just and peaceful world.

The bishops emphasize that Catholics are not single-issue voters. Nevertheless, they also teach clearly that intrinsically evil acts must always be rejected and that “a candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.”

Other intrinsic evils listed by the bishops include euthanasia, human cloning, destructive research on human embryos, genocide, torture, unjust war and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war.

Not all candidates, of course, are running for public offices that are directly involved in support for, or opposition to, intrinsically evil acts. For example, in the governor’s race in which jobs have become a major issue, voters must determine for themselves which candidate can attract the most jobs with no help from the Church.

Similarly, when it comes to most economic issues, the Church doesn’t take a position except to say that those who are in greatest need deserve preferential concern. We must not, though, vote for those who support intrinsically evil acts because we agree with their positions on economic issues.

Other issues that include a moral component include marriage only between a man and a woman, human rights and dignity, the rights of workers to a living wage, opportunities for legal status for immigrants, and care for God’s creation.

Indeed, when becoming well-informed voters, we must try to determine the candidates’ positions on a large range of issues, figure out which of those issues they will be most involved in, seriously consider the position of the Church on those issues, and then vote prudently.

—John F. Fink

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