Never in living history has an American presidential election been so divisive and difficult. Many Americans look at the two candidates running for the highest office in the land and wonder how on earth the two most unpopular politicians have made it to the top. A national election is not a beauty pageant or a popularity contest, but a serious process whereby the electorate should choose the person most qualified to be president. Catholics are especially involved in the election process and historically, candidates from both of the major parties have been eager to attract the Catholic vote.
November’s election, however, is not only about who will win the Oval Office. On Nov. 8, there are also 469 seats in Congress to be decided — 34 in the Senate and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives. Much of what a President Trump or President Clinton can accomplish will be decided by the makeup of Congress. In addition, the citizens of 12 states will elect their governor, 44 states will elect their legislators, and six major cities across the country will elect their mayors.
When we go into the voting booth, we should be informed not only about the presidential contenders, but also about the positions of our congressmen and congresswomen and senators as well as our candidates for governor and state legislatures. In many ways, our votes for legislators and local officials are more important than how we vote for the president because local officials often have more impact on the local level where life is real.
Can’t I Be A Catholic Ostrich?
Faced with unpopular candidates whose positions are far from Catholic, many voters would like to put their heads in the sand and hope for better choices next time. However, being a Catholic ostrich is not one of the options. As Catholics we are called to be involved in the political process and make choices that are not only informed about the issues and the candidates but done with a prayerful attitude and a well-formed conscience. Our U.S. Catholic bishops have issued a comprehensive guide as we face the election. Called Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, it can be downloaded from the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, USCCB.org.
In other words, Catholics who have the right to vote also have the responsibility to vote, and if we have the responsibility to vote we also have the responsibility to resist popularity contests or simply vote “the way my dad always did.” We shouldn’t vote on a single issue or vote out of sentimentality or simply in reaction against a candidate we don’t happen to like. We should also avoid dreamy idealism. We must be realistic, study the issues, party platforms, and candidates’ records. In other words, we need to get our heads both out of the sand and out of the sky. When considering how to vote, we should remember Jesus’ advice to be as “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
The bishops outline four foundational principles to consider and five guidelines to help us apply those principles, and then summarize with a collection of specific aims that help build a just, prosperous, and civilized Christian society.
A Four-Square Foundation
Jesus told the parable of the man who built his house on the sand and the man who built his house on the rock (see Matthew 7:24–27). When the storms came the house on the sand crumbled, while the house on the solid foundation stood firm. The bishops’ document reminds us of the four foundation principles for Catholic citizens. These principles are drawn from the long history of Catholic social teaching — beginning with Pope Leo XIII at the end of the 19th century and continuing today with Pope Francis.
The first principle is the dignity of human life. Human life is sacred because every person is created in the image and likeness of God. The dignity of each person therefore means that the individual takes precedence over the state, and the state must protect the life and dignity of each person.
The second foundational principle is subsidiarity. This means that solutions are to be found and initiatives are to be taken at the most local level possible. The smallest social unit of all is the family. Catholics affirm that the family — based on the natural marriage between one man and one woman — is the fundamental unit of society. It is a government’s function to support and uphold this basic unit of society where children are conceived, born, and nurtured.
The third foundation principle is the common good. Governments are not in existence for themselves, but are meant to serve all people and develop a common good for all. This includes proper care for workers, defense of human rights, concern for the vulnerable, and protection of the shared environment. The final foundation principle is solidarity. This is the conviction that we are indeed “our brother’s keeper.”
Tools In The Toolbox
To vote confidently, the Catholic citizen must not only be aware of the four principles, but must know how to apply them. The bishops lay out five tools to help us do just that.
First, we are to have well-formed consciences. This means we must be alert to moral problems and be aware of the Catholic answers. We don’t make moral choices based only on what seems practical or on our emotional and personal responses. We must learn what is right and wrong and have enough backbone to stand up for all that is beautiful, good, and true.
Second, we must exercise prudence. Prudence is the ability to discern the right way when the choices are confusing and contradictory. I often explain that prudence is a combination of common sense and supernatural understanding. It is good sense enlightened by grace.
Third, we must not only do good; we must avoid evil. There are some things that are so evil that we cannot support a candidate who supports them. Intentional killing of the innocent can never be supported, for example.
Fourth, we must avoid both the temptation to treat all moral choices as equal and the opposite temptation to ignore some evils because we oppose one particular evil. So, for example, environmental pollution is not as bad as human trafficking, but we mustn’t ignore the evil of pollution in our zeal to stamp out human trafficking.
Finally, we must make difficult and often complex moral choices as we decide who to vote for. We are not single-issue voters.
A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee support. Yet a candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for abortion, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.
The Hot-Button Issues For Catholics
Based on the four principles and five tools for good choices, the Catholic bishops have produced a list of hot-button issues for Catholics. These are the game changers that should be vitally important for Catholic voters.
The first is human life. Catholics want to end abortion, euthanasia, the destruction of embryos through research, and artificial conception technologies. They also call for an end to capital punishment and unjust war.
The second is the defense of marriage as a lifelong, faithful union between one man and one woman. We reject false gender ideologies and call for the state to do everything possible to support the family as it has been known by humanity from the dawn of time.
The next five policy recommendations are for a compassionate reform of the immigration system and care for the poor around the world. This includes the defense of workers and support for basic human rights (especially freedom of religion), abolition of unjust forms of discrimination, and education and adequate health care for all.
The final policy recommendations are for an end to imprudent war, persecution of religious and racial minorities — especially Christians in the Middle East — and the pursuit of peace, justice, and dignity for all people.
If you can find candidates who stand for all those things, give them your full support and shout their names from the housetop! If not, pick and choose carefully and prayerfully, and after you vote, commend your country, your family, and yourself into God’s hands, asking for the grace and freedom to live peacefully, act justly, and walk humbly with your God.