Every election cycle affords us an opportunity to reflect on the role of citizen Catholics and our voting. When doing so, we recognize many factors in voting for candidates—salient issues in Catholic social teaching and the opportunity, competence, and character of every candidate.[i]
In the latest version of their quadrennial statement on upcoming national elections, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,[ii] the U.S. bishops describe our responsibilities for contributing to a constructive political life, for forming our consciences with care, and for enacting the values Catholic Social Teaching. They discuss issues of human life, peace, family, religious freedom, option for the poor, economic justice, health care, migration, Catholic education, justice, violence, discrimination, care for creation, communications, media, culture, and global solidarity. Like each of the Bishops Conference’s quadrennial statements on political responsibility dating back to the 1970s, the entire text was intended as essential preparation for the upcoming elections. It also reveals that no existing party or platform comports fully with Catholic teaching—which effectively cuts across contemporary partisan divides.
The body of the document has remained unchanged from 2015 and is substantially the same since 2007. Only the covering letter was updated at the November 2019, bishops’ meeting. In that letter, the bishops note:
The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself,[iii] because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed. At the same time, we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.[iv]
In the full document, the bishops describe the principles underlying public issues. While the covering letter’s designation of abortion as “our preeminent priority” was debated strongly, the letter is careful to note that other life issues cannot be dismissed or ignored. Four paragraphs earlier in the letter, they reflected the teaching of Pope Francis:
The call to holiness, he writes, requires a “firm and passionate” defense of “the innocent unborn.” “Equally sacred,” he further states, are “the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”[v]
As the bishops wrote in the body of the document, “As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support.”[vi]
The bishops specifically do not endorse or oppose candidates. It is explicit policy of the U.S. Conference of Bishops not to do so in elections or judicial appointments and that Catholic parishes and dioceses are forbidden to do so, although this message has not always penetrated to quite every Catholic pulpit. The bishops’ focus is on the moral quality of issues and positions, leaving to voters the exercise of well-informed conscience and prudential judgment in choosing candidates.
There is also an appealing holistic quality to the message, one which encourages good-faith efforts (transcending all traces of narrow partisanship) to arrive at a satisfactory “ethic of voting decisions.” The bishops acknowledge that, “These decisions should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue.”[vii] It is not enough for a candidate or party to give “lip service” even to important moral issues. There also must be commitment to action that will produce change, a candidate’s intellectual capacity and relational skills to make a difference, and the opportunity in the specific political time and place to move an issue or value.
The proper, but not exclusive, role of the laity, then, is to apply principles to policy applications[viii] and then to consider policy applications in a complex calculation that scrutinizes candidates, their qualities, and capacities. The overarching responsibility of each voter and every officeholder, however, is to the common good of the community, state, nation, and world. The obligations to promote the common good and the dignity of all members of society remain the most fundamental principles of Catholic social doctrine.
[ii] U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (2019, November 12). Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States.
[iii] Ibid., 22.
[iv] Ibid., 29.
[v] Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate: On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World (March 19, 2018), no. 101.
[vi] Forming Consciences, 42.
[vii] Ibid., 37.
[viii] Fred Kammer, SJ. (2018). Catholic Social Thought and Policy Applications. JustSouth Quarterly, Winter, 3.