Put Out into the Deep

Dilemmas Catholics Face During an Election Year

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

As we approach the election of 2020, I feel obligated to give some perspective on the Catholic Bishops’ teaching regarding Faithful Citizenship, the responsibility to vote, and the responsibility to truly form one’s conscience based on Church teaching. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued over 12 statements, preceding each four-year election cycle. Over the years, the statements have changed and have lengthened.

In 2007, I was the chairman of the Bishops’ Committee for Domestic and Social Policy. I was given the lead responsibility to bring several committees together, that dealt with social policy, to form a new statement. In fact, we radically changed the statement from emphasizing citizenship responsibility to the formation of one’s conscience and the responsibility of the nation’s bishops to help people to form their conscience. It was certainly clear that the bishops do not, and have not in recent history, told people how to vote. We do, however, have the responsibility for forming conscience based on the teachings of the Church. In this atmosphere that we live in today, it is rather complicated since many social issues clearly have moral content to which we, as Catholic voters, must pay attention.

The pertinent issues are: the issue of human life, especially abortion, the preeminent priority, and euthanasia; promoting peace, especially international peace; marriage and family life; religious freedom; preferential option for the poor and economic justice; healthcare that is available to everyone as a basic human right; migration policy based on equitable laws; Catholic education, whose freedom to exist must be protected; promoting justice and peace; preventing social violence, especially at a time when combatting unjust discrimination, especially racial discrimination, is a critical issue in our society.

We must also care for our common home, which means the environmental issues so emphasized by our Holy Father, Pope Francis. We must also be concerned about how society communicates, the media, and the culture in which we live in, which somehow do not support religious expression. Finally, we must also think about global solidarity among nations. This is a long list of concerns; however, I will refer you to the current Faithful Citizenship document itself at the end of this column. It is my hope that I can pique your interest to read the statement in its entirety, which is very balanced.

In 2007, when the U.S. Bishops voted on the Faithful Citizenship statement, it was unprecedented that the document passed by a vote of 221 to four. Almost no issue in the Bishops’ conference passes with such a vast majority. This happened in part because I, as chairman, changed how we dealt with the statement in that it was well vetted with many working drafts. In fact, it took almost two years of work. I still have one full file drawer filled with drafts and numerous papers to prove this fact. This was an exhilarating task of which I am very proud, because this statement has been re-issued in 2011, 2015 and also in 2019 because
the structure of the statement is basically sound. There was some dissent regarding the current teaching of the popes, which has been added; however, structurally the formation of conscience as our responsibility as pastors and the faithful’s responsibility to join in that formation has stood the ravages of time.

What is conscience? Conscience is not the little voice within us that tells us when we are right or wrong. Rather, it is the prudential judgments we make after we have assessed moral issues, trying to understand, especially in social context, regardless of political parties, what is right and what is wrong. This is no easy task, especially in the world today. At the same time, we are asked to engage ourselves as competent and informed citizens.

Today, unfortunately, we cannot listen to the media, which either tells one side of the issues or the other. It is difficult to find media sources that present both sides of an issue, or do not concentrate on one political party or another. We must rise above the partisanship that is characteristic of our society today. It is unfortunate that we have descended to this type of societal battleground where the truth of issues never seems to be discussed, but only how they might affect the power of one political party or another.

Crucial to the formation of conscience is an evaluation of the values that we hold. In an Introductory Letter to the latest Faithful Citizenship document, the 2019 statement does, I believe, give an evaluation of the issues before us. Just as the fingers on a hand are not all of equal size, they are interconnected. This is where our quandary begins. How do we identify which issue is most important and might determine which candidate we vote for on election day?

In their Introductory Letter, the Bishops wrote, “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, 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.” The Bishops go on to mention the issue of immigration and its various aspects, racism as it becomes a great problem in our society, as well as gun violence, xenophobia, capital punishment, and other issues that affect human life and dignity. The concerns that we have as moral people never end and continually develop.

But, the dilemma is how do we vote our conscience? How do we form our conscience?

First, conscience must be formed not only by consulting the impartial media. Rather, it is by our individual prayer, asking the Lord, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit within us, to guide our conscience to make the right choice that will guide our Nation and our future as Catholics in our Church.

Voter guides sometimes can be confusing as they compare one candidate’s position on an issue to another, and they can be taken out of context. So, the US Bishops have never issued an approved voter guide. Rather, we turn again to the issue of formation of a well-informed conscience that allows us to distinguish that we can never participate directly in supporting something that is a morally evil action, an intrinsically sinful act. Paragraph 36 of the Faithful Citizenship statement clearly puts forth this dilemma.

“When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.”

As you can see, in the present situation we find ourselves, there is no candidate that might fulfill all of the moral requirements of our teaching. One is pro-abortion, while the other is pro-death penalty. One seems to gloss over our problems with race relations, while another believes that universal health care is the best policy for the Nation. Add to all this the magnitude of the pandemic we are currently enduring and how political it has become. We do find ourselves in difficult times.

Now we can add more complication with what is going on at the Supreme Court, the nomination of a Catholic federal judge, Amy Coney Barrett, days after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and so close to the election. While we would welcome another Catholic justice, the nomination has further intensified the dialogue around the politics of the Supreme Court.

The Justices of the High Court are to be preeminent masters of the law, so that they must interpret our Constitution and, if the issue is not formed or clearly implied in the Constitution, then the issue must be referred to the Legislative Branch of government for action. Over time and more so in recent history, there has been a greater demand to interpret the United States Constitution to
satisfy a political agenda. We must remember that the Constitution established the laws of this land and created our republic. As such, decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court must be consistent with what the framers had in mind. Not everything would ever have been foreseen over 230 years ago, when our Nation was established, that affects us today. This is exactly why we have three separate branches of government; Executive, Legislative and Judicial.

I am not sure how helpful I have been to you in forming your conscience, because someone else cannot form your conscience. You must form your own conscience informed by the teaching of the Church. You must take the responsibility of voting as a Catholic citizen seriously. As we put out into the deep waters of this new election year, we can join together, praying that we will make the right decision for the future of our great Nation.

We live in a time that is divisive and where little collaboration is evidenced in our political system. Obviously, this must change if we are to survive as a nation. Yet, the self-correcting nature of our Constitution and political system will bring us to a brighter future in a time that God alone knows.

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