Put Out into the Deep

Issues Shape Our Political Choices

This is the fourth of a five-part series dealing with the issues surrounding the upcoming national elections.

Over the last several weeks, the statements of two of our nation’s bishops have received a great deal of media attention. Archbishop John Meyers of Newark, N.J., recently wrote a very compelling letter on ministry to those with same-sex attraction and advised that those who do not confess to the Church’s teaching on marriage and human life ought to refrain from going to communion.

In Springfield, Ill., Bishop Thomas Paprocki remarked, “I am saying that you need to think and pray very carefully about your vote because a vote for a candidate who promotes actions or behaviors that are intrinsically evil and gravely sinful makes you morally complicit and places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy.”

We cannot help but think that for many people these statements are jarring. After all, do we think of our political decisions, exercising our right to vote, as having eternal consequences for us? Do we think of our political opinions or views on life as having an impact as to whether or not we should approach the communion rail?

As we continue this series of columns pertaining to the November elections, I would like to discuss some things which we do not hear about often in our day. They are prudential judgment and moral absolutes.

Over the last three weeks, we have examined the responsibility of the Church to teach, looked at key issues and considered what level of participation is required of all of us. It is only fitting that we discuss how prudential judgment and moral absolutes factor into our lives, particularly in the political realm.

When does the Church authoritatively teach on moral questions, and when must we make our own prudential judgments? The key to understanding this distinction is that some acts are intrinsically, always and all the time, evil. In other words, the objectively evil act, such as abortion, always has an end that goes against the will of God. This does not mean that the person who is guilty of the sin is culpable of committing evil and does not mean the person is eternally condemned. What it does mean, however, is that they have done something that, always and for all times, is a violation of the will of God.

Is it legitimate for those of us who take our faith seriously to support people or policies which are objectively evil? The answer to that question is, of course, “No.” We as Catholics may not at any time support someone because they pursue objectively evil policies.

A more difficult question for you and I is whether, through opposing a particular policy of a given elected official on a matter of objective truth, we can support that official because of other positions he or she may hold. For instance, it is no secret that my life’s passion and work as a priest has been to make manifest the Gospel message most especially to immigrants. May I support a candidate who favors policies which are sympathetic to immigrants but who, at the same time, is a proponent of late-term abortion? The answer to that question is not so obvious.

Not all moral matters are objectively good or objectively bad. Some things are morally neutral.

Since Pope Leo XIII issued the historic encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” which detailed for us the social teaching of the Catholic Church, we recognize that moral teachings are at work in much of our day-to-day living and certainly with all the issues that confront candidates running for national office. Health care, taxes, the economy, unemployment, education: These are all moral questions.

What “Rerum Novarum” provided was a framework for recognizing that the rights of laborers is a moral question; just compensation is a moral question. However, how we arrive at what is just compensation is a question of prudential judgment. The means of getting there is different. In other words, people of good will might disagree on how we are to achieve the end of just compensation for a laborer; however, what we cannot do is fail to consider how to achieve that end.

My brother bishops and I, in “Faithful Citizenship,” offer a detailed description of prudential judgment, particularly in part because of recent discussions surrounding very real issues in today’s arena like human life, family life, social justice and global solidarity:

“Sometimes morally flawed laws already exist. In this situation, the process of framing legislation to protect life is subject to prudential judgment and ‘the art of the possible.’ At times this process may restore justice only partially or gradually. Prudential judgment is also needed in applying moral principles to specific policy choices in areas such as the war in Iraq, housing, health care, immigration and others.

“This does not mean that all choices are equally valid, or that our guidance and that of other Church leaders is just another political opinion or policy preference among many others. Rather, we urge Catholics to listen carefully to the Church’s teachers when we apply Catholic social teaching to specific proposals and situations. The judgments and recommendations that we make as bishops on specific issues do not carry the same moral authority as statements of universal moral teachings. Nevertheless, the Church’s guidance on these matters is an essential resource for Catholics as they determine whether their own moral judgments are consistent with the Gospel and with Catholic teaching.”

In matters of public policy, our legislators – Catholic and non-Catholic – have areas of disagreement. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, put it in a 2004 letter to the bishops of the U.S.: “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.”

As we put out into the deep this election season, each of us needs to consider the very real, indeed eternal, consequences, of the decision that we make on Election Day.

4 thoughts on “Issues Shape Our Political Choices

  1. Bishop DiMarzio,

    Today — October 10 — is World Day Againt the Death Penalty. Where is the Brooklyn Catholic community’s leadership on this issue? We profess to care about human life, but the institutional killing of adult human beings is rarely discussed. The silence is outrageous to me as a Catholic.

  2. Gertrude, I wonder…were you a participant on ANY of the Respect Life Sundays Life Chains or Rosary Chains this past Sunday on Respect Life Sunday? If not, I find it personally offensive and outrageous to call out the Bishop in such a manner. Bishop DiMarzio has been particularly outspoken with regard to recent matters of urgency to the Catholic church and I believe deserves a bit more consideration and respect and as a matter of fact, encouragement to continue along his valiant path.


    1. Gabriel,

      Gertrude makes a good point. The Bishop has on blinders. There are many other issues besides abortion which address a “respect life” agenda. By the way, Gabriel, have you ever been pregnant?