How are we, as members of the Catholic community in the United States, called to confront this challenging electoral moment in our country’s history, and transform it into an opportunity to bring the vision of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the social teaching of the Church into the core of our national life?
Excerpts from “Conscience, Candidates, and Discipleship in Voting” by Bishop Robert McElroy
Pope Francis answers this question by proposing starkly that our political lives must be seen as an essential element of our personal call to holiness. This certainly means that our political actions must reflect and flow from our Catholic faith. But Francis is demanding much more. He proposes that we can only fulfill our vocation as faithful citizens who love our nation if we come to see in the very toxicity and divisiveness of this current moment a call for deeper conversion to Jesus Christ….
We are called in our lives as citizens to be missionaries of dialogue and civility in a political culture that values neither. And that requires deep spiritual reflection, courage, and judgment. It demands a Christ-like dedication to seeking the truth no matter where it may lie, and defining our politics and voting in the light of the Gospel.
Salient Issues of Catholic Social Teaching
As the 2020 election cycle comes to a conclusion, at least 10 salient goals emerge from the Gospel and the long tradition of Catholic faith:
- The promotion of a culture and legal structures that protect the life of unborn children.
- The reversal of climate change that threatens the future of humanity and particularly devastates the poor and the marginalized.
- Policies that safeguard the rights of immigrants and refugees in a moment of great intolerance.
- Laws that protect the aged, the ill, and the disabled from the lure and the scourge of euthanasia and assisted suicide.
- Quality health care for all Americans.
- Vigorous opposition to racism in every form, both through cultural transformation and legal structures.
- The provision of work and the protection of workers’ rights across America.
- Systematic efforts to fight poverty and egregious inequalities of wealth.
- Policies that promote marriage and family, which are so essential for society.
- The protection of religious liberty.
Leadership, Competence, and Character
Voting for candidates ultimately involves choosing a candidate for public office, not a stance, nor specific teaching of the Church. And for this reason, faithful voting involves careful consideration of the specific ability of a particular candidate to actually advance the common good. In making this assessment, leadership, competence, and character all come into play.
Particularly in the election of a president, leadership is a critical criterion for voting. Good leadership comes in many forms. It can be vigorous and rousing, moving forward in a clear direction. It can be inspiring and motivational. It can be healing and unifying. What form of leadership does the United States need at this moment in its history?
Competence is also a central metric for faith-filled voters to consider. It does little good to elect a saint who echoes Catholic social teaching on every issue if that candidate does not have the competence to carry out his duties effectively and thereby enhance the common good. Faith-filled voters must assess the intelligence, human relations skills, mastery of policy and intuitive insights that each candidate brings to bear, for voting discipleship seeks results, not merely aspirations.
Finally, because our nation is in a moment of political division and degradation in its public life, character represents a particularly compelling criterion for faithful voting in 2020. Today, leaders in government embrace corrosive tactics and language, fostering division rather than unity. The notion of truth itself has lost its footing in our public debate. Collegiality has been discarded. Principles are merely justifications for partisan actions, to be abandoned when those principles no longer favor a partisan advantage. There is a fundamental lack of political courage in the land.
In the end, it is the candidate who is on the ballot, not a specific issue. The faith-filled voter is asked to make the complex judgment: Which candidate will be likely to best advance the common good through his office in the particular political context he will face? Such a decision embraces the planes of principle and character, competence and leadership. And for the faithful voter, the very complexity of this moral judgment demands a recourse to the voice of God which lies deep within each of us — our conscience.
Conscience and Prudence
For the disciple of Jesus Christ, voting is a sacred action. In the words of The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, it touches “the crossroads where Christian life and conscience come into contact with the real world.”
How, then does the faith-filled voter navigate this crossroad in a way that integrates the tenets of Catholic social teaching, recognizes the role that leadership, character and capacity play in the real world of governing, and preserves a stance of building unity within society?
The answer is prudence. In the words of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, “prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it … . It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience.” In Catholic social teaching, prudence is called “the charioteer of the virtues”; it brings into balance all of the virtues of the Christian moral life to provide a singularly incisive moral perspective for the disciple confronting ethically complex problems. It is at the heart of the workings of conscience.