Voting and Conscience

As the primary season comes to a close and clear candidates begin to emerge, we should expect to hear more and more about how to vote as Catholics.  The discussion will center on “voting according to conscience.”  If we are not careful however, we will fall prey to the vague notion of conscience that has plagued the Church in the last 50 years.  Instead we should strive to vote according to an informed conscience.  In an age in which fact is often equated with truth it is necessary to speak of what we mean when we say that a conscience is informed.  We don’t mean that it is full of information or data, but instead it is alive in the way that a soul informs or brings life to the body.  An informed conscience is a conscience which is fully alive.

An informed conscience is able to recognize that not all goods and evils are equal.  An informed conscience has no room for a seamless garment approach to morality.  Instead it recognizes that there are certain acts that are intrinsically evil and cannot be ordered to the good no matter what the intention of the person.

To aid us in discerning how these evils present themselves in political life, the Church for her part has listed the so-called five non-negotiables.  The first four are related to the protection of life at its most vulnerable stages including abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and human cloning and the fifth is support for so called “same-sex marriage.”  These are non-negotiable not because we are stubborn but because they are aligned so closely to the intrinsic goods of man that form the basis of the natural law.

It is grave matter to vote for candidates that support policies that promote these.  When we vote for these candidates, even when it is not our intention to support those particular policies, we still cooperate in the evil.  Certainly our level of cooperation may be remote, it is still true that without our votes these evils could not be promoted by civil law.

It would seem based on this then that the Catholic position is that we should be single issue voters.  The response to this is rather nuanced so that an example should make the distinction clear.

Suppose I take you in my time machine parked outside to Berlin in 1932 and ask you to cast a vote for or against Hitler.  How would you vote and why?

Despite all the robust economic policies that brought Germany out of the ashes of World War I and the restoration of German military might, you would hopefully vote no.  Why?  The reason is simple—no matter how much good he may do in those other realms you would not vote for him because his platform advocated mass murder of innocent people.  This means a single issue would cause you to withhold your vote.

It is the same with us today.  We should not vote for a particular candidate based on their stance on a single issue, but their stance could be a reason to disqualify a candidate from consideration.  Even if a candidate is pro-life for example, this does not mean that we should vote for them.  That just means they can be in the running.  We must then also look at his other policies and see how they promote and protect the common good.  In this way we are not single issue voters.

Flag and Crucifix

This principle is summarized well in a document that then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that deals with when Catholics may receive Communion:

“Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia”

What about voting for candidates that may be in favor of one of these non-negotiables but whose office has no effect on policies related to these non-negotiables?  Even though these issues may seem tangential, they are still important indicators.  The first virtue we should look for in a candidate for any office is prudence.  A person who cannot identify something that is intrinsically evil shows a lack of prudence.  Secondly, these offices are often stepping-stones into higher and more influential offices.  It is better to stop their ambitions before they get any steam going.

An informed conscience is an uncompromising conscience.  All too often someone will say something like “since there is no hope of overturning Roe v Wade we should not even worry about whether someone is pro-choice or pro-life but instead focus on the candidate whose social programs will also reduce the number of abortions.”  This position however amounts to a compromise with evil and in fact is untenable upon closer inspection.

Pope John Paul II spoke of what he termed the “art of the possible” in Evangelium Vitae.  He said that in some societies it may not be possible to completely overturn laws that support intrinsic evils such as abortion in one fell swoop.  Instead we might need to enact legislation in pieces that seek to limit the number of abortions while moving the social consciousness towards laws that abolish it altogether.  This sounds similar to the position of “social programs to reduce abortions” with an important exception.  The legislation that the Holy Father speaks of must have the intention of reducing the number of abortions and not just as a mere side effect.  Social programs that may reduce poverty may also have the side effect of reducing the number of abortions, but that is only accidental, especially when the overall policy is to promote and even provide them.

An uncompromising conscience is one in which the Catholic will call an evil for what it is and not simply attempt to make the evil “safe and legal.”  Still an uncompromising conscience may have recourse to the “art of the possible” and fight intrinsic evils piecemeal if necessary.

During the Vice Presidential debate in 2012, Congressman Ryan gave us an example of how an uncompromising conscience uses “the art of the possible.”  He was even criticized for it—but he has been very clear from the outset that abortion is always gravely evil.  Still he was part of a ticket which would not make the so-called abortion “hard cases”—rape and incest—illegal.  This is not because he was capitulating but because he recognizes that making abortion illegal in 99.9% of the cases will not only significantly reduce the number of abortions but lead to a greater awareness that abortion is always wrong even in the cases where the mother was a victim of a violent crime.

There are many who will argue that the best approach when confronted with two candidates, both of whom support an intrinsic evil, is to refrain from voting at all.  This ignores the fact however that one of those candidates will in fact win the election.  One should vote then consistent with their judgment as to which candidate will do the least amount of moral harm.

Imagine if you can, an America in which the nearly 70 million Catholics voted as a single block.  Imagine how far candidates would be willing to go to cater to 22% of the voters.  This is why we must understand these principles and be able to clearly articulate them and present them to our friends.  It starts now, not in October and November when everyone has made up their minds.  St. Thomas More, pray for us!

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