“As Catholics, we bring the richness of our faith to the public square. We draw from both faith and reason as we seek to affirm the dignity of the human person and the common good of all.” 1
There seems to be a lot of confusion in the Catholic Church surrounding the upcoming election. Priests and bishops are supporting both candidates, congregations are hearing mixed messages, and people are looking for truth in the wrong places. With this election being one that will change history and our country as we know it (whether for the better or worse is to be determined), we do not have time to waste being confused or misinformed about our role as Catholic voters.
Unfortunately, we cannot assume that all baptized Catholics believe and uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church, because sadly that is not the case. Before we discuss the Catholic vote, it’s imperative we acknowledge that we are part of a divided Church – those who uphold all teachings of the Catholic Church and those who pick which teachings they uphold and which ones they don’t. We call the latter “cafeteria Catholicism.” “Cafeteria Catholicism…rejects the unity of faith, the oneness of divine truth, and the fullness of God’s revelation. Faith is a free response to the loving God who calls us into a relationship with him. Cafeteria Catholicism seeks to dictate to God the terms of the relationship: I will believe these things about you, God, but first I declare some of your truths and laws null and void in my life.”2 Simply put, this way of “living the faith” is the very reason there is so much confusion when it comes to moral decision-making, such as voting in an election, and clergy and laity alike are guilty of it.
It is a detriment to the Catholic Church that many of its members have the falsely produced belief that we, as humans, can dictate to God, our Creator, the truth.
The Catholic Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic – we profess this every Sunday at mass. Our faith unites us, allows us to grow in holiness, is universal, and was preserved, taught, and handed on by the apostles, the very men who spent years with Jesus Himself. Do we enrich our lives with these real truths of our faith? Or do we listen to the world’s fabricated and untruthful claims and impose them onto the Catholic Church?
The truth of our Catholic faith should inform our consciences. When we let it, we clearly see that we are called to defend and fight for it. So how do we exercise our moral obligations and do so in light of what’s at stake this election?…
Our Moral Obligations
In the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation. “People in every nation enhance the social dimension of their lives by acting as committed and responsible citizens” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 220). The obligation to participate in political life is rooted in our baptismal commitment to follow Jesus Christ and to bear Christian witness in all we do. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This obligation is inherent in the dignity of the human person. . . . As far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life” (nos. 1913-1915).3
Our moral obligation as Catholics to responsible citizenship is very clear and focuses on involving ourselves in the public square for the sake of the common good. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the common good “presupposes respect for the person,” and binds public figures to “respect the natural rights of the human person” (CCC 1907). Additionally, the common good requires the “social well-being and development” of members of the society and the “stability and security of a just order”–that is, peace–which allows such social well-being to flourish (CCC 1908 & 1909).
Promoting and defending the common good requires, at least in a democracy, participating in electoral politics. It is through the legislating and enforcement of policy that a democratic society most directly effectuates the common good. In the United States, faithful Catholics are given the opportunity every four years to ensure that the most powerful office in the country is occupied by a person who will dutifully defend Catholic values.
So what do we mean by “Catholic values”? Catholic social teaching provides a rich tapestry of directions to guide a human society in the promotion of human flourishing. These teachings include the inviolability of innocent life, the sanctity of the sacrament of marriage, the primacy of parents in the direction of their children’s education, the importance of people’s access to quality healthcare, the duty to be proper stewards of the environment, the evil of unjust discrimination, the need to treat even the foreigner as we would treat Christ, and much more…
We are called to take all these issues and many more into consideration as we participate in political activity and decide who to support for elected office.
What are we called to do?
“As we cast our ballot in the election this fall, the Lord calls us to pray, study Church teaching, form and examine our conscience and vote in light of our Catholic principles.”4
Since there are so many issues which Catholics must consider, how do we decide which issues to give our most profound attention to, or which issues are most important as we enter the voting booth?
The Church instructs us that there are certain issues which it deems to be “non-negotiable.” Catholics of good will can have disagreements on how to solve certain problems, but there are certain issues on which no differences with the Church can possibly exist. These issues include the protection of innocent unborn life, the defense of marriage against un-Christian innovations and the primacy of parental rights. While all elements of Catholic social teaching are important, these issues are considered more important because they address core truths about human nature.
Unfortunately, many Catholics in recent decades have attempted to deny the preeminence of these non-negotiable issues. You’ve probably heard friends defend their choice of a particular pro-choice candidate by highlighting their positions on climate change or poverty as proportionally more important than the singular issue of abortion. The argument they are making is often referred to as the “seamless garment” theory. This theory, popularly identified with former Chicago Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, effectively states that all issues related to the sacredness of life are connected–much like the seamless robe worn by Christ which is referenced in the Bible in John, Chapter 19.
However, basic logic dictates that not all issues are equal. The sections of a seamless robe covering various body parts (i.e. the shoulders, the neck, the ribs, the groin, etc.) are all connected–but they are not all equally important. Imagine how ridiculous it would sound if a friend wore a seamless robe in public with the section covering their groin cut out and justified their exposure by saying “Yes, but look at all the other parts of my body the garment covers!”
Climate change or subpar healthcare options or gun violence are all important–but no issue besides abortion results in the direct killing of roughly a million innocent human beings in the U.S. alone every year. This is why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops specifically identifies the issue of abortion to be preeminent above all other issues. Faithful Catholics cannot support candidates who advocate for legalized abortion simply because they take excellent positions on other, less important policy issues.
What’s at Stake This Election
As Catholics, we are part of a community with a rich heritage that helps us consider the challenges in public life and contribute to greater justice and peace for all people.5
This coming election is of crucial importance.
No single party or candidate perfectly adopts Catholic principles. However, there are candidates who have not only failed to uphold Catholic principles, but have displayed overt hostility to the Catholic faith itself. Candidates are running at the federal, state and local levels who advocate for legalized abortion up to the point of birth or for forcing radicalized propaganda about human sexuality on young children in school. These things are not merely imprudent politically, but morally dangerous.
As Pope Saint John Paul II teaches us in Veritatis Splendor, the unity of the Church is damaged when Catholics “disregard the moral obligations to which they are called by the Gospel.”6 When a Catholic negligently suspends reality in an attempt to bend Catholic teaching to his or her own personal opinions, it is not merely an act of “conscience”–it is a betrayal of our God-given reason and, thus, of God Himself. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, Catholics “do not subscribe to a set of dogmas but to the person of Jesus Christ.”7 It is because of what is true about Christ, and our relationship with Him, that we believe what we believe.
And this is what is really at stake in this election. It isn’t merely our position on this issue or that issue that offends the secular mindset. It is our very relationship with Jesus Christ–one that is utterly dependent and non-ephemeral. To the secular mindset, religion is reduced to a crutch to rely on for temporal strength, or to support worldly endeavors. A Catholicism which is deeper than that, in which the “dogma lives loudly,” scares them. CNN’s Chris Cuomo criticized the faith of Catholic Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett as “more than just every Sunday. This is more than a moral backstop for her life.”8
What he means is that she takes her faith seriously, and doesn’t treat it as if it’s merely an hour-per-week self-help session that doesn’t necessarily impact the rest of her life or how she engages life in the public square. But this is precisely how we are called to live our faith as Catholics: fully and without compartmentalizing. This is what shocks the world and leads to our persecution, which we are supposed to expect, but not necessarily tolerate. We are living in the type of world that the late Cardinal Francis George described when he predicted that he would “die in [his] bed, [his] successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” A genuine, strong faith is viewed as fundamentally incompatible with both respectable opinion and a seat at the table of electoral decision making.
Catholics cannot sit idly by, resigning to shut ourselves off from the evils of the world as if we will be protected if we don’t engage in public life. As Archbishop Sheen warned, a Church that does not involve itself in matters of the state will soon find the state involving itself in matters of the Church. Secularism will come for us, and for our ability to live equally as faithful Catholics and faithful Americans, if we do not stand up to fight against it. There could not be a better description of what is at stake in the current election–whether we will continue to live a vibrant, full Catholicism or whether our faith becomes something fundamentally vestigial or hollow.
Since we are called to exercise our voices in line with the Catholic Church’s teachings and we have a moral obligation to do so at the ballot box, the single best thing we can do is educate ourselves. There are many resources that exist to inform the faithful about the election. Below are some of the most reliable resources in line with Catholic Church teaching that we recommend you read.
“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops – https://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship/upload/forming-consciences-for-faithful-citizenship.pdf
“Catholics in the Public Square” by The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmstead, Bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix – https://dphx.org/catholics-in-the-public-square/
“Guide to Moral Duties Concerning Voting” by EWTN – https://www.ewtn.com/vote/download/moralguide.pdf
May God bless us all as we vote this November!
Written by Erin Monnin and Bill Fathauer, both graduates of the TLI Class of 2019 in Phoenix, AZ
1 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship/upload/forming-consciences-for-faithful-citizenship.pdf.
2 Bonagura, Jr., David G. “On Faith and Cafeteria Catholicism.” The Catholic Thing, August 18, 2013. www.thecatholicthing.org/2013/08/18/on-faith-and-cafeteria-catholicism/.
3 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship/upload/forming-consciences-for-faithful-citizenship.pdf.
4 Hying, Bishop Donald J. “How to vote according to our Catholic faith.” The Catholic World Report, September 23, 2020. www.catholicworldreport.com/2020/09/23/how-to-vote-according-to-our-catholic-faith/.
5 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship/upload/forming-consciences-for-faithful-citizenship.pdf.
6 Saint Pope John Paull II. “Veritatis Splendor.” The Holy See, August 6, 1993. www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor.html.
7 Benton, Carina. “Chris Cuomo: Get In The Closet, Serious Christians, Your Kind Aren’t Welcome In Public Life.” The Federalist, October 19, 2020. thefederalist.com/2020/10/19/chris-cuomo-get-in-the-closet-serious-christians-your-kind-arent-welcome-in-public-life/.
8 Benton, Carina. “Chris Cuomo: Get In The Closet, Serious Christians, Your Kind Aren’t Welcome In Public Life.” The Federalist, October 19, 2020. thefederalist.com/2020/10/19/chris-cuomo-get-in-the-closet-serious-christians-your-kind-arent-welcome-in-public-life/.
For Further Reading: