Focus on ‘the total picture’ when preparing to vote


September 13, 2016

In November 1952, Flannery O’Conner commented in a letter to Sally Fitzgerald, “My mamma and I are on the way to the polls to cancel out each other’s vote.”  Usually it takes another person to cancel one’s vote.  However, sometimes Catholics are faced with a choice between two or more candidates whose policies do not fully reflect Catholic teachings or who seem to lack the gifts of leadership.  In such cases, Catholics feel like their votes may already have been canceled out. What is a Catholic voter to do?

The bishops of the United States once again have offered principles to help Catholic voters. Let me direct you to some of the more helpful sections of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship – A Call to Political Responsibility” from the Catholic bishops as they pertain to this year’s election.

Voters will need to employ the virtue of prudence in a major way this year. “Doing the prudent thing” often may seem to be associated with weaseling out of one’s responsibilities or making excuses to do what one knows is wrong. However, the positive notion of prudence, on the other hand, suggests the ability to deliberate over the available choices (#19). What choice is most fitting? Which would do the least harm, or do the most good, in a specific area?

One must also be aware of the gradation of evils. Not all sins are equally serious. Sometimes sinful actions can be excused, given certain circumstances. Other sinful actions are by nature intrinsically evil. No circumstances can excuse those sins. Sometimes people make no ethical distinctions at all, leading them to dismiss a candidate’s position on very serious issues because the candidate is right on a host of lesser issues. On the other hand, some people focus on one very important issue and treat all others as of no account. These “one-issue” voters need to consider the total picture.

With some effort, voters can become knowledgeable and discerning on the various issues. Often enough, the answers to issues may become clear. But voting on candidates is much more complex. A candidate might propose one policy one day, and a different policy on another day (or before another audience). What to do?

Again, the virtue of prudence comes to the fore. Voters need to make judgments based on “the art of the possible.” (#32) If one chooses among the candidates in order to advance a candidate’s illegitimate agenda, such a vote would be immoral. (#34) In order for one to legitimately vote for a candidate whose policies promote an intrinsic evil, one must have “morally grave reasons” to justify doing so. (#34)  If such morally grave reasons exist and one does not choose a candidate with the purpose of supporting an intrinsic evil, the ill effects of one’s vote are unintended side effects and one can cast such a vote with integrity.  It is essential, however, that voters be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose policies promoting intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions. (#37)

Sometimes, however, voters may face a choice among candidates who all have adopted policies supporting an intrinsic evil.  In such a case, the voter must ask, “Which will be more likely to pursue other authentic human goods?” (#36) Voters will therefore have to consider the likely effects of voting for one candidate over another and take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity and ability to influence a given issue. (#37)

Four principles need to be kept in mind for making that assessment.

First, the dignity of the human person needs to be held sacrosanct. Direct attacks on innocent human life cannot be tolerated. (#44-45)

Second, candidates ought to respect the principle of subsidiarity. Problems ought to be solved at the most local level possible. People closest to the problem ought to be able to fashion a solution that is tailor-made to their circumstances. Only if such solutions fail or are impractical should a higher level of government be involved. (#48)

Third, politicians need to base their policies on the common good. Policies should advance basic human rights, the dignity of human labor and simpler lifestyles that provide for our needs “without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” (#51)

Fourth, candidates need to recognize the solidarity of all people, regardless of “national, racial, ethnic, economic and ideological backgrounds.” (#52) They should demonstrate a preferential option for the poor, not only in directly providing for the destitute, but also in creating economic conditions that allow the poor to work their way out of poverty. (#53-54)

The bishops provide specific discussions of many particular issues in Part II of “Faithful Citizenship.” They cover topics such as the dignity of human life, peace, marriage, religious liberty, immigration and many other issues.

In Part III, the bishops make clear that: “Our focus is not on party affiliation, ideology, economics, or even competence and capacity to perform duties.” (#91) Rather, candidates must advance the dignity of every human life. They close with 10 goals that voters should keep in mind as they cast their votes.

Lastly, the Catholic Church teaches that it is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. An important way this duty is fulfilled is by voting as stated in paragraph 2240 in the Catholic Catechism: “Submission to authority and co-responsibility make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote and to defend one’s country.”

May God be with us in the voting booths this fall!

Read the book! — “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” can be found online at Copies of the booklet, Publication No. 7-528, can be purchased for $4.95 plus shipping and handling, or call 800-235-8722.