Catholic voting in 2020
Vince Mallett | Friday, August 28, 2020
Catholic voters have little to be excited about in this election. President Trump is a foul, lying adulterer who brags about sexually assaulting women, separates immigrant children from their families at the border and uses force against peaceful protestors to score cheap political points, among other atrocities. Former Vice President Biden, on the other hand, is Catholic; he also supports increased federal support for abortion and has been credibly accused of sexual assault. Both of these choices, to the Catholic voter, consist of a person who is promising to commit intrinsically evil acts in office. The most pressing question, in my opinion, is not “How should a Catholic vote?”, but “How can a Catholic vote for anyone?”
This question prompted me to do some research into the Church’s teaching on conscientious voting. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has a long, in-depth exploration of the obligations of the Catholic voter, which I highly recommend reading in its entirety. The USCCB explains Church teaching on the subject in light of American political struggles, which is particularly illuminating for (most of) us. Part of this document focuses on “Making Moral Choices,” such as political policy decisions or voting decisions. Before diving into that topic, I want to address what I see as one potential objection to an underlying assumption here: why does one’s religion affect their political views at all? As the USCCB says, “the obligation to teach the moral truths that should shape our lives, including our public lives, is central to the mission given to the Church by Jesus Christ.” In other words, every action one decides to take, or refrain from taking, should be guided by the moral truth; this includes ‘public actions,’ and therefore one’s views on public policy. In more blunt terms, as the Bishops say, “the political choices faced by citizens not only have an impact on general peace and prosperity but also may affect the individual’s salvation.” If one strives to be a faithful Catholic, one must understand that their religion pervades all other aspects of their life, including politics.
The USCCB puts some hard-and-fast limits on the political activity of faithful Catholics. There are certain actions which are so intrinsically evil that they should never be committed, or even supported; in fact, the Church calls on all its members to denounce such actions, and to work to end them. Those which follow under this category include all which involve violations of the dignity of the human person, including, but not limited to: abortion, racism, euthanasia and cruel treatment of immigrants. If it is not realistically possible for such actions to be ended in their entirety, Catholics should fight for limiting them whenever possible. In an example taken from St. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, no. 73, it is explained that a Catholic politician may work to limit the impact of a pro-abortion law if it cannot be overturned entirely. The Church also admits that a Catholic voter could vote for a politician who unapologetically supports one or more of these evil acts; it is only wrong for a voter to do so “if the voter’s intent is to support that decision.”
In addition to these intrinsically evil acts, there are also significant aspects of human flourishing which Catholics are called on to support in their public lives. Some political topics which involve these issues listed by the USCCB include armed conflict, housing and health care. In these arenas, and others like them, which do not involve acts of intrinsic evil, Catholics are called to recognize four general principles: the dignity of the human person, subsidiarity, the common good and solidarity. The dignity of the human person, in addition to grounding opposition to acts of intrinsic evil, demands that we respect life in all situations, including opposition to the death penalty and unjust war. Subsidiarity involves support for institutions and social groups, as well as the responsibilities of those groups. The common good includes, but is not at all limited to, respecting the rights of workers and caring for the environment. Solidarity is the call to see all of humanity as one family to be protected, respected and cared for.
How could a Catholic voter balance all of these considerations in an election like ours? Both major candidates clearly support acts of intrinsic evil, though they are different evils between the two of them. How do we take that into account, in light of the goods we expect certain candidates to promote? How do we decide which candidate will actually promote the good, and dispel evil?
For the Church, these considerations all boil down to one concept: conscience. Conscience allows Catholics to make difficult moral decisions, such as deciding who to vote for in 2020. One must take into account the various factors, good and evil, which have been discussed; one must learn as much as they can about the various candidates, factions and policies. Most importantly, one must take care that their conscience is “well-formed.” A well-formed conscience is not gut instinct, but a faculty capable of making difficult decisions in light of years of action, prayer and reflection. After all, I can’t tell you to vote for in 2020. Only your conscience can do that — and only you can train your conscience to make the right decisions.
Vince Mallett is a senior majoring in Philosophy, with a minor in Constitutional Studies. He currently lives off-campus, though he calls both New Jersey and Carroll Hall home. He can be reached at [email protected] or @vince_mallett on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.