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Dr. Samuel Gregg | author
Nov 01, 2008
Filed under Ethics
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Catholics, politics and the challenge of voting

With the 2008 election just around the corner, it’s time for Catholics to start thinking seriously about the candidates they may intend to vote for as president and in Congress. As usual, both political parties are busy appealing to the “Catholic vote.”

Frankly, I’m not sure there is such a thing. Such talk tends to conflate practicing Catholics with those Catholics who attend Mass only for baptisms, first communions and funerals, not to mention those Catholics who have effectively left the Church.

Given the extent to which “identity politics” permeates and disfigures the American political landscape, we probably have to resign ourselves to the fact that American politicians from both main parties will try to spin their message in ways they think will attract Catholic citizens to their various causes.

This means it’s all the more important for faithful Catholics to be clear about the principles of the Catholic faith that ought to inform our Catholic conscience when it comes to voting choices.

The good news is that, with the exception of a relatively small number of issues, Catholics enjoy enormous room for prudential judgment when it comes to their political positions on most questions.

Let’s take economic questions. Some Catholics respectfully maintain that private enterprise and free markets promote the economic dimension of the common good and help the poor better than government programs. Other Catholics disagree. The point is that on almost all economic issues, Catholics are free to advocate different positions precisely because they reflect empirical and prudential judgments reasonably in dispute among well-informed people.

Unfortunately you won’t hear this from a good number of Catholic social justice activists. When pressed, however, they will usually — albeit reluctantly — admit that almost all economic questions, ranging from taxation levels to wages rates, fall squarely into the prudential judgment realm.

In other words, Catholics — including bishops and clergy — are free to disagree among themselves about these matters. What we can’t do is claim that our different positions on, say, the size of the welfare state is the Catholic position.

There are, however, a small number of questions that are non-negotiable for Catholics. No one put it better than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — in a 2004 letter to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C.:

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 with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

So what’s the bottom line? It’s this: Catholics cannot in good conscience — except in rare circumstances — vote for a politician of any party who consistently works and/or votes for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws.

I say “except in rare circumstances.” Perhaps the candidate who stands for life is a well-known and unrepentant wife-beater who should not be elected local dog-catcher, let alone to Congress. Maybe every candidate on the ballot favors permissive anti-life practices.

What does the faithful Catholic do in these difficult conditions? One option might be to abstain. Another may be to decide that there is what the Church calls a proportionate reason for vote for one of these candidates.

By “proportionate reason,” the Church does not mean employing the proportionalist method of moral reasoning (pioneered by dissenting theologians in the 1970s) of attempting to “weigh” competing goods and evils on an imaginary scale.

The great Pope John Paul II condemned such “reasoning” in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) as incompatible with the Catholic faith (i.e., heretical).

A very sound American archbishop explained “proportionate reason” in the following vivid, powerful and direct way. It means that after you die, you think you can look aborted children in the eye when we are judged by God and explain to them — and God — why we voted for politicians who promoted laws allowing innocent human beings to be killed.

I don’t claim to be able to judge the state of any person’s soul. Only the Lord Jesus can do that. But somehow I don’t think pleading that you thought raising the minimum hourly wage from $7 to $8 was more important than protecting innocent human life is going to cut it.

As Catholics, we believe that we are saved through God’s grace, the sacrifice of Christ’s death and the triumph of his Resurrection. But we also believe we can embrace the opposite. Through our actions — including our voting choices — we can freely reject God’s love and enter the eternal separation from God that we call Hell.

That’s not fear-mongering. As St. Thomas More reminds us, the possibility of Hell reflects the fact that God has given us the capacity to deny him and his love. Let’s keep these realities in mind when we vote in 2008.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute and author, most recently, of “The Commercial Society” which was awarded a 2007 Templeton Enterprise Award for outstanding writing on the culture of enterprise.

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