Vote as Though Life, Religious Freedom, Marriage and the Family Depend Upon It

Here are three essential areas that every Catholic — indeed, every faithful Christian — should keep in mind during the election.

Voters cast their ballots in the voting booths at the early vote location at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center in North Charleston, South Carolina, on Oct. 16.
Voters cast their ballots in the voting booths at the early vote location at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center in North Charleston, South Carolina, on Oct. 16. (photo: LOGAN CYRUS / AFP via Getty Images)

On Nov. 3, a deeply consequential election is being held in the United States of America. In many states, early voting is well underway. I urge everyone reading this column to exercise your right to vote and to do so with a fully-formed conscience and in a morally coherent manner. 

Catholics too often succumb to what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council warned of in the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes). They wrote: “This split between the faith which many profess, and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age” (43).

Faith and life must come together for Catholics. The full deposit of faith must be guarded, and it must inform every area of our life. That includes our voting. This overriding insight was elaborated upon in 2002 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its excellent teaching on the Participations of Catholics in Political Life:

The social doctrine of the Church is not an intrusion into the government of individual countries. It is a question of the lay Catholic’s duty to be morally coherent, found within one’s conscience, which is one and indivisible. There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called ‘spiritual life’, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called ‘secular’ life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social responsibilities, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture. The branch, engrafted to the vine, which is Christ, bears its fruit in every sphere of existence and activity.

We need to vote, as Catholic citizens, in a manner that is morally coherent. I will now share with you three essential areas that every Catholic, indeed every faithful Christian, should keep foremost in their mind as they vote. 


The Preeminent Moral Mandate: The Right to Life

The most important foundational teaching and principle of Catholic social teaching is that every human life is sacred from conception to natural death, because every man and woman is created in the image of God. Further, there is a fundamental right to life, which is confirmed in the natural moral law, the Sacred Scripture, and the unbroken Tradition of the Catholic Church. Every civil law must respect that fundamental human right to life, or such a law is an unjust law.

Every human person is created in the image of God. Because of that, they have an inherent dignity at every age and stage of their lives. This truth is what informs our respect for every human life, whether that life is found in the first home of the womb, a wheelchair, a jail cell, a hospital room, a hospice, a senior center, a soup kitchen or on a refugee boat. And, in future installments, we will touch on many of these matters.

However, the right to life position is, in one sense, not about an issue at all. Nor are those who hold it “single issue voters.” It is the Preeminent Moral Mandate. The pro-life position is also a worldview, a lens through which we should view every political, cultural, social and economic issue. It should inform every aspect of our participation in society — especially the exercise of our citizenship.

The right to life is the foundation for every human right. The language often used in the political discussion surrounding legal abortion reveals an Orwellian newspeak which is polluting our public discourse. We should never use phrases such as “abortion rights.” Abortions do not have rights; only human persons have rights. The first right is the right to life.

Every procured abortion is the taking of innocent human life and is always and everywhere intrinsically immoral. Without the right to life, there are no other rights, and the infrastructure of rights is thrown into jeopardy. Human rights are goods of human persons. When there is no human person to exercise them, all the rhetoric extolling them is nothing but empty air and sloganeering.

Every procured abortion is intrinsically immoral, always and everywhere wrong. Thus, our absolute opposition to legalized abortion must be the preeminent issue in casting our vote. Any candidate or political party that promotes abortion is precluded from any further consideration for a Catholic voter.

That individual or party may embrace other policies that seem supportive of other related issues arising out of our respect for the sanctity of life, but if their stance is that abortion is ever acceptable and should be promoted, any other positive life values become moot. If one promotes the idea that an unborn person has no right to life, then what other right is of any consequence? That person’s life has been terminated.

I urge the faithful to realize that anyone who directly promotes abortion is not acceptable for leadership in our society. I realize that eliminates a vast number of potential leaders from our consideration as faithful Catholics, but we must hold firm and do all we can to only support political leaders who respect and protect the fundamental right to life of the unborn. And, they must listen to our voice.


The Right to Religious Freedom 

In his World Peace Day message for 1988, Pope St. John Paul II said:

Religious freedom, an essential requirement of the dignity of every person, is a cornerstone of the structure of human rights, and for this reason an irreplaceable factor in the good of individuals and of the whole of society, as well as of the personal fulfillment of each individual. It follows that the freedom of individuals and communities to profess and practice their religion is an essential element for peaceful human coexistence. […] The civil and social right to religious freedom, inasmuch as it touches the most intimate sphere of the spirit, is a point of reference for the other fundamental rights and in some way becomes a measure of them.

This emphasis on religious freedom ran throughout the late pope’s teaching magisterium. It was demonstrated early in his service to the Church, for example, then-Bishop Karol Wojtyla’s actions at the Second Vatican Council. He made five interventions during the discussions that helped to formulate the final Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), which was promulgated by Pope St. Paul VI on Dec. 7, 1965.

This is all in keeping with his rich understanding of the essential connection between truth and freedom as discussed throughout “The Splendor of Truth” (Veritatis Splendor) where John Paul warns of the “death of true freedom” (40). It is also addressed repeatedly in “The Gospel of Life” (Evangelium Vitae) where he writes of freedom’s “essential link with truth” and “inherently relational dimension” (19).

In his encyclical letter on “Faith and Reason” (Fides et ratio), he wrote:

It is not just that freedom is part of the act of faith: it is absolutely required. Indeed, it is faith that allows individuals to give consummate expression to their own freedom. Put differently, freedom is not realized in decisions made against God. For how could it be an exercise of true freedom to refuse to be open to the very reality which enables our self-realization? Men and women can accomplish no more important act in their lives than the act of faith; it is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth and chooses to live in that truth (13).

As the Second Vatican Council affirmed:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. “The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right (2).

The candidates’ stand on religious freedom must be paramount in our choices in the ballot box. The persecution of faithful Christians, across the confessional spectrum, is obvious to anyone who cares about religious freedom. It is getting worse. The growing hostility toward the symbols of our religious heritage, the mocking of the values informed by religious faith and the overt and open hostility toward people of faith and religious institutions is increasing. It must be exposed and opposed. 


Vote for Candidates who Respect Marriage and the Family

Next, let us turn to the urgent challenge of defending the first and most vital cell of society, marriage, and the family and social order founded upon it.

In a 2016 interview, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra disclosed a letter he had received years earlier from Sister Lucia, then the last surviving visionary of the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima. Cardinal Caffarra wrote: 

The final battle between the Lord and the kingdom of Satan will be about marriage and the family.’ Do not be afraid,’ she added, ‘because whoever works for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be fought against and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue.’ Then she concluded: ‘nevertheless, Our Lady has already crushed his head.’

Pope St. John Paul II, the Pope of the Family, wrote and spoke repeatedly about the attacks on marriage and the family. He also affirmed their essential and unchangeable nature. Those attacks on marriage and the family have now reached a fever pitch. This is evident particularly in the West, where marriage has been redefined to a point where it is no longer even discernible. And, those who stand in defense of marriage and the family are increasingly being disparaged and confronted with soft persecution.

The attack on marriage and the family rages all around us. It is a part of a broader cultural struggle — a clash of worldviews — personal and corporate — and competing definitions of human freedom, human dignity and the path to true happiness and human flourishing. We are involved in a contest over the foundations of what constitutes a truly human and just social order.

As Catholic Christians, we must insist that marriage between one man and one woman, intended for life, open to life — and the family and social order founded upon it — has been inscribed by the Divine Architect into the order of the universe. That is because they have. Truth does not change. People and cultures do — sometimes for good and sometimes for bad.

As for the position of the Catholic Church on marriage, it is crystal clear. Marriage between one man and one woman — indissoluble, unitive and always open to procreation — forms the foundation for the family, and the family forms the foundation of both the Church and the civil society. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Catholic Church explained it well in 2003:

The Church's teaching on marriage and on the complementarity of the sexes reiterates a truth that is evident to right reason and recognized as such by all the major cultures of the world. Marriage is not just any relationship between human beings. It was established by the Creator with its own nature, essential properties and purpose.
No ideology can erase from the human spirit the certainty that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman, who by mutual personal gift, proper and exclusive to themselves, tend toward the communion of their persons. In this way, they mutually perfect each other, in order to cooperate with God in the procreation and upbringing of new human lives.


Marriage and Family as God’s Loving Plan

Faithful Catholics and other Christians should vote only for men and women who will respect and protect marriage and the family. For the Jewish and Christian believer, from the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis (which means beginning) we discover the loving plan of God for marriage revealed in the context of the creation account. God fashioned man in his own image saying, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” (Genesis 1:26).

The early Fathers of the Christian Church noted that the plural language in the creation account points to the Trinitarian nature of God. Though God is One, the Christian faith proclaims that God is a loving Trinity of persons in the perfect unity of perfect love. The Father, Son and Spirit are a gift to one another. The Oneness of God is not solitary, but rather the perfection of Divine Love, being given away to the other, in the reciprocity of the Trinitarian communion.

In the second chapter of Genesis we read, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). The two, male and female, coming together in marriage to become one, reflects this unity in communion. We are, by both nature and grace, social. The mutual expression of love, as gift to the other, lived within marriage, opens the married couple to participation in God’s loving plan. If marriage is embraced as a Christian vocation, it also leads them to holiness, includes them in the gift of creation through procreation, and draws them into a partnership of love which births a family.

Marriage is intended to be a lifelong, indissoluble union of the spouses, male and female, always open to life and formative of family. Family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is not only the first and most vital cell of society — it is the first school, first church, first hospital, first economy, first government and first mediating institution.


Marriage is the Future

Our convictions and claims concerning the nature and ends of marriage are not outdated notions of a past era but provide the path to building a strong future for society. Nor is our position defending marriage as solely possible between one man and one woman simply a religious position. There is a natural moral law which can be known by all men and women through the exercise of reason.

Marriage is not unique to Christianity; it is revealed by that natural moral law as a good for all of humanity. It has been so recognized across cultures for millennia. That natural moral law is the ground upon which every great civilization has been built. It is the source for every great and authentic human and civil rights movement. The natural moral law gives us the moral norms we need to build truly human and just societies and govern ourselves. It should inform our positive or civil law, or we will become lawless and devolve into anarchy.

Civil institutions do not create marriage. Neither can they create some new “right to marry” for those whose relationships are incapable of achieving the ends of marriage. Government has long regulated marriage for the common good. For example, the ban on polygamy. And age requirements were enforced to ensure that there was a mature decision as the basis of the marriage contract.

Marriage is the first society into which children are to be born, learn to be fully human, grow in virtue, flourish, and take their proper role in families and communities. We must not be afraid to make the claim that children have a right to a mother and a father. They do. Of course, we should also care about the single parent family and the many broken homes which characterize this age.

However, their existence does not change the norm necessary for building a stable and healthy society — two-parent, marriage-bound families. Intact marriages and families are the glue of a healthy and happy social order. Faithful Catholics and other Christians must become a visible, palpable reflection of this truth about marriage and family in our own lives. To live a faithful marriage is now countercultural.


Male and Female

In the creation account found in the First Chapter of the Book of Genesis we also read these vitally important words: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Our sexual difference as male and female is a gift — and a given. To reject the gift is to reject the Giver.

We do not choose to be male or female. We receive it as a gift, or we reject it. The notion that we can choose our sexual identification as male or female is but one more manifestation of the rebellion that started in the garden with Adam and Eve when they turned away from God’s loving plan.

When our first parents succumbed to the lie that they could determine for themselves what is good and what is evil, the separation from God began. In theological terms, we call that sin. It is both an offense against God’s loving plan and a wrong exercise of human freedom. Only a Savior could bridge that separation. Thank God that he sent one. His name is Jesus the Christ.

In his defense of marriage, Jesus referred to this Genesis account in insisting on the indissolubility of marriage:

From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and … the two shall become one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let not man put asunder (Mark 10:5-9; cf. Matthew 19:4-9; Luke 16:18).

To reject sexual difference is to reject God’s gift. Difference is not inequality of worth. Rather, it enables the gift of self to the other and a reciprocity, an exchange, which elevates us all. Vote as though life, religious freedom, marriage and the family depend upon it — because they do.

Rebecca Shah (l) and Ambassador Sam Brownback

Ambassador Sam Brownback and Rebecca Shah (Season 4 — Ep. 5)

Our guests on this episode of Religious Freedom Matters are Sam Brownback, a former U.S. senator and Kansas governor who served as the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom from 2018 to 2021, and Rebecca Shah, principal investigator for the Religion and Economic Empowerment Project (REEP) and a senior fellow at the Archbridge Institute.