A Catholic Vision for Faith and Politics

No one doubts that the national election in 2012 will be contentious and heated.

With the various claims that are inevitably thrown around by candidates and parties, the average person will seek some moral goal posts from which to discern their positions. And though the U.S. bishop’s 2007 document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” will be largely left unchanged, it still provides an opportunity to flesh out what a Catholic vision for faith and politics in the public square ought to look like.

The separation of church and state is the great doctrine of the American experience. However, separation between faith and conscience is not part of that deal. Every Catholic ought to appeal to both. Thus, the bishops write, “The obligation to teach about moral values that should shape our lives, including our public lives, is central to the mission given to the Church by Jesus Christ.”

Quoting Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, the bishops remind us that Christ reveals us to ourselves. The striving for the common good, which is the effort of politics, must have a notion of “the good” to start with. As an expert on the human person by virtue of the Church’s connection to Christ and two millennia of experience, she is uniquely equipped to provide the voter with a vision for the authentic, total and integrated good of the human person and thus the common good.

The bishops are also clear from the start that it is the laity, formed by the Church, who must take the message of the Gospel into the public square. This obligation is given to us at baptism, so that our loyalty is to the Gospel before all political parties and ideologies.

Very practically, the bishops reiterate the simple moral principle that the ends never justify the means. At this point, they mention “intrinsic evils,” which are actions “so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of the persons.”

Pursuit of the common good is impossible if by means of these intrinsic evils. Thankfully, the bishops are explicit about them. They are: abortion, euthanasia, cloning, embryonic-killing research, “genocide, torture, racism, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war.”

It is important to note that the death penalty and war are not on this list of evils. This is not to say that the Church is in favor of either. It only means that there are some circumstances in which they can be justified. Therefore, they are not intrinsically evil. Second, poverty is not on this list. This is because poverty is a state in which one lives. It is not an action. Lastly, the U.S. bishops point out that while these are the hard-and-fast evils that one may never justify for any reason, opposition to them does not exhaust the Catholics’ political spectrum.

The bishops say there are two great errors to be avoided. The first is that all political issues have the same moral weight. For example, farm subsidies and racism ought not to have the same stage in one’s deliberations. The second great error is that opposition to one issue exhausts all one’s political obligations.

This is the error of the “single-issue voter,” which refers to the person who votes for a candidate merely because they hold a particular position on one issue. In Paragraph 42 of “Faithful Citizenship,” we read, “As Catholics we are not single-issue voters.” The Catholic voter is not allowed to ignore the rest of a candidate’s platform as though voting against something is the sum total of political life.

We have a moral obligation to take into account every issue affecting the family, culture, economics and politics — and in that order — as we evaluate a particular candidate. We are still required, say the U.S. bishops, to do something, to act for positive change for the sake of the vulnerable — and not just some of the vulnerable, but for all of them.

However, two sentences later, the document states, “Yet a candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.” While Catholics ought not to support a candidate just because of one issue, Catholics may withhold a vote because a candidate supports an intrinsic evil.

This brings up another important point. With regard to abortion, the goal of Catholic political life is not merely to lower the number of abortions, as though there were an acceptable level. Rather, any “legal system that violates the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is fundamentally flawed.”

This means that the candidate who supports the constitutional right to abortion supports an intrinsic evil no matter how few actual abortions they want to see happen.

Does this mean one is morally obliged to throw support behind the opposing candidate? No.

The opposing candidate could do great damage to the nation. Also, deliberations must extend beyond intrinsic evils. The “Faithful Citizenship” document quotes Pope Benedict XVI saying, “Love for widows and orphans, prisoners and the sick and needy of every kind is as essential to [the Church] as the ministry of the sacraments and the preaching of the Gospel.”

Our political activity as laity, then, must be guided by what we can do to improve the lives of the “needy of every kind.”

This means, therefore, that while we can withhold our support for a candidate or even for a party because of their stance on an intrinsic evil, we must still work with the remaining candidates and parties to make them better meet the needs of the sick, the stranger, the prisoner and the widow.

Christ shall judge us according to how well we fed and clothed and visited, and less according to how many votes we didn’t cast.

Omar Gutierrez works for the Diocese of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes about culture and faith at RegnumNovum.com.