Catholic and Civic Witness, Election-Year Issues

A REGISTER EXPLAINER: It is important to consider how Catholics can form their consciences properly through the lens of faith as they prepare to vote and assess all the obligations of being faithful citizens

2020 Elections
2020 Elections (photo: Shutterstock / SS)

Self-identified Catholics make up 22% of national voters. Although these voters are not a monolith, for nine out of the past 10 presidential elections, the majority of Catholics voted for the winner. That means as Election Day fast approaches, Catholics across the country are poised to play a significant role in deciding who will win on Nov. 3. The question becomes: Will Catholics bear Christian witness by their votes?

“In the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation,” the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote in their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”  The obligation to participate in political life is rooted in our baptismal commitment to follow Jesus Christ and to bear Christian witness in all we do.”

Catholics have a right and an obligation to participate in public life — and especially to bring the faith into civic life and public discourse.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict XVI — wrote in the doctrinal note “The Participation of Catholics in Political Life,”  “By fulfilling their civic duties, ‘guided by a Christian conscience’ in conformity with its values, the lay faithful exercise their proper task of infusing the temporal order with Christian values.” 

Given this great responsibility, it is important to consider how Catholics can form their consciences properly through the lens of faith as they prepare to vote and assess all the obligations of being faithful citizens. The most sure and certain guide for forming one’s conscience before voting is provided by the consistent and timeless teachings of the Church that are based on Scripture and Tradition. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it well, “In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church” (1785). Catholics who fail to form their consciences in light of these teachings, especially the moral teachings of the Church, are in danger of serious errors in judgment.

Of course, there needs to be a clear understanding, first, of the moral purpose of civic engagement, which is always to protect the dignity of the human person and advance the common good; and, second, of what are negotiable and non-negotiable elements of the common good, which is why abortion is and must remain, as the U.S. bishops decisively reiterated last November, the preeminent issue for Catholic voters.  

The Catechism names among the elements of the common good: the fundamental and inalienable natural rights of human persons (1907); the basic common goods of society (food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, etc.; 1908); and the stability and security that comes with a just social order (1909).

There are many issues that touch upon the common good that should quite properly be considered when Catholics vote. Among them are some that in light of Catholic teaching and natural moral law are negotiable: immigration, the death penalty, domestic and international peace, economics, health care and the environment. The practical application on how the dignity of the human person and the common good are protected and promoted related to these issues is open to discussion and prudential judgments. While these issues deserve attention, people of goodwill may disagree on the best means to address them.

Non-negotiable issues are those that involve “fundamental and inalienable rights” (1908-1909) related to unequivocal and universal moral truths. The violation of these principles is always morally wrong no matter what the circumstances or motives. Among them are the recognition and promotion of the natural structure of marriage between one man and one woman and the protection of life in all its stages, from conception to natural death, which touches upon the intrinsic evils of euthanasia, assisted suicide, and abortion, which remains, as the U.S. bishops reaffirmed in “Faithful Citizenship,” the preeminent issue of our time. 

Pope St. John Paul II articulated the centrality of the life issues in the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) when he wrote, “It is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop” (101).

The weight of Catholic civic responsibility and the importance of forming consciences compels the Register team to assist our readers in understanding fully the issues facing the country from the standpoint of Catholic teaching. That is why between now and the election we are providing a series of in-depth articles on the major issues of the 2020 campaign and clear and concise commentary on the principles involved in exercising Catholic witness in voting, as well as publishing a “Voter Guide” for 2020 of the major-party presidential candidates on key issues.

Catholics are called to vote wisely, prudently and prayerfully. The U.S. bishops summed up this important responsibility best in the statement “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics”  when they wrote:

“We encourage all citizens, particularly Catholics, to embrace their citizenship not merely as a duty and privilege, but as an opportunity meaningfully to participate in building the culture of life.”

Continued the bishops, “Every voice matters in the public forum. Every vote counts. Every act of responsible citizenship is an exercise of significant individual power. We must exercise that power in ways that defend human life, especially those of God’s children who are unborn, disabled or otherwise vulnerable. We get the public officials we deserve. Their virtue — or lack thereof — is a judgment not only on them, but on us. Because of this, we urge our fellow citizens to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest.”