Nowhere do the issues of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. bishops’ call to political responsibility, get more delicate than when the document tackles questions of voting.
In the document, the bishops describe at length a Catholic moral framework that encompasses their priority issues for 2012 —abortion and threats to human life and dignity, religious freedom concerns, efforts to redefine marriage, immigration reform,international peace, and domestic poverty, unemployment and the economic crisis. They describe the nature of these issues and why each is a concern for the Church, essentially why Catholics should care about them.
But then comes the inevitable question: how should Catholics put the pieces together when they go to vote? On this question, it’s best to let the document speak for itself: “The consistent ethic of life provides a moral framework for principled Catholic engagement in political life and, rightly understood, neither treats all issues as morally equivalent nor reduces Catholic teaching to one or two issues.”
This prompts the question, “Wait, so Catholics aren’t supposed to be single-issue voters?”
The bishops answer this squarely, asserting, “As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support.” But then it gets even more interesting: “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.”
Per the possibility of bringing a candidate back from a disqualified state, the bishops say, “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.” They state that this is not a flippant matter: “Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preference or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.”
Of course a voting Catholic’s responsibilities don’t end at avoiding evil; they must also do good. As the bishops note, “a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues of human life and dignity.”
So a candidate who passes the test on big issues doesn’t get a free pass on every other moral question. The bishops list “unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, or an unjust immigration policy” as “serious moral issues that challenge our conscience and require us to act.”
The delicate balance of all of these issues is best summarized as what could be called the “Two Temptations” of Faithful Citizenship:
1. To say that all issues are morally equivalent with no ethical distinctions. This simply isn’t so, say the bishops. For instance, “The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life…is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.”
2. To say that only certain issues matter or, as the bishops phrase it, “the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity.”
Suddenly the challenge of the Catholic voter becomes comparable to navigating a speeding car down a slippery road at night without falling into the ditches on both sides of the road, or like the children’s board game “Operation,” where players use tweezers to remove ailments from a patient without touching the metal sides, setting off a buzzer. This may sound like a daunting task, but it’s a responsibility the bishops have entrusted to every U.S. Catholic. Voting may be only one way Catholics can answer the call to live out their faith in the public square, but accepting its challenge is a powerful way to show that they care.