Voting with a Catholic Conscience
Bishop Howard J. Hubbard
Bishop of the
Diocese of Albany, NY
Statement for the month of October 2008, posted on the Diocesan website
Every four years since 1976, the bishops of the United States have issued a political responsibility statement designed to encourage our Catholic people to participate in the civic life of our nation by educating ourselves to the issues confronting our society, by discerning how the moral and social teachings of the Church inform these issues, by examining through this prism where candidates stand on these issues and, then, with prayer and an informed conscience, by casting our ballot, as well as by continuing to advocate with our elective representatives for policies that contribute to a just and humane society.
Voting and advocacy with an informed conscience are both a civic and moral responsibility. They also provide a complex challenge because rarely, if ever, does any candidate or any political party reflect fully the Church’s comprehensive commitment to the life and dignity of every person from conception to natural death.
Therefore, it often requires a prudential discernment on our part as to which candidate and policies will do the most good or cause the least harm.
It should be noted that our statement, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” is not a “voter guide.” We bishops do not seek to tell people for whom to vote. Nor is it a guide to the positions of candidates or parties. Rather, this document addresses key themes from Catholic social teaching and their implications for decision-making in public life.
Our role as bishops, in other words, is not that of endorsing candidates or engaging in partisan politics. It is the teaching role of helping people form their consciences so that we can make informed and sound moral judgments in fulfilling our cherished right and solemn duty as voting, and engaged citizens in a pluralistic democracy.
Unfortunately, politics in our country often can be a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites and media hype.
The Church calls for a different kind of political engagement: one shaped by the moral convictions of a well-formed conscience and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good and the protection of the weak and the vulnerable.
The Catholic call to faithful citizenship affirms the importance of political participation and insists that public service is a worthy vocation.
As Catholics, we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a particular political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that neglects or denies fundamental Christian values and moral truths.
Catholic social teaching with its themes of the sacred dignity of the human person, the solidarity we have as members of the human family, a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, the dignity of human labor and the need to care for God’s creation provides us with a moral framework for how we as Catholics should approach assessing candidates and issues.
The issues we bishops urge people to consider in casting their ballot range from abortion to euthanasia; from human cloning to embryonic stem cell research; from terrorism and torture to genocide and the death penalty; from the sacred dignity of work to the sanctity of the bond of a marriage between a man and a woman; from immigration reform to health care reform; from sexism to racism; from affordable housing to homelessness; from global climate change to national and international poverty, just to mention a few.
We must weigh these issues in a fashion that neither treats all issues as moral equivalents (for example, giving abortion and racism the same moral status as the federal standard for the minimum wage or the best policies to combat global warming) nor reduces Catholic social teaching to one or two issues. Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil.
As Faithful Citizenship teaches, “those who knowingly, willingly and directly support public policies or legislation that undermine fundamental moral principles cooperate with evil. Voting for candidates who hold such an unacceptable position would be permissible only for grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or position preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.”
A Catholic, in other words, cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. Opposing intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our conscience and voting for such a candidate would be permissible only for serious reasons.
This position articulated in Faithful Citizenship is consistent with that of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) who, in 2004, wrote that “when a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”
No easy way
At the same time, Faithful Citizenship notes “a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important issues involving human life and dignity.” Ultimately, the decision for whom to vote must be guided by a conscience formed by Gospel values and Catholic moral teaching.
In anticipation of November 4, I urge the Catholics of our Diocese to read “Forming Catholic Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” (www.faithfulcitizenship.org).
This statement is an excellent primer on the major themes of Catholic social teaching, the issues confronting our contemporary society and how to make moral choices in a world of great complexity.
To the extent we do this, we will fulfill the intent we bishops have to promote a renewed kind of politics in our nation, one that is focused:
more on moral principles than on the latest polls;
more on the needs of the weak than on the benefits to the strong;
more on the pursuit of the common good than on the demands of narrow self interests.
This, I believe is the kind of political participation which reflects both the social teaching of our Church and the best traditions of our nation.
Faithfully yours in Christ, Howard J. Hubbard Bishop of Albany