“Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one's country” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2240).
"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. 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" (US Catholic Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n.34).
Unless Jesus and the Blessed Mother are on the ballot, we are always going to be choosing imperfect candidates. In this life, everything -- including politics -- is a messy mixture of good and evil, of virtue and sin, of truth and falsehood.
At the same time, there are always differences that can be found between the candidates. When we feel like one is just as bad as the other, that must not become an occasion to lose interest in the process but rather an occasion for focusing even more effort on learning the positions of the candidates. These candidates need to focus on distinguishing themselves from their opponent. You can be sure there are things they have said and done to highlight the differences, and so one is always going to be closer to our values and viewpoints than the other.
In evaluating this, we look also at the differences between the parties that those candidates represent. Each party is an entire universe of philosophies, ideologies, causes, positions, and people. Each party is a whole army of people who are going to surround and advise the candidate, and fill many positions of influence if that candidate is elected.
For instance, in the case of the presidential race, we have to ask what kind of people this President would nominate to serve on the Supreme Court and the other federal courts. We have to ask what direction they lean towards on the most fundamental issues of life, religious freedom, marriage and family -- and again, what direction their party leans on those issues. Remember, it is not just that the candidate shapes the office; the office also shapes the candidate, and so does the party and its prevailing positions. What kind of people would this President, furthermore, appoint as Surgeon General, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and so many more?
We have to be patient with ourselves and with the process, and carefully choose the person and party who are closest to our values, starting with the most important issues. As the US Bishops stated again at the end of last year in their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” our discernment in voting does have a starting point:
“Decisions about political life are complex and require the exercise of a well-formed conscience aided by prudence. This exercise of conscience begins with outright opposition to laws and other policies that violate human life or weaken its protection. Those who knowingly, willingly, and directly support public policies or legislation that undermine fundamental moral principles cooperate with evil” (n. 31).
Voting is a moral obligation; participation in the political process is a virtue. The US bishops have written, “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. Every voice matters in the public forum. Every vote counts” (Living the Gospel of Life
, n. 34)
Even when we conclude that whichever candidate wins will do damage, the analogy of the runaway train may help us. Imagine that you are at the controls of a runaway train and you cannot stop it. But imagine, too, that what you can do is to change the track that it is on. At the end of one track you know it will kill a large number of people, and at the end of the other track, a small number of people.
What do you do?
Obviously, you do not want it to kill anyone. But you cannot stop the train. In this case, you obviously would change the train to the track where it is going to do the least damage. You are not choosing to kill anyone -- the death and destruction are beyond your intentions and beyond your ability to stop. But you are able to decrease the damage. By changing the train to the track where it will do less damage, you are not choosing evil; you are choosing to limit
evil, and that choice is a good.
Yes, the guidance here is simple: it is the difference between certainty and doubt. Very often elections present us with the choice between a candidate we know we don't want and an alternative about whom we are not sure.
But you don’t have to be certain about how every choice or action of your candidate is going to turn out. If they lean in the right direction, if there is a probability or even a possibility that they will do the right thing and make the right choices, that is better than the certainty of someone who will make the wrong choices. When faced with the choice between a certain evil and a possible good, you choose the possible good.
We have to remember, too, that our vote is not meant to make us feel good. It is meant to influence society in the right direction by helping to get people into public office who will help to make that happen. A vote is not an opinion poll about what we think about the candidate. It is a transfer of power. And it is a gamble. God does not always give us clear, predictable choices. He expects us to use good judgment. And good judgment helps us to avoid evils that are certain, and increase the possibilities for good.
So the bottom line is that we should not skip an election; we should vote. Sometimes we may think that we are doing wrong by voting for either candidate. But we have to consider the fact that we influence the election whether we like it or not. Skipping a vote also influences the election, because it takes a vote away from the better of the two candidates.
So don't sit out the election. Go and vote, and help change the train to the best available track!