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Okay, Here’s How You Should Vote

Published in the Rhode Island Catholic, October 2008

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin
Bishop of the Diocese of Providence, RI

“Those who believe that religion and politics aren’t connected don’t understand either.” Those words of Mahatma Gandhi, several decades old, certainly apply to the situation we find ourselves in today as we prepare for our national elections.

As true as Gandhi’s words are, though, they don’t provide much direction for Catholics who want to be faithful citizens of both the Kingdom of God and our nation.

Recently I received a letter from a concerned couple that said in part: “Dear Bishop Tobin . . . We are writing respectfully to ask you to take a more active role in communicating to us our responsibilities and directing our consciences in the upcoming presidential election . . . Unless our leadership leads, how are Catholics supposed to vote as Catholics? We cannot afford an ‘imprudent silence.’”

If you follow my ministry here in Rhode Island at all, you know that I haven’t been shy about speaking out on public affairs, especially when they have moral relevance. In reference to abortion, the specific concern of my letter writers, I’ve written and spoken repeatedly and clearly. Addressing the presidential campaign from a Catholic perspective, however, is a delicate affair, one that’s challenged episcopal brains a lot sharper than mine!

Nonetheless, a little context might help Catholic voters approach the election faithfully and intelligently.

The Bishops of the United States have explained the obligation Catholics have to participate in the political process. In the document Faithful Citizenship, the Bishops have written: “The Church’s obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society is a requirement of our faith. It is a basic part of the mission we have received from Jesus Christ . . . The Catholic community brings moral assets to the political dialogue about our nation’s future.”

The Bishops go on to list “seven key themes” that serve as the framework of our political participation: The Right to Life; Family and Community; Rights and Responsibilities; Option for the Poor; the Dignity of Work and Workers; Solidarity with our Neighbors; and Caring for God’s Creation.

In their document the Bishops reject two very common approaches to the question of voting in good faith: moral equivalency (the belief that all moral issues carry the same weight) and single issue voting (the tendency to focus only on abortion). In other words, while there are many questions we should evaluate in deciding how to vote, the primary moral issue we face today is the right to life and particularly the need to fight against the terrible sin of abortion.

To underline their particular concern about abortion, the Bishops have forcefully stated that, “abortion, the deliberate killing of a human being before birth, is never morally acceptable and must always be opposed.” And as I’ve written previously in this space, while there are many issues the Catholic must consider in forming moral judgments, “Abortion is different. It is always intrinsically evil. There are no circumstances that justify abortion. Its victims are innocent and defenseless, and number in the millions. Abortion is the fallacious foundation upon which the culture of death builds its ugly edifice.” (October 27, 2005)

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago summarized the sad state of affairs this way: “Too many Americans have no recognition of the fact that children continue to be killed by abortion and we live, therefore, in a country drenched by blood. This can’t be something you start playing off pragmatically against other issues.”

Now, that leads us to the question of specific candidates. As has been pointed out many times, there are no perfect “Catholic candidates,” no candidates whose positions exactly reflect all the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. So, we have to consider all the options and make the best choice we can.

Is it possible for a faithful Catholic to vote for a pro-abortion candidate? (And by the way, don’t be misled by the nuanced language you often hear. Candidates who say they aren’t “pro-abortion” but rather “pro-choice” are in fact promoting abortion!) But to answer the question: In theory, yes! Faithful Catholics may in good conscience vote for a pro-abortion candidate if: they’re voting for the candidate for serious moral reasons other than their pro-abortion stance; and if, there are no other viable options.

It’s not my role or that of Church leadership to tell you for whom you must vote. In fact, the attempt to do so is sometimes counter-productive. There have been clear examples across the United States of certain candidates being elected precisely because Church leaders endorsed their opponents. That scenario is especially possible in a place like Rhode Island where party affiliation often trumps allegiance to faith.

Having said that, it is appropriate to remind you of how you must vote. You can never separate your faith from life (including political life) and so it follows closely that you much vote as a person of faith, taking your faith and your conscience with you into the voting booth. You need to support candidates who will promote the common good and uphold basic moral values – beginning with the right to life, especially for unborn children. In that way you can be a “faithful citizen” – of our great nation and of the Kingdom of God.

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I could never vote for a candidate – of any party for any office – who supports laws that promote or allow the death of thousands of children in the hideous crime of abortion. I just don’t want that on my conscience.


Priests for Life
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