Ten Easy Steps to…
Voting with a Clear Conscience
by Fr. Frank
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election years, Priests for Life has provided important moral guidance to
voters. In a non-partisan manner, we have assisted believers to apply moral
principles to their voting decisions. All human choices, by definition, have
moral dimensions – including the choices we make at the polls.
Fr. Frank Pavone has put together a booklet called “Voting with a Clear
Conscience,” which summarizes the message he delivers around the country
regarding the moral considerations of voting.
meets all legal requirements for distribution by Churches and other 501 (c)(3)
organizations. Click here
for a detailed legal memo from Bopp, Coleson and Bostrom (PDF format).
Having studied the document "Voting
with a Clear Conscience" and the comprehensive legal opinion of
Bopp, Coleson & Bostrom, I concur in the reasoning and
conclusions of both without hesitation or reservation. I
commend this excellent material to all thinking Catholics,
clerical and lay alike.
William P. Clark
California Supreme Court Justice
[Note: Judge Clark served under
President Ronald Reagan as National Security Advisor, Secretary
of the Interior, and Deputy Secretary of State.]
The following questions, among others, are
considered in this booklet:
What do the
Pope and Bishops say about our duty to vote?
What issues are
most important in deciding which candidate to support?
Does the party
of the candidate matter?
What if no
candidate seems right?
This booklet is a
powerful tool for you to use and to give to your friends, your pastor, and your
Complete text of Catholic version
here to read the interdenominational version)
Table of Contents
2. Know the
3. Reject the
Distinguish Policy from Principle.
5. Weigh Other
6. Keep Your
Loyalty Focused on Jesus.
the Party Matters.
Distinguish “choosing evil” from “limiting evil.”
the Candidate With More Than Your Vote.
as Many Voters as Possible!
Appendix: Some Relevant Quotes
If you want to vote in this year’s
elections with a clear conscience, then this booklet was written for you.
Many people want to fulfill their civic responsibilities without feeling
they have to compromise their moral integrity. They want to take part in the
political process, but not get morally stained in the process.
The good news is that you
can fulfill your duty to vote and can also
keep a clear conscience in the process! This booklet will tell
The first step toward voting with
a clear conscience is to make sure you actually vote. Federal elections in
the United States are held on the Tuesday after the first Monday of
November, in even-numbered years. That day should be clearly marked on your
calendar. Jesus calls you to change the world, and you can’t do that if you
just sit on the sidelines while somebody else chooses your leaders who will
then write the laws you have to follow! The duty to vote comes from our duty
to build a better society.
The Catechism of the Catholic
Church says, “Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the
common good make it morally obligatory … to exercise the right to vote”
Pope John Paul II issued his
encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia in 2003. In that document
he teaches about how our faith in the world to come impels us to improve
this world: "Certainly the Christian vision leads to the expectation of
"new heavens" and "a new earth" (Rev 21:1), but this increases, rather than
lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today. I wish to reaffirm
this forcefully at the beginning of the new millennium, so that Christians
will feel more obliged than ever not to neglect their duties as citizens in
this world" (n.20).
In 1998, the United States
Catholic Bishops issued
Living the Gospel of Life, their most comprehensive statement
on the political responsibility of Americans. In that document they made
this plea: “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” (n.
To make sure you are on the road
to fulfilling that duty, you need to keep a few things in mind:
a) Make sure
you are properly registered to vote. At
we have a list of the states and the voter registration deadlines. If you
have moved since the last election, you are probably in a different
district. To be sure, contact your local Board of Elections. You certainly
don’t want to arrive at the voting booth on Election Day only to find that
you’re not registered!
b) Vote in the
Primaries! Another step to voting with a clear conscience is to do
everything in your power to get the right candidates on the ballot in the
first place. While the General Election Day is the same nationwide,
individual states have Primary Election Days on some earlier date. These are
the elections in which we select the candidates who will be on the ballot in
the general election. The Primary in your state may have already occurred
for this year. Be sure you know when the Primaries are in your state (see
and vote in them. On Election Day, many people are not happy with any of the
choices. Part of the problem is that not enough of them voted in the
Primaries, where they had the chance to get the name of a better candidate
onto the ballot!
Ballots. Think ahead, and if you are going to be out of town on Election Day
because of work, vacation, family responsibilities, school, military
service, or some other reason, get an absentee ballot well in advance and
fill it out! Likewise, if you are homebound or in a nursing facility and
will not be able to get to the polls, don’t let that make you lose your
vote! Obtain an absentee ballot right away!
Voting. Some states allow early voting. (To see if yours is one of them,
www.priestsforlife.org/states.) This means that even if you are going to
be in town on Election Day, you can vote within a specific period of time
before Election Day. If
your state has early voting, then vote early! This
will minimize the risk of unforeseen obstacles arising on Election Day, like
illness, car trouble, bad weather, unexpected family or work obligations, or
e) Bring your
voting decisions to prayer. Pray for wisdom and guidance, clarity and
strength as you consider the candidates in the light of the principles
explained here. Pray for the inner freedom to do the right thing in the
2. Know the candidates.
It’s a terrible feeling to be in
the voting booth and to feel like you’re tossing a coin, hoping that the
individual you’re voting for stands for the right values.
Of course, you can vote with a
clear conscience if you know for sure ahead of time
where that candidate stands. It is a moral obligation to do your
homework to learn about the candidate, and the time is now, long before
Candidates have websites you can
visit, campaign headquarters you can call, and literature you can read.
Also, candidates who already hold elected office in which they have voted on
legislation have a voting record. That record is public
information, some of which can be found at
3. Reject the Disqualified.
Suppose a candidate came forward
and said, “I support terrorism.” Would you say, “I disagree with you on
terrorism, but what’s your health care plan?”
Of course not.
Rather, you would immediately
consider that candidate as disqualified from public office. His position,
allowing the killing of the public, is radically inconsistent with public
So it is with abortion. Abortion
is no less violent than terrorism. Any candidate who says abortion should be
kept legal disqualifies him/herself from public service. We need look no
further; we need pay no attention to what that candidate says on
other issues. Support for abortion is enough for us to decide not to vote
for such a person.
Pope John Paul II put it this way:
"Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human
rights -- for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to
culture -- is false and illusory if the right to life, the
most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal
rights, is not defended with maximum determination" (Christifideles
A call for human rights while
claiming authority to take away the most basic right – life – from unborn
children is “false and illusory” precisely because if government can take
away rights from some humans, then those rights aren’t human rights at all.
Such a politician, in other words, is saying that rights like health care
only belong to some humans, not to others.
If a politician cannot respect the
life of a little baby, how is he or she supposed to respect yours?
4. Distinguish Policy from Principle.
There are many issues, but some
are more important than others. The US Bishops make this clear in Living
the Gospel of Life when they explain that the right to life is like the
foundation of a house. It holds up every other issue, because it is the
principle at the heart and core of every effort for justice and peace.
Most disagreements between
candidates and political platforms do not have to do with principle,
but rather with policy. For example, it is a basic principle that
people have a right to the safety of their own lives and possessions. That’s
why we have to fight crime. We don’t see candidates campaigning on opposite
sides of that principle, with some saying, “Fight Crime” and other defending
“The Right to Crime.” Instead, there is agreement on the principle, but
disagreement on the best policies to implement the principle. One
voter concludes that one candidate has a better policy on crime than his
opponent, while a second voter concludes the opposite. Both can vote in good
conscience, because as long as the policy doesn’t break the principle, both
policies may well be morally legitimate. It remains to be seen by trial and
error which works best.
But when a policy dispute involves
questioning whether people deserve that protection in the first place,
the policy is the principle. To allow abortion, which
is the killing of a human child in the womb, is to break the principle that
every human life is sacred and to deny the principle that life deserves
protection. In fact, to allow abortion establishes a different kind of
government, namely, one that claims authority to tamper with human
rights. The basic principle of our government is that “all men are
created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain
unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness. -- That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among
men” (The Declaration of Independence).
When a policy breaks the very
founding principle of government, that is more than an ordinary political
disagreement. That’s why a candidate’s position on abortion is about more
than abortion. It is about the kind of authority government has. It is about
who is ultimately in charge, God or government? It’s about the most
fundamental political question there can be.
Candidates are supposed to
advocate policies that advance the common good and the dignity of the human
person. A candidate who advocates policies that violate those fundamental
principles should not be elected to public office, because he or she
violates the purpose of public office.
Following are examples of
political disputes that are not mere policy disputes, but disputes about
principle. (Note that this is not an exhaustive list.)
a) the killing
of children through legal abortion;
b) the tiniest
humans through destructive embryonic stem cell research;
c) the killing of infants already
partially born (through partial-birth abortion);
d) the killing of the disabled, like
Terri Schiavo, and the advocacy of
euthanasia and assisted suicide;
e) the denial of religious freedom, such
as the freedom of doctors and institutions to refrain from actions they hold
to be immoral;
f) the denial of the natural institution
of marriage as the union of one man and one woman;
g) the denial of the right to
self-government. This denial occurs when candidates view judges and courts
as the final arbiters of public policy, rather than the people themselves,
acting through their duly elected legislators.
Candidates who advocate these errors are
embracing positions that transcend normal political disagreements, and hence
carry far more weight than positions on other policies.
5. Weigh other issues properly.
There are many issues that have to be
considered in elections, but as we have already seen, not all
have equal weight. Once voters have disqualified those
candidates who violate fundamental principles, they need to look at the wide
spectrum of issues affecting the proper care of human life and promotion of
human dignity. The US Bishops mention these issues in
Living the Gospel of Life as well as in the other documents they
issue, as a group or as individual bishops, regarding how to be faithful
citizens. The issues are not simply a list; some are more fundamental than
Living the Gospel of Life
declares, “Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of
war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity
must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment,
education, housing, and health care. Therefore, Catholics should eagerly
involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized in all these
areas. Catholic public officials are obliged to address each of these issues
as they seek to build consistent policies which promote respect for the
human person at all stages of life. But being 'right' in such matters
can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human
life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most
vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the 'rightness' of positions
in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human
community. If we understand the human person as the "temple of the Holy
Spirit" -- the living house of God -- then these latter issues fall
logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. All
direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia,
strike at the house's foundation. These directly and immediately
violate the human person's most fundamental right the right to life. Neglect
of these issues is the equivalent of building our house on sand” (23).
Reflecting the same theme, Living
the Gospel of Life also states, “We must begin with a commitment never to
intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life,
no matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desperate that life may seem”
(n. 21)…”Abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human
life and dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most
fundamental good and the condition for all others” (n. 5).
In particular, many voters have
questions about capital punishment and the waging of war. The Church clearly
urges us to avoid both, but also teaches that at times, both activities can
be morally legitimate. Take, for example, what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
(now Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in a letter in July 2004: “Not all moral
issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. …While the
Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise
discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be
permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to
capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even
among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not
however with regard to abortion and euthanasia” (Letter to Cardinal
The bottom line, in other words, is that
support for war and capital punishment do not automatically or necessarily
violate fundamental moral principles; support for abortion and euthanasia
always do. Therefore, supporting these latter policies is worse.
6. Keep your loyalty focused on Jesus.
When you vote, you say something about
where your loyalties are. There is nothing wrong with being loyal to a
candidate or to a political party. But there is something very wrong if your
loyalty to either is stronger than your loyalty to Jesus Christ. Ask
yourself, "Is there a position that my party can take that would prevent
me from voting the party line?" Framed in another way, the question is, "Is
my loyalty to the Christian faith stronger than my loyalty to any political
In Living the Gospel of Life,
the US Bishops reminded us, "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
Sometimes people vote according to the
party of the candidate, perhaps because that’s a family tradition, or
because some group or friend has asked them to do so. But when is the last
time you read the words of the platform of that party? Don’t you think you
should? (Find the platform texts at
www.PoliticalResponsibility.com.) Platforms change, and if the platform
of that party today contradicts the platform of the Gospel and the moral
law, you need to have the inner freedom to depart from personal,
family, or community tradition and vote instead for the
candidate and party that best reflect God’s law. We are free to belong to
the political party of our choice, but first we belong to Jesus Christ. And
belonging to Him means that there are certain things we can no longer assent
to or go along with, including in politics and the voting booth.
7. Remember, the Party Matters.
Voting with a clear conscience also
means that you consider how the outcome of the election in which you vote
affects the balance of power. In other words, elections do not only put
individual candidates into power; they put political
parties into power. And it is not only the candidates who have
positions. So do the parties.
The same questions, then, that you ask
about the candidates’ positions on fundamental issues have to be asked of
the party. What is the platform of that party? Is it possible that the
balance of power might shift as a result of the outcome of this particular
race? Keep in mind that the party that is in power controls the committees
responsible for initiating legislation. A pro-abortion party will not
normally allow pro-life legislation to come forward, no matter how pro-life
the individual lawmakers may be. Do not just look at whether the candidate
is pro-life. Consider whether or not, if he or she wins, a pro-abortion
party will come into power.
Note: Some people have asked whether
this particular chapter constitutes an endorsement for a particular party.
It does not. It is, rather, a teaching on one of the moral implications of
voting. When we teach about the morality or immorality of human actions, we
have to consider the foreseen consequences of such actions. When a race
could shift the balance of power between parties, that is obviously a
significant, foreseen consequence of one’s action of voting. If we are to
teach about the moral aspects of voting, we have to be able to talk about
that particular consequence. The Church always has to be free to comment on
the morality of particular actions. As we quote later in this booklet, the
Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World
(Gaudium et Spes) states the following: "At all times and in all places, the
Church should have the true freedom to teach the faith, to proclaim its
teaching about society, to carry out its task among men without hindrance,
and to pass moral judgment even in matters relating to politics, whenever
the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it" (n.
8. Distinguish “choosing evil” from “limiting
What happens if two opposing candidates
both support abortion?
First of all, refrain from putting
any labels or endorsements on anyone. Don't call them anything. Or, if
you prefer, call them both pro-abortion. Then just ask a simple question:
Which of the two candidates will do less harm to unborn children if
For example, is either of the candidates
willing at least to ban late-term abortion? Is either of them willing to put
up some roadblocks to free and easy abortion? Will either support parental
notification, or parental consent, or waiting periods? Has either of them
expressed a desire to support pregnancy assistance centers? How about
stricter regulation of abortion facilities? Has either candidate expressed
support for that idea? Nobody is saying that's the final goal. But ask these
questions just to see whether you can see any benefit of one of the
candidates above the other.
One of the two of them will be elected;
there is no question about that. So you are not free right now,
in this race, to really choose the candidate you want. Forces beyond your
control have already limited your choices. Whichever way the election goes,
the one elected will not have the position we want elected officials to have
In this case, it is morally
acceptable to vote for the candidate who will do less harm. This is
not "choosing the lesser of two evils." We may never choose evil.
But in the case described above, you would not be choosing evil. Why?
Because in choosing to limit an evil, you are choosing a good.
You oppose the evil of abortion, in
every circumstance, no matter what. You know that no law can legitimize even
a single abortion, ever. If the candidate thinks some abortion is OK,
you don't agree.
But by your vote, you can keep the worse
person out. And trying to do that is not only legitimate, but good. Some may
think it's not the best strategy. But if your question is whether it is
morally permissible to vote for the better of two bad candidates, the
answer -- in the case described above -- is yes.
Cardinal John O’Connor, in a special
booklet on abortion, once wrote about this problem, “Suppose all
candidates support ‘abortion rights’? … One could try to determine whether
the position of one candidate is less supportive of abortion than that of
another. Other things being equal, one might then morally vote for a less
supportive position. If all candidates support "abortion rights" equally,
one might vote for the candidate who seems best in regard to other issues”
(1990, “Abortion: Questions and Answers”).
In this context, the question also
arises as to whether one is required to vote for a third candidate who does
not have a strong base of support but does have
the right position. The answer is, no, you are not required to
vote for this candidate. The reason is that your vote is not a
canonization of a candidate. It is a transfer of power.
You have to look concretely at where the power is really going to be
transferred, and use your vote not to make a statement but to help bring
about the most acceptable results under the circumstances.
Of course, our conscience may be telling
us, “Don’t say it’s impossible to elect the candidate who doesn’t have a
strong base of support.” Of course, it is possible to elect almost anyone
if the necessary work is done within the necessary time. God
doesn’t ask us to base our choices on “the possibility of miracles,” but
rather on solid human reason. The point is that if there’s a relatively
unknown but excellent candidate, the time to begin building up support
for that person’s candidacy is several years before the election, not
several months. What you have to ask as Election Day draws near is
whether your vote is needed to keep the worse candidate (of the two, less
acceptable but more realistic choices) out of office.
9. Support the candidate with
more than your vote!
Another thing that will help you vote
with a clear conscience on Election Day is to know that you did a lot of
other things to help the candidate you are voting for. In other words,
voting for the right candidate should be the culmination of a whole list of
things you do to help get him or her into office. These things include
donating to the campaign, volunteering for the campaign, handing out
literature for the candidate, making phone calls and visits on the
candidate’s behalf, sending emails, using yard signs and bumper stickers,
and praying for the candidate.
Elections, after all, are not contests
between two candidates. They are contests between two teams. And it is the
team that has more active members doing all these things that, in the end,
will bring in the most votes.
There is also a follow-up phase to
elections, and that is to lobby those who are elected. When you vote for
candidates, also resolve that you are going to keep the pressure on them
after they are elected. You gave them power by showing up and voting. After
they are in office, keep showing up to make sure they use that power the
right way. If they don’t, then pressure them; if they do, then back them up.
10. Mobilize as many other
voters as possible!
Each of us has one vote, but each of us
can mobilize hundreds, even thousands of votes. That’s the secret to helping
the right people win elections: you simply need to get more people to vote
for them. Remember that many people are not paying nearly as much attention
to the elections as you are, and even less attention to the candidates and
their positions. Many who trust you will accept your guidance about the
importance of voting for a particular candidate. Don’t be afraid to use that
As Election Day draws near, focus on the
“low-hanging fruit.” Remember, the numbers are what counts. You have a
limited amount of time to try to garner as many votes as possible. It’s much
like going into an orange grove, with the goal of gathering as many oranges
as you can in a limited amount of time. It doesn’t make sense to expend time
and energy climbing to the top of the trees to get the oranges there when
you can get many more that are within arm’s reach with much less time and
energy. Reach for the low-hanging fruit!
So it is with elections. Rather than
spend hours trying to convince one person to vote the right way, spend that
time and energy reminding dozens of people – who are already in agreement
with you on the issues – to get out and cast their vote. Don’t go looking
for the personal victory of catching the “hard to get” voter. Go catch the
easier ones and bring the candidate to victory!
If you can take the day off on Election
Day, do so. Spend the day contacting people by phone and email, reminding
them to vote. Maybe a friend needs a ride to the polls or someone to watch
the children while they go to vote. If you call a friend in the morning to
remind him to vote, call him again later to verify that he did so!
Having done all this, rejoice in a clear
conscience, and trust the Lord to bring about the victory for a Culture of
Some Relevant Quotes
The following quotes from various Church
documents and Cardinals echo and develop the themes mentioned above.
Second Vatican Council:
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes)
"At all times and in all places, the
Church should have the true freedom to teach the faith, to proclaim its
teaching about society, to carry out its task among men without hindrance,
and to pass moral judgment even in matters relating to politics,
whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires
it" (n. 76).
Pope John Paul II: Apostolic
Exhortation The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the
Church and in the World (Christifideles Laici), 1988:
"The inviolability of the person, which
is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and
fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the
common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights -- for
example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture -- is
false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental
right and the condition of all other personal rights, is not defended with
maximum determination“ (19).
Pope John Paul II: Encyclical
Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), 1995
“This view of freedom leads to a serious
distortion of life in society. If the promotion of the self is understood in
terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting
one another … At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to
bargaining: even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life.
“[A]t the level of politics and
government: the original and inalienable right to life is questioned or
denied on the basis of a parliamentary vote or the will of one part of the
people—even if it is the majority. This is the sinister result of a
relativism which reigns unopposed: the "right" ceases to be such, because it
is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person, but is
made subject to the will of the stronger part. In this way democracy,
contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of
totalitarianism. The State is no longer the "common home" where all can live
together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is
transformed into a tyrant State, which arrogates to itself the right to
dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenseless members, from the
unborn child to the elderly, in the name of a public interest which is
really nothing but the interest of one part. … Really, what we have here is
only the tragic caricature of legality; the democratic ideal, which is only
truly such when it acknowledges and safeguards the dignity of every human
person, is betrayed in its very foundations: "How is it still
possible to speak of the dignity of every human person when the killing of
the weakest and most innocent is permitted? In the name of what justice is
the most unjust of discriminations practiced: some individuals are held to
be deserving of defense and others are denied that dignity?" When this
happens, the process leading to the breakdown of a genuinely human
co-existence and the disintegration of the State itself has already begun.
“To claim the right to abortion,
infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law, means to
attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of an
absolute power over others and against others. This is the death of
true freedom” (n.20).
Sacred Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith: Doctrinal Note On some questions regarding the
participation of Catholics in political life, 2002
“[A] well-formed Christian conscience
does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law
which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals” (n.4).
Pontifical Council for Justice
and Peace (Vatican City): The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the
“The first right…is the right to life,
from conception to its natural end, which is the condition for the exercise
of all other rights” (155). “The dignity of the human person…is the
foundation of all the other principles and content of the Church’s social
“It is difficult for the concerns of the
Christian faith to be adequately met in one sole political entity; to claim
that one party or political coalition responds completely to the demands of
faith or of Christian life would give rise to dangerous errors. Christians
cannot find one party that fully corresponds to the ethical demands arising
from faith and from membership in the Church. Their adherence to a political
alliance will never be ideological but always critical; in this way the
party and its political platform will be prompted to be ever more
conscientious in attaining the true common good, including the spiritual end
of the human person” (573)
(Blessed) Mother Teresa (Nobel
Lecture, delivered the day after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, 1979,
“The greatest destroyer of peace is
abortion … Many people are very, very concerned with the children of India,
with the children of Africa where quite a number die, maybe of malnutrition,
of hunger and so on, but many are dying deliberately by the will of the
mother. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today. Because
if a mother can kill her own child, what is left for me to kill you and you
to kill me? There is nothing in between.”
United States Conference of
Catholic Bishops: Living the Gospel of Life (1998, document of the full
body of bishops)
“We cannot simultaneously commit
ourselves to human rights and progress while eliminating or marginalizing
the weakest among us. Nor can we practice the Gospel of life only as a
private piety. American Catholics must live it vigorously and
publicly, as a matter of national leadership and witness, or we will not
live it at all. (20)
“Bringing a respect for human dignity to
practical politics can be a daunting task. There is such a wide spectrum of
issues involving the protection of human life and the promotion of human
dignity. Good people frequently disagree on which problems to address, which
policies to adopt and how best to apply them. But for citizens and elected
officials alike, the basic principle is simple: We must begin with a
commitment never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any
innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desperate
that life may seem. (21)
“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. 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
United States Conference of
Catholic Bishops: Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to
Political Responsibility (2007)
“Two temptations in public life can
distort the Church’s defense of human life and dignity: The first is a moral
equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of
issues involving human life and dignity. The direct and intentional
destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until
natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must
always be opposed. “The second is the misuse of these necessary moral
distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to
human life and dignity.” (n.27-29)
In the Catholic Tradition, responsible
citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral
obligation. This obligation is rooted in our baptismal commitment to follow
Jesus Christ and to bear Christian witness in all we do. As the Catechism of
the Catholic Church reminds us, “it is necessary that all participate, each
according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This
obligation is inherent in the dignity of the human person. . . . As far as
possible citizens should take an active part in public life” (nos.
As Catholics, we should be guided more
by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a 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 we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths. We are called to bring
together our principles and our political choices, our values and our votes,
to help build a better world. (n.14)
In our nation, “abortion and euthanasia
have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack
life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all
others” (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 5). (n. 22).
Cardinal John O’Connor,
Archbishop of New York: Abortion – Questions and Answers, 1990
“Bishops have every right and duty to be
involved in public policy, which is a different thing altogether from
politics, both because they are bishops and because they are American
“All citizens should express themselves
on the moral dimensions of public policy issues. Those citizens who are
generally perceived as "moral leaders," such as the bishops, have a special
obligation to do so. People expect bishops to denounce unjust war and
aggression, to plead for the homeless, to denounce drug traffic, racism and
so on. Bishops are criticized if they remain silent about such issues.
“Why are bishops criticized only when
the public policy question involves abortion? Why would I be praised for
encouraging the mayor, the governor, the Congress and the president to
intensify the war on drugs, but criticized if I urge the same regarding
“Actually, many bishops find that local
political leaders want to involve them, the bishops, in various public
policy matters, rather than vice versa. Political leaders want bishops
involved in community action. It is, again, only when abortion is involved
that some political leaders complain about bishops.
“This brings up the "single issue"
question. Bishops are told they should not criticize a political candidate
for simply being "proabortion," or favor a candidate simply for being
"pro-life." It is argued that a candidate's entire record, his or her entire
set of attitudes must be considered.
“There are several things to be said
about this. First, with the staggering increase in abortion in less than 20
years, other issues, important as they are, are secondary to this direct
taking of human life.
“Secondly, in regard to many other
issues, the question is one of public policy strategy, a question of the
best way to do things. But abortion is not a question of mere strategy, or
of how best to accomplish a particular public policy objective.
Abortion—every abortion—is the destruction of human life. There is no "best
way" of destroying human life. That is an absolute.
“For example, everyone can argue that we
need a stronger police force. How is that achieved? That's a matter of
strategy. For example, some might recommend raising taxes. Others believe
that higher taxes will ruin the economy and result in a very high rate of
unemployment. Are they right or wrong? That's an economic judgment more than
it's a moral judgment. Many such examples could be given.
“In reality, aren't "single issues"
always driving forces in American political life? Doesn't the state of the
economy or employment strongly influence thinking? Could any candidate win
office today who favored a return to slavery, even if he had a wonderful
record in regard to all other issues? Could a candidate win who supports
drug traffic? Suppose a candidate said the vote should be withdrawn from
women? Clearly, these are "single issues" which many people consider serious
enough that no other qualities of a candidate would compensate. Why is it
wrong, then, to look at abortion in this light, if one believes that
abortion is the taking of innocent life?
“As a matter of fact, an interesting
development has taken place since the famous Webster decision of the United
States Supreme Court, which gave states new latitude in restricting
abortions. The very day the decision was announced, leaders of the
pro-abortion movement were threatening political office holders on national
television: "Take away our right (to abortion), and we will take away your
job." That is certainly a "single issue" approach! We have seen a boycott
threatened against a potato crop, then against an entire state because of
proposed legislation restricting abortion. On May 28, 1990, The New York
Times reported that the National Abortion Rights Action League "has jumped
into" a certain state's gubernatorial race, vowing to defeat the only
candidate who opposes abortion. This was generally perceived as a call for
"single issue" voting. This phenomenon has clearly swept the country in the
“In a day in which it can prove very
embarrassing to a candidate if it is learned that he belongs to a country
club that excludes blacks or women, it should be reasonable enough to ask a
candidate if he excludes the right to life to the unborn. Strange. He can
not be "pro-choice" about a country club, but he can be "pro-choice" about
human life” (1990, “Abortion: Questions and Answers”)
Statements from Cardinal Joseph
Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, who was the chief spokesperson on the
Consistent Ethic of Life.
In 1984, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the
most well-known spokesperson regarding the consistent ethic of life, had
this to say about the role of the statements of the US Bishops’ Conference
regarding faithful citizenship: "The purpose is surely not to tell
citizens how to vote, but to help shape the public debate and form personal
conscience so that every citizen will vote thoughtfully and responsibly. Our
"Statement on Political Responsibility" has always been, like our "Respect
Life Program," a multi-issue approach to public morality. The fact that this
Statement sets forth a spectrum of issues of current concern to the Church
and society should not be understood as implying that all issues are
qualitatively equal from a moral perspective…As I indicated earlier, each of
the life issues—while related to all the others—is distinct and calls for
its own specific moral analysis" (A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the
Dialogue, The William Wade Lecture Series, St. Louis University, March
Cardinal Bernardin also explained,
"A consistent ethic of life does not equate the problem of taking life
(e.g., through abortion and in war) with the problem of promoting human
dignity (through humane programs of nutrition, health care, and housing).
But a consistent ethic identifies both the protection of life and its
promotion as moral questions" (Wade lecture, as above). "The
fundamental human right is to life—from the moment of conception until
death. It is the source of all other rights, including the right to health
care" (The Consistent Ethic of Life and Health Care Systems, Foster
McGaw Triennial Conference, Loyola University of Chicago, May 8, 1985).
On Respect Life Sunday, 1 October 1989,
Cardinal Bernardin issued a statement entitled "Deciding for Life," in which
he said, "Not all values, however, are of equal weight. Some are more
fundamental than others. On this Respect Life Sunday, I wish to emphasize
that no earthly value is more fundamental than human life itself. Human life
is the condition for enjoying freedom and all other values. Consequently, if
one must choose between protecting or serving lesser human values that
depend upon life for their existence and life itself, human life must take
precedence. Today the recognition of human life as a fundamental value is
threatened. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of elective abortion.
At present in our country this procedure takes the lives of over 4,000
unborn children every day and over 1.5 million each year."