Each month, The Central Minnesota Catholic features a big question the Church is facing. As Americans prepare for Election Day this fall, September’s question asks, “What’s a good Catholic voter to do?” This month’s discussion features Jason Adkins, executive director of Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Minnesota; Jill Rauh, director of education and outreach for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development; and Bernie Evans, professor emeritus of theology at the St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville.
Q. What does the Church say about Catholics’ involvement in political life and voting? Shouldn’t the Church stay out of politics? Is there any scriptural basis for its involvement?
RAUH: By our baptism, we are each members of Christ’s body and his mission to bring “good news to the poor, liberty to captives, new sight to the blind, and to set the downtrodden free” (Luke 4:18). As disciples of Christ, we are called to be instruments of grace, working to heal the brokenness of the world. Pope Francis tells us in “The Joy of the Gospel” that an authentic faith “always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it.” Therefore, he says, the Church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice” (no. 183).
It is part of our baptismal call to work toward a just ordering of society reflective of God’s vision for the world. The political sphere is where laws and policies are made about how society is ordered, impacting peoples’ ability to live with dignity, so we must engage in the political process — both on Election Day and beyond. In addition to voting, we are called to advocate to our elected officials and be active members of our community who stand in solidarity with those who are most vulnerable. It is essential to our mission in the world.
ADKINS: Pope Francis says that politics is one of the highest forms of charity because it serves the common good. Participating in the political process is an act of loving service or charity (“caritas”) because it is part of our responsibility to love our neighbor (Mark 12:30-31). To love our neighbor means to work for his or her authentic good. Part of working for the good of our neighbors — whether they live near or far, and whether we know them personally or not — is enacting policies that protect human dignity and promote the common good.
In the Church’s social teaching, this responsibility is known as the “call to participation” in community. A community is literally a “sharing of gifts,” and if we do not participate, we deprive the community of our perspective and the gifts that we have been given to share. Certainly, we do not all have the same responsibility, as we have different gifts (1 Corinthians 12:12). So, even though you may not be the elected official who votes yea or nay to enact a law, you can use your gifts to advocate for good policies. We can do this by building relationships with our elected officials. Each of us cannot do everything, but we can all do something.
Relatedly, if we find that there are some who are excluded from political life, including voting, then we have a special responsibility to work for their inclusion (Matthew 25). We must work to give a voice to those who have none, and prioritize the needs of the poor and vulnerable who often don’t have the resources or organization to bring an effective voice to the public policy conversation.
Voting is one small but important part of the call to participation. In a representative government, it is important to carefully choose those who make important decisions on behalf of those whom they represent and the broader political community. But we cannot reduce the call to participation in public life to voting and be content with checking that box.
Taking part in the political process is an activity of service where people come together to discuss how we ought to order our lives together. It should not be a power game. People who object to the Church offering its moral perspective on the issues of the day or the participation of religious people in public life often view politics through the prism of power. In this way, they do not want religious people imposing their views on others who do not share their faith.
Catholics, too, can fall into the trap of viewing politics solely through the lens of power, and not wanting the Church to undermine its ability to reach people with the Gospel by causing stumbling blocks for people. But the Church calls us to see politics through the lens of service and a community conversation about what serves the common good. Therefore, we cannot sit on the sidelines of these important matters.
When we engage in the political process in the right way with the right principles, our witness will be evangelical and bring people closer to Christ. The political arena is mission territory (Matthew 28:20). That is certainly my experience after almost 10 years serving in this position.
Q. The document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” notes the importance of forming our consciences properly. What is conscience? What does it mean to form our consciences properly? How does one go about doing that?
RAUH: The Second Vatican Council described conscience as our most secret core and sanctuary, where the voice of God echoes in our hearts summoning us to love good and avoid evil; do this and shun that (“Gaudium et Spes,” no. 16). But we aren’t born with already-developed consciences. Conscience formation is a lifelong process.
How do we form our conscience, specifically regarding our positions on various issues? First, we must approach issues with an openness to seek the truth. We must study Scripture and Church tradition, examine facts and background information, and consult the advice of experts. All of this must be done prayerfully and in a spirit of discernment. At FaithfulCitizenship.org, Catholics can find several resources from the [U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops] to assist them in the ongoing process of conscience formation.
Q. What principles/values should we take into account when casting our vote? Should Catholic social teaching be our guide?
ADKINS: We need to form our consciences with the right principles, and then inform our votes. Doing so will help transform our legislatures.
The Church does not tell us how to vote in every election. Rather, it provides the principles for shaping our participation in community life. Formed in those principles, we go out and transform the world and restore all things in Christ.
Catholic social teaching is that toolbox of principles. It is not a set of prescriptions or ready-made answers. Instead, it is a mental model for well-formed Catholics to guide their actions. How those principles apply in addressing social problems, or when voting, is a question of prudence. Prudence is a virtue that allows us to do the right thing in the right way at the right time.
Sometimes, Catholics will differ in their prudential judgments, that is, the application of the principles of Catholic social teaching in politics and in elections. That is OK. The key, however, is for Catholics to be operating on the firm foundation of the right principles. To do so, we must form our conscience (conscience means “with knowledge”).
If we fail to form our conscience in the truth of the Church’s teachings, or malform our conscience with the opinions of TV news talking heads, we will not only fail to bring the Gospel into public life, we may do more harm than good.
EVANS: I think Catholic social teaching should be a major guide for us. I think several values or principles really stand out. One that we all know within the Catholic Church is the protection of human life, especially against any direct attacks on life, like abortion or like the death penalty. Abortion numbers are still very high. [Just recently], the federal government resumed capital punishment after it had not been in use for 15 years in federal cases. So those are concerns and examples of the kinds of things we should have in mind in terms of voting with an eye toward protecting human life against such attacks.
Another broader, but related, value or principle is to promote and protect the dignity of every person. That means not just making sure people’s lives are protected, but that they also have the basic things that are needed to live a dignified life from birth until death.
A third principle or value I would point to, to guide us in voting as Catholics, is the preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable — a very major part of Catholic social teaching. Especially today, I think that should include our efforts to address racism in our country and what candidates are open to looking at that for the very serious issue that it really is.
A final principle or value that I would say we should be taking into account in this time is caring for creation and looking especially at the frightful issue of climate change. Pope Francis made that so clear in his document “On Care for Our Common Home” — “Laudato Si’.”
Another way of talking about this is simply saying that we should be guided by doing what we can to promote the common good, to help build communities where all people’s needs can be met in the specific ways that I just mentioned. And the common good simply means all those things that people need to live a dignified life: food, shelter, health care, education, etc. If we can get our heads around the notion of the common good, and for the simple and practical meaning that it has, I think that could be a helpful guide in our preparation to vote in November.
Q. “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” identifies two temptations in public life that can distort the Church’s defense of human life and dignity: 1) a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity; and 2) the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity. How should Catholics navigate through these two temptations?
RAUH: Some issues carry special moral weight and we must give particular attention to those issues. However, concern for those issues does not allow us to dismiss other important issues. For example, we are called to protect human life, and we must also work to end the scourge of racism, seek just immigration policies, and be attentive to all other “serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act” (no. 29).
Another way of thinking about this is that the Catholic perspective is often described as a “both/and” rather than the “either/or.” We advocate for the unborn and we welcome the immigrant. We protect families and we safeguard the environment for future generations. Catholics are called to live out this “both/and” approach in our political participation, from the voting booth to our ongoing engagement in addressing issues that impact our communities.
ADKINS: First, read “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” to be rooted in a consistent ethic of life that protects human life from womb to tomb and promotes human flourishing in between.
Not all issues are created equal. But the full spectrum of issues should be part of the voting calculus. An issue may not seem like it affects you or be your issue of preeminent concern, but it likely affects someone else and needs to be considered. That is called voting in solidarity with others.
Further, as Pope Francis reminds us in “Laudato Si’,” everything is connected. For example, if you are concerned about marriage and the well-being of the family, you should also be concerned about economic policies and social supports that help create the conditions for stable family life.
Second, avoid starting with a preferred voting outcome and then working backward to justify it. People can take some portion of the Church’s social teaching to justify almost any vote. But we should strive to think with the mind of the Church and let our actions and our votes be rooted in the right principles.
EVANS: It’s probably the biggest hurdle that I hear people struggling with. I think a very easy answer is to look at all the issues. But the bishops are telling us something more than that. On the one hand, there is a temptation to see all issues as equal, as having the same importance. That’s something we need to avoid; we need to recognize that not all issues are equal. Issues like abortion and climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and racism are on a different level of importance than whether the fishing opener should be on Mother’s Day [or] whether monthly Social Security payments should increase by 2%. These may be kind of silly comparisons, but there are differences in issues and we absolutely have to recognize that.
Q. What if you feel no candidate for a particular office fully embraces a commitment to the dignity of the human person? How do you decide for whom to cast your vote?
RAUH: Catholics often experience frustration because no candidate or party fully represents us. When this is the case — and it often is — we must each do our best to assess imperfect choices and select candidates whose positions, character and abilities best reflect our Catholic perspective.
In some circumstances, a Catholic may discern not to vote at all. However, this is a decision that should not be taken lightly. Not voting means leaving up to others who will be elected, so the decision not to vote should only be made after very careful deliberation.
It is essential to recognize that our political participation doesn’t end in the voting booth. After we vote, we need to get out there and try our best to ensure that those who represent us act in ways that reflect our values. We need to get involved in community organizations and school boards, advocate with our elected officials, and join diocesan or statewide Catholic legislative networks. Many people underestimate the potential for impact at the local level. Consistent engagement at the neighborhood, city, county and state levels can really make an impact.
ADKINS: Again, voting is a question of prudence. Catholics can come to different conclusions about the wisdom of various choices. Because we operate in an electoral system dominated by two parties, with candidates chosen by a small group of very ideological activists, we are sometimes not given a choice between two good candidates, but instead we are picking the lesser of two evils. We ask ourselves, “Which candidate will do the least damage to the dignity of the human person and the common good?”
In some cases, a person in good conscience cannot vote for either of the major-party candidates. Voting for a third-party candidate or skipping a vote in a particular race are legitimate options. They are not “wasted votes” but actions taken out of principle and in good conscience.
Not voting altogether because one does not like the options at the top of the ballot seems imprudent. There are many other candidate races on a ballot that merit study and careful consideration. As we have been reminded during this pandemic, major decisions are made at the state and municipal levels, and we cannot ignore those candidates and issues out of disgust at what goes on in Washington.
That being said, some Catholics, such as Dorothy Day, rarely voted. Though one cannot ignore voting and public life, it may reach a point where the refusal to vote is its own form of witness. Voting is important, but it’s not a sacrament. Ultimately, it is a question of conscience. Like everything else we do, how we vote should reflect Gospel values and a commitment to seeking first a kingdom that is not of this world.
EVANS: I think we should vote and recognize that there is no perfect candidate — just like there is no perfect voter. We’re all broken and we come up short, and we simply need to make the best of what is before us.
Q. It seems like there’s a lot more polarization out there in the political sphere. How do we get beyond that?
EVANS: I wish there were an easy way to do that. But one thing we could do is to simply listen better, to read and hear different viewpoints, not always listening to the same political commentators, whether that’s CNN or Fox News, whichever one we’re directed toward. But to try to hear other voices and try to understand and appreciate where other people are coming from. Make efforts to be with people who are not always in agreement with us. And try to connect with people on a more human, loving level and not presume that other views represent a personal attack against me or my views.
Something parishes could do is to hold listening sessions where people can come and talk about their views and their concerns. In doing so, they could model how we can be together even when we have different political views.
Q. What are some do’s and don’ts for Minnesota parishes when it comes to election season?
ADKINS: MCC offers a guide to permissible political activities during election season. It can be found at mncatholic.org/election.
Parishes are often afraid of overstepping permissible bounds and endangering the parish’s tax-exempt status, and therefore avoid any election-related programming. This is a mistake. Parishes have broad latitude to offer non-partisan educational material and events to inform voters.
A few key recommendations: Avoid endorsing candidates explicitly. Similarly, avoid the appearance of a strongly implied endorsement and do not distribute voter guides from partisan organizations that are not approved by your bishop.
ELECTION 2020 RESOURCES
Visit www.stcdio.org/faithfulcitizenship for resources to assist you in preparing for Election Day and public policy advocacy throughout the year.
The page includes links to:
- “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the most recent version of the U.S. bishops’ teaching document on the political responsibility of Catholics (in English and en Español)
- Resources from the Minnesota Catholic Conference, including parish guidelines for political activity, an election novena and a link to MCC’s Catholic Advocacy Network, which provides Minnesota Catholics with ways to easily take action and stay informed on issues, policies and legislation throughout the year.
- Parish town hall toolkit, from the Minnesota Catholic Conference, to assist parishes in hosting town halls with their state legislative candidates.
- “Do’s and Don’ts – Guidelines during election season,” from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
- “Civilize It” campaign, launched by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, inviting Catholics to model civility and love for neighbor throughout the year. “Civilize It: Dignity Beyond the Debate” asks Catholics “to pledge civility, clarity, and compassion in their families, communities, and parishes, and call on others to do so as well.”