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Casting Your Vote as a Faithful Catholic

February 12, AD2016 45 Comments


Here we are, coming into the backstretch of the quadrennial presidential election cycle. Of course, from here on out, you’re going to have your eyes and sensibilities assaulted by talking heads telling you for whom you should vote — or, at least, traducing and belittling every candidate but the ones they prefer.

Many of the talking heads are Catholics. It doesn’t follow, however, that what they advise is always fully compatible with Catholic moral and social teaching, even when the head doing the talking belongs to a bishop or priest. As American citizens, they’re entitled to their opinions; as Catholics, their opinions aren’t covered by the infallibility of the ordinary Magisterium. Neither, for that matter, is mine.

I’m not here to tell you who to vote for; nor am I going to tell you how I’m voting. What I’d like to do instead is give some pointers about voting as a faithful Catholic in communion with the Holy See.

1) You have the right to vote your own conscience.

Don’t be baffled by the type of people who whine, “You’re imposing your morality/religion on us!” It’s hysterical nonsense, sheer demagoguery. Divide the American body politic how you will, it’s hard to find any subdivision in which 100% of the members all hold the same moral principles in common, or agree on the best way to encode those principles in law. If you can find such a subdivision, I can promise you with 99.9% confidence that the group will comprise far less than 50% of the electorate.

In political science, it’s called cross-cutting cleavages. For instance, concerning the Great Western Atrocity, there are self-identified Catholics who are pro-abortion, and non-Catholics — even atheists and agnostics — who are anti-abortion. However, within the anti-abortion group are people who are either for or against the death penalty, people who are either for or against contraception, people who are either for or against torture — oops, excuse me, enhanced interrogation … the list goes on and on.

It should also be obvious that the person who opposes your “imposing your morality/religion” on him is going to vote for people who will encode his moral principles into law. Note the inconsistency: You can’t impose your morality on him … but he feels free to impose his morality/religion (or lack thereof) on you, largely because he’s blinded himself to what he’s doing.

The whole point of representative government is to reconcile all the different moral imperatives into law that most of us can obey willingly. The end product is rarely if ever something that can be said establishes a particular religion. In any event, there’s no ideological test you have to pass before you can vote, and there’s no way they can scan your conscience to see if it’s “politically correct”. So feel free to vote according to your sense of right and wrong without checking over your shoulder to see if Big Brother is watching.

2) Don’t get your voting information from memes or outrage porn.

What’s “outrage porn”? E-zines and blogs whose sole purpose is to take minor issues and blow them out of proportion, in order to get the members of their political tribe angry. If you think the reportage in the mainstream media is biased and inaccurate — well, the outrage porn vendors make them look like paragons of balanced factuality. And even when the claim of a meme isn’t blatantly false, it’s too often badly written, chock-full of logical fallacies and demonizing labels.

Most if not all candidates have their personal websites in which they explain their platforms. A quick Google search will bring you a number of fairly neutral sites dedicated to presenting the candidates’ stances on the issues and their policy preferences; some will include transcripts of statements they’ve made at various times (here is one such site). There is real information out in the Internet among all the false and biased chazzerai; use the power of search engines to become a better-informed voter.

3) No single candidate can accomplish his goals by himself.

Although that would seem to be a blindingly obvious observation, too often a candidate’s promises are treated as if he were running for Benevolent Dictator rather than president, senator, or congressman. For instance, Sen. Joe Schmuckatelli can advocate a 10% flat tax to his heart’s desire on the stump, if it gets his constituents to vote for him; once he takes his seat in the upper chamber, though, he may find it much harder to get his colleagues interested.

This pointer becomes very important when we remember that one of the Democrat candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), is a self-described democratic socialist. (“A socialist? EEK!”) For our purposes, it doesn’t matter how a democratic socialist is different from any other kind of socialist — there are differences, y’know, and they do matter as to how the economy and state function (for instance, check out libertarian socialism). However, whatever kind of socialist Sanders is, he could hardly turn the US into a workers’ paradise without the active connivance of Congress, almost all of whom have too much vested in the present system to allow much in the way of structural change. So don’t just take the candidate’s promises with a grain of salt; treat opponents’ claims of the wreckage his programs would create with equal skepticism.

4) You’re a Catholic first, a party member second (if at all).

When a member of the Catholic chatterati falls into error, it’s usually because he allowed his political ideology to warp his understanding of Church moral and social doctrine. In fact, many people from different faith communities are guilty of “reading Scripture through ideological glasses”. The progressive speaks of the “primacy of the individual conscience”; the conservative prefers “prudential judgment”. All it means is that one enters the cafeteria line from the left, the other from the right.

Having said that, there are areas to which the Church doesn’t speak, or doesn’t issue specific policy recommendations. The Church does insist we not support intrinsically evil practices or policies (more on that below), but there may be more than one approach to a social or economic problem that isn’t intrinsically evil. Study the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, and check around on various viewpoints before you decide whether your political beliefs are in communion with the Faith. Just don’t try to make the Church a party organ.

5) Cast the vote that will most likely let you sleep peacefully that night

Some years ago, Catholic Answers began publishing a Voter’s Guide that featured a list of five (now six) “non-negotiables”; i.e., intrinsic evils a candidate must not support in order to be an acceptable candidate to a Catholic: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, gay “marriage”, and hostility to religious freedom. Explains Tim Staples:

To put it simply: these are “deal-breakers” when it comes to the Catholic voting. These are matters definitively declared by the Church to be objectively and absolutely immoral. That is what we mean by “non-negotiable.” There is no legitimate debate — no “wiggle room” — on these issues. Now then, are these the only “non-negotiables” from a Catholic perspective? No, they are not. … However, the point we make in the Voter’s Guide is that not all matters non-negotiable are matters in play politically generally speaking. … Thus, we focused our attention on the “non-negotiables” that are in fact in play politically.

So popular and widely known has this set of litmus strips become that they’re often treated as if dictated by the Vatican. But as Pope Francis himself points out, all the Church’s moral doctrines are, as such, non-negotiable. For instance, the Church’s teaching on torture is definitely “in play” when discussing waterboarding and other forms of “enhanced interrogation”, which is why it’s such a contentious issue in Catholic circles. By the same token, the principle of subsidiarity “is opposed to certain forms of centralization, bureaucratization, and welfare assistance and to the unjustified and excessive presence of the State in public mechanisms” (CSDC 187), a stumbling block to anyone demanding further Federal intervention in social problems.

On the other hand, the principle of double effect does provide a little “wiggle room” — not much, but it’s there. The principle holds that an action which isn’t immoral in itself but which can have both a good and an evil effect may still be taken if: 1) the evil outcome isn’t the final cause of the action; 2) the good result doesn’t spring from the evil result; and 3) the good is proportionate to the evil. Thus, in a postscript to a letter to the late Cdl. Theodore E. McCarrick in 2004, the then-Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cdl. Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), stated:

A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour 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.

In other words, given two candidates, one of whom is pro-abortion but whose platform is otherwise sensible and moral, and the other of whom is anti-abortion but whose platform is riddled with bad policy preferences and immoral stances, one may legitimately vote for the pro-abortion candidate in view of his other stances. Since the political process rarely gives us simon-pure candidates, you should weigh the alternatives carefully, and decide which can do the greater good for the lesser evil. But you don’t have to vote for a blithering idiot or a narcissistic sociopath just because he waves a “precious feet” pin at you.

Many people, though, can’t bend their consciences that far. They can, however, write in a candidate. I have qualms about it; writing in candidates who have no reasonable hope of election can be seen as wasting one’s vote in the name of self-righteous pride. I would feel better if those who wished to write in a candidate would come to an agreement on whom to choose, and actively campaign on that person’s behalf. On the other hand, if it lets you look at yourself in the mirror the morning after, go for it.


“The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate” (St. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus 46).

As citizens of the United States, we Catholics have the right to vote, the right to choose who we want to represent us in every level of government, and therefore to have our voices and thoughts heard in the shaping of the laws under which we live. Therefore, it’s our responsibility to participate fully and with adequate knowledge to make the best choices we possibly can. Do your homework, think through your choices, and then show up at your polling place.

Remember, it’s our country too.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Born in Albuquerque, N. Mex., and raised in Omaha, Nebr., Anthony S. Layne served briefly in the U.S. Marine Corps and attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha as a sociology major while holding a variety of jobs. Tony was a "C-and-E Catholic" until, while defending the Faith during the scandals of 2002, he discovered the beauty of Catholic orthodoxy. He currently lives in Denton, Texas, works as an insurance agent and in-home caregiver, participates in his parish's Knights of Columbus council and as a Minister to the Sick, and bowls poorly on Sunday nights. Along with Catholic Stand, he also contributes to New Evangelization Monthly and occasionally writes for his own blogs, Outside the Asylum and The Impractical Catholic.

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