In many Catholic communities in the United States prior to the 2004 election, brief internet surveys began circulating aimed at helping “serious Catholics” decide how to vote. At the center of the reasoning was the idea that voters should pivot according to “non-negotiable” moral issues, which roughly corresponded to some of the moral questions that had been identified as “intrinsic evils” by the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Some discussions noted that choices about which issues to highlight were determined by what issues were politically “in play” during that election cycle—but with very little analysis of the criteria for this assessment. The surveys were attractive because they seemed to present a purely moral analysis, grounded only in being “for or against” these “intrinsic evils.” But of course, political discernment entered by the sleight of hand of who determines which issues are “in play.”
In 2008, I joined other scholars in a strong critique of the ways in which these analyses constituted a deeply flawed account of how Catholic moral theology applies to voting.
For their part, every election cycle since 1976, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has issued its own analysis of faithful citizenship—a much more complex (and much longer) account of how Catholic teachings on moral theology might inform perspectives on citizenship, political participation, and decisions about voting. Not surprisingly, the bishops’ guides for voters were not—and, I believe, could not—be boiled down to a brief internet survey or test that produces the “answer” on how to vote.
In February 2020, the USCCB reissued Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, with an introductory letter. The analysis largely tracks a version of the document issued in 2008. The introductory letter acknowledges the seriousness of a variety of issues that are core to the 2020 election. Paragraph 7 is indicative:
“The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed. At the same time, we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.”
How are Catholic voters to interpret the meaning and weight of “preeminent priority,” while at the same time giving due attention—in the circumstances of 2020—to other serious threats to human life and dignity?
How are Catholic voters to interpret the meaning and weight of “preeminent priority”... [and] other serious threats to human life and dignity?
One strategy to counter the reductive nature of listing (and counting) positions on “non-negotiables” is simply to expand the list, with particular attention to ensure that core issues on both sides of the political aisle are well represented. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, abortion is defined as an “intrinsic evil,” but so are “other direct assaults on innocent human life,” such as “the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war;” and other violations of human dignity, such as “acts of racism, treating workers as mere means to an end, deliberately subjecting workers to subhuman living conditions” (Forming Consciences, no. 23).
While I can see the attraction of this line of argument from a strategic perspective, I believe that this too is a distortion of the Catholic intellectual tradition, which calls for a much more complex account of how voting and civic engagement interact with political structures, candidates, and realities.
So, if we don’t travel that path, must what the bishops have identified as “our pre-eminent priority” necessarily determine one’s vote as a Catholic?
On my read, according to Forming Consciences, the answer is no. The analysis hinges not on the character of an issue under discussion as “intrinsically evil,” but on the voter’s intent. It is the voter’s intent to support an intrinsically evil act (or not) that determines the moral character of voting, not simply the moral quality of underlying issue. In fact: “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons” (Forming Consciences, no. 35).
It is the voter’s intent to support an intrinsically evil act (or not) that determines the moral character of voting, not simply the moral quality of underlying issue.
Further, because a general election is not a referendum on one issue, “morally grave reasons” might also embrace a host of concerns regarding the capacity and integrity of the candidates.
Within the Forming Consciences framework, Catholics may discern a range of positions based on a range of factors that are political, moral, and religious. For example:
- They may believe the time is appropriate for a strong affirmation of life issues (such as the abortion issue) and/or religious freedom.
- Notwithstanding a candidate’s stated affirmation of pro-life goals, they may nonetheless be skeptical about the sincerity of the extent to which a candidate purports to align with pro-life or other values in Catholic social thought.
- They may believe that the moral gravity of issues other than abortion (migration, climate change, the handling of COVID-19, etc.) require immediate attention.
- They may have come to grave and serious conclusions about the competence, character, or fitness of one or the other candidates for office.
Forming Consciences can serve as a framework for critical analysis of positions across the political spectrum. So long as Catholics do not intend with their vote to further policies defined as evil, all of the above are morally acceptable ways to approach this prudential decision.
In my own grassroots work with Catholic communities to prepare for the upcoming election, I have drawn on how Pope Francis encourages us to cultivate spaces for “authentic social dialogue,” based on “the ability to respect the other’s point of view and to admit that it may include legitimate convictions and concerns.” (Fratelli tutti, no. 203).
When strong political differences inform our choices in the upcoming election, Forming Consciences can clarify that this does not necessarily mean that the “other side” is trying to promote an “intrinsic evil,” or is sinful in their choice. It more likely means that we are simply evaluating in different ways all of the factors for the best way forward.