What's a Catholic Voter to Do?

This is an edited version of a column I wrote in the fall of 2004.  At the time I was extremely disturbed by the vitriol surrounding the Presidential campaign, particularly that directed by Catholics toward other Catholics, presuming to assert that there was only one way for a good Catholic to vote.  I did not remember people being so hateful about politics in the past.  (Of course, things are much worse today, with Catholics routinely being assured by their brethren that they are headed straight to hell if they vote for a  pro-choice candidate.)  So I wrote this in the hopes of calming folks down a little bit, at least folks who read the East Tennessee Catholic.  

The first time I was eligible to vote for President, when I was 21, I was away at college and did not get my absentee ballot in time.  My parents and grandparents were all Democrats, and therefore so was I:  no decision-making would have been necessary.
I was similarly complacent the first time I was able to cast a vote, although in the opposite direction, for George H.W. Bush.  He was against abortion, the most horrible evil in the world.  How could other issues matter?
Four years later other issues seemed more important than I had thought.  In the most recent elections choosing a candidate has become agony.  I am unwilling to equate “pro-life” with anti-abortion, so I see no “pro-life” candidate.  Anyone who wages pre-emptive wars that kill up to 20,000 innocent civilians is not pro-life.  John Kerry’s assertion that life begins at conception while he blithely votes to give women unlimited power to end it doesn’t sit well with me either.  What’s a Catholic voter to do?
Thoughtful Catholics will come down on both sides, and if they have informed and followed their consciences, they are not sinning.  But no candidate is in line with all of the Church’s moral teachings.
Although the Church gives us guidance in this matter, it does not endorse candidates.  Many of you read Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s statement that when a Catholic does not share a candidate’s pro-choice stance but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered “remote material cooperation” [in evil] which is “permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”  The cardinal [later Pope Benedict] does not define the proportionate reasons, leaving us to define them ourselves.
The U.S  bishops published Faithful Citizenship:  A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility, which states:  “The 2004 elections . . . pose significant challenges for our Church . . . the Church cannot be a chaplain for any one party or cheerleader for any candidate.  Our cause in the protection of the weak and vulnerable and defense of human life and dignity . . . As Catholics [we are called] to recommit ourselves to carry the values of the Gospel and Church teaching into the public square . . . Faithful citizenship calls us to seek ‘a place at the table’ of life for all God’s children in the elections of 2004 and beyond . . . A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good.
Finally, our Holy Father [Saint Pope John Paul the Great] quoted the following statement of the Second Vatican Council in The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), a must-read for anyone who dares consider himself an authority on life issues:  “Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator.”
The Pope adds: “The underlying causes of attacks on life have to be eliminated, especially by ensuring proper support for families and motherhood. A family policy must be the basis and driving force of all social policies. For this reason there need to be set in place social and political initiatives capable of guaranteeing conditions of true freedom of choice in matters of parenthood. It is also necessary to rethink labour, urban, residential and social service policies so as to harmonize working schedules with time available for the family, so that it becomes effectively possible to take care of children and the elderly.”
With the help of these experts, I have the following reflections to offer.  One way to choose your candidate is to decide which issues are crucial to you and vote for the candidate who shares your perspective.  If you judge abortion the ultimate issue, you could vote for the candidate who opposes it. Or you might vote based upon the amount of change you expect the candidate to be able to effect in various areas of importance.  For example, if you voted for President Bush because he was pro-life the last time around, look at his record:  how many lives has he saved?  How much power does the President have to effect change in this area?  Some voted for Bush in 2000 so he could choose Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade.  But he has yet to appoint a single justice.  And who can guarantee his choices would vote against abortion?  Look at the records of Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter, both appointed by conservatives.
What can a President affect in the way of life issues?  He can start a war, a war our Holy Father opposed.  And what about other life issues the pope enumerates in The Gospel of Life?  Some “conservative” social policies may lead to more abortions, when women choose abortion because of a lack of money, homes, or childcare.  There are many voter guides available online to further help you in the discernment process.
Because the Church doesn’t tell us for whom to vote, we must inform our consciences before making this important choice.
Have you fully informed yourself on the Church’s position on all life issues by reading The Gospel of Life?  Have you prayerfully considered the the teachings of our bishops?  Have you acquainted yourselves with the positions and records of both candidates?  If so, your conscience has been properly formed, and you have nothing with which to reproach yourself.  And if in charity you assume that your fellow Catholics who may have chosen a different candidate have done the same, you have nothing with which to reproach them either.
My column did not have the effect I had hoped or expected.  More on that in my next post.
Part II
Part III