To Vote or Not?

The full force of the nation’s quadrennial general-election campaign season is about to hit us. It will not occur to the majority of the nation’s voters who identify as Catholic to assess candidates in the light of teachings of the Faith. It never does. The proof is how they have voted throughout the twentieth century and now into this one, and especially since the so-called “social issues” began to figure in elections. When has it ever been as they ought? However, a minority who are serious about their practice of the religion will wonder whom they should vote for, or even whether they should vote at all, in the light of Church teaching. They would appreciate some guidance. It exists.

The most recent authoritative Vatican document concerning Catholics and electoral politics was promulgated by the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2003 when Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, was its prefect. The document’s title: Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.”

There is a line in the document that liberals within Catholicism like to cite as if after 2,000 years the Church has finally decided that a particular form of government, democracy, is so superior to all others that no other should exist. The Church has not decided that, nor will she ever. The reason she will not can be easily explained but will be left for another occasion. We don’t want to be diverted here from what “Doctrinal Note” has to say.

Here is the line liberals like to cite: “The Church recognizes that democracy is the best expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices.” Now, two things ought to be obvious: 1) democracy is the best expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices, but 2) the statement is not the same as saying citizens should always participate in political choices or that their participation should always be direct. Further, if the statement is quoted in its entirety and in context, a radically different picture begins to emerge than is given by our first impression – the one liberals intend when they cite the line incompletely and out of context.

The entire statement: “The Church recognizes that while democracy is the best expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices, it succeeds only to the extent that it is based on a correct understanding of the human person.” That person, according to the document, has a “duty to be morally coherent,” which is to say he should not try to lead two separate lives, a so-called “secular” one and a so-called “spiritual” or “religious” one.

“In fact,” we read, “every one of the faithful’s lives, as different as they are, enters in the plan of God…where the love of Christ is revealed and realized both for the glory of the Faith and service of others.” This is the “correct understanding of the human person” on which the success of democracy is to be judged, and “Catholic involvement in political life cannot compromise on this principle.”

Those words, “cannot compromise on this principle,” want to be underlined because “in this context it must be noted that 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.” Thus it is that there are moral principles that “do not permit of exception, compromise or derogation” because what is at stake is “the essence of the moral law which concerns the integral good of the human person.” Political programs and individual laws that bear on “abortion and euthanasia,” on the “rights of the human embryo,” on “monogamous marriage between a man and woman” or the freedom of parents “regarding the education of their children” and also on society’s “protection of minors” – all these, the document specifies, touch on the moral principles that “do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation.”

One can imagine so-called conservatives, persons on the right wing of our national liberalism who see voting as a civic duty, criticizing the Vatican document for not suggesting, let alone specifying, what the Catholic citizen is to do when he has no choice between candidates who espouse the kind of programs and laws which “contradict the contents of faith and morals.” However, isn’t it perfectly clear? Once again: “A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or individual law that contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.”

Let’s put this another way. Try to imagine the nomination of a major party, or even a minor existing one whose candidate manages to make it onto the ballot of all the states, being secured by someone who calls for an end to no-fault divorce, abortion on demand and same-sex marriage. Wouldn’t he (or she) be the candidate for whom a Catholic should vote? Well, which candidate is that?

Of course there is always the lesser of two evils as long as we ignore it is still evil.

Nothing said here is meant to suggest that an election is not important. It certainly is. The outcome of the one this year will determine how Americans live for years to come. What is being said is that as long as they live in a society governed by liberal notions of liberty as the freedom to do whatever is humanly possible, including evil as the Church knows it to be, equality of all persons in the exercise of such liberty, as well as the equality of religious beliefs (or non-belief), and the perfectibility of man, Catholics every election season will be trapped in a quandary from which there is only one escape: the conversion of the nation to one whose rulers will enact laws that conform to God’s will.

Is such conversion as unlikely as a genuinely Christian candidate for national office in today’s circumstances? That is not true. We know it is not because God wishes it. He made that clear when He was incarnate. “Make disciples of all the nations” was the last commandment His followers heard direct from His lips. The important question, then, is not how or whether we may vote, but what are we doing, each of us, to fulfill Our Lord’s last commandment?

I have summarized “Doctrinal Note.” Readers can find the entire document archived on the Vaticans website.

  • Adam Miller

    Excellent article, Mr. Potter. The emphasis that professed followers of Christ “cannot compromise on this principle” is nearly totally lost today. Being attacked for pointing out this principle to fellow Catholics is common experience. A blinding pragmatist mentality has over-taken commitment to principle when it comes to voting -which is an act of morality. I have written a short article on this problem:

  • Peter Walsh (Conn.)

    One point at a time:
    1. Filling out your ballot is a duty. “Piety in place of duty isn’t piety at all.”
    Catholic Catechism: 2240 Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country:
    “[Christians] reside in their own nations, but as resident aliens. They participate in all things as citizens and endure all things as foreigners. . . . They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses the laws. . . . So noble is the position to which God has assigned them that they are not allowed to desert it.”

    2. The Church recognizes civil authority on civil matters. The Church recognizes these elections as valid and will recognize the results as valid. It would be complete against logic for the Church to say, “the election is valid and so are the results, yet we choose to boycott.” In any event, no diocese has called for a boycott. Yet, voting is a trivial civic exercise.

    3. The state courts have been clear that a vote for candidate A on a ballot means that the voter preferred that candidate A win that particular election, rather than the other candidate(s). It does not mean that the voter supports the candidate or agrees with their position platform. Most winning candidates receive a large percentage of their votes from voters who are not supporters, but would say, “I just would rather he win and not his opponent.” Again, a vote is not an indication of support or agreement. Per the law and per the Courts. (And the Church agrees, as the Church recognizes civil authority on civil matters.) There is nothing in fine print on the ballot indicating otherwise and no oath that the voter signs at the bottom of the ballot. If there is a particular candidate that you support with full enthusiasm, there is no way to indicate this on the ballot.

    4. Some argue that voting must be done “according to immutable moral principles.”
    Voting is a civic matter, which falls under practical affairs, not religious affairs. The virtue of prudence governs our conduct on practical affairs. It includes the ability to judge actions: appropriate actions at a given time and place. Prudence often requires the individual to gather information and then measure and weigh different factors in making decisions. Some of the integral parts of prudence are foresight, circumspection and caution.

    5. The Right-to-Life movement never advocates for blank ballots, even in elections where no candidate deserves an endorsement from pro-life groups. I will show up this November at my polling place and fill out a ballot completely … no blank votes.

    see essay of Fr. Frank Pavone

  • TobiasRaphael1

    Are you a Catholic? Your Papal flag and your words don’t seem to match up.

  • Peter Walsh (Conn.)

    I am a Catholic Right-to-Lifer. I am not a philosopher.

    A. In Catholicism, there is a harmony between faith and reason.

    See JPII Encyclical FIDES ET RATIO

    We should oppose Fideism as much as we oppose rationalism. These ideas go back to Aquinas and earlier.

    “… the Church was obliged to be vigilant lest these philosophies developed in ways which were themselves erroneous and negative. The censures were delivered even-handedly: on the one hand, fideism 59 and radical traditionalism,60 for their distrust of reason’s natural capacities …”

    B. Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues.

    Prudence is not an optional virtue.
    Thanks for reading the Potter essay.

  • Alphonsus Jr. ✠ Dᴇᴜs ᴠᴜʟᴛ


    Yes, Catholics Can Vote For Trump