A couple of weeks ago President Trump formally launched his campaign for reelection and the crowded field of Democrats seeking their party’s presidential nomination have had their first television debate. Election year 2020 is upon us. That makes this a good time to consider what the Church has to say about the participation of Catholics in the political process. How ought they to evaluate candidates and the positions they take on important issues? In deciding for whom to vote, does authoritative guidance exist?
It does. It can be found in “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” published in January, 2003, by the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith whose prefect at the time was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. The document is available on line. I am summarizing it.
It states (emphasis added): “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, the document says, has a “duty to be morally coherent,” which is to say he should not try to lead two separate lives, a so-called spiritual or religious one and a so-called secular one.
An example of a person who is morally incoherent would be a Catholic politician who says he (or she) is personally opposed to abortion but would never seek to impose his belief on others by supporting legislation that curbs the “right” of women to kill their preborn babies. Another example would be a Catholic voter who casts his ballot for such a politician.
Catholics should lead lives that are integrally Catholic, which is to say not simply at Mass on Sunday but also when they are at an office meeting, tilling a field, preparing a meal for the family, writing a poem, examining a patient, choosing music for listening or a film to watch, advising a client, making love to their spouse, correcting a child’s behavior or doing anything else, including voting. St. Vincent Ferrer put it succinctly: “Whatever you do, think not of yourself, but of God.”
“Doctrinal Note” speaks of the obligation to think of Him thus: “Every area of the faithful’s lives, 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 Father and service of others.” This is the “correct understanding of the human person” on which the success of democracy is to be judged, and (emphasis added) “Catholic involvement in political life cannot compromise on this principle.”
Those words, “cannot compromise on this principle,” are emphasized here 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.” The document specifies that 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 touch on the moral principles that “do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation.”
Clearly, if a Catholic may not vote for a program or law that violates these moral principles, neither should he vote for candidates who support them.
The question may arise, what is the Catholic citizen to do when all candidates espouse the kind of programs and laws which “contradict the contents of faith and morals”?
The question should not arise. “Doctrinal Note” is clear. To repeat: “A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.”
That too often real political choices have not been available to Christians is precisely what accounts for the recent and rapid rise in many countries of movements that secular liberals hope to crush by demonizing them as “extremist,” “far right” or “fascist”.
The good news is that leaders and supporters of these movements show no signs of being cowed by the labels.