“It is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop.” Saint John Paul II, The Gospel of Life
Only a few weeks from the upcoming election, I offer a few thoughts in hope that they may be helpful in preparing to vote. First, I encourage you to vote. It is very important that you exercise your duty as a Christian citizen in the selection of our leaders. This year is very unusual in that the two main candidates for president are so obviously flawed and viewed unfavorably by a majority of the country. Many are discouraged and some have told me they may not vote because they so dislike both candidates. I believe this is a serious mistake. At the very least, we should vote to choose the candidate that we believe will do the least damage. This is no small thing. Indeed, the United States bishops have made distinctions which might assist voters in this regard: “When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods” (Faithful Citizenship, no. 36).
Second, I encourage you to consider not simply the candidates, but whom they will bring with them to help them lead, and whom they will appoint to key posts of responsibility. We often get bogged down with the politics of personality and lose sight of the fact that we are electing an administration of thousands of other appointments that will affect our future. The crucial ones that first come to mind are the justices of the Supreme Court. It could be argued that bad Supreme Court decisions have done more damage to the fabric of American life than any president. The Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973, and the subsequent Court decisions reinforcing it have done more to poison and divide America than anything in our history since slavery. The next president could possibly appoint as many as three new justices that will shape America over the next two to three decades.
Additionally, presidents appoint judges at the other levels of the judiciary; these too have profound impacts (for good or ill) on our common life. We should not forget that many states (including California) held referendums to protect the sanctity of marriage as a union between one man and one woman. These decisions by the states were overturned by judges as unconstitutional, radically altering the culture of America for years to come.
Besides judges, the president also appoints other government officials that wield great power. These people have the potential to create great mischief and severely punish citizens. A case in point is the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and its treatment of the Little Sisters of the Poor and other similar groups who simply asked the government to find another way to deliver abortion inducing drugs and contraceptives to those who desire them, and to be exempted from violating their consciences by being forced to include them in their health plans. This case is still not resolved, and it serves as an example of how a presidential election is about more than one person. It is about the many other persons the president appoints to positions of power.
In choosing to vote, two things are important: knowing what issues are important and exercising prudential judgment. The first includes not only understanding which issues are important from a moral perspective, but also realizing which ones carry the most weight. Not all issues have a moral equivalency as Faithful Citizenship (37) explains: “In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose policies promoting intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions. These decisions should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue. In the end, this is a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching.”
Prudence is that virtue necessary to make the right choices when faced with a decision such as voting. Prudence enables us “to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1806). It helps us deliberate over alternatives, sometimes complex, and to choose the most fitting one in a specific context.
As a brief guide on these issues, I refer you to the summary of the document, The Challenge of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, which the United States Bishops have produced to assist in preparing Catholic citizens for political participation (reprinted in this issue of The Catholic Key). I also highly recommend reading, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics. This 1998 statement of the United States Bishops is perhaps more relevant today than it was when it was first issued.