“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, former Soviet dissident and Christian writer
As the upcoming election approaches, many are seeking assistance in how to prepare to vote. In an earlier column in The Catholic Key, I offered some advice on how to choose between imperfect candidates (Preparing to Vote, September 23). In this issue, I would like to offer some advice on how Catholics ought to go about forming their consciences to vote. In offering this advice, I especially borrow from the document of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (FCFC), as well as the good work of other bishops that is clear in applying Catholic teaching.
There are many issues facing us in this election: abortion and euthanasia, immigration and national security, just to mention a few. The issues do not carry the same weight. How do we consider all the issues and give them the proper weight?
Intrinsically Evil Acts
We begin by recognizing that not all actions are the same. Some actions are what the Church calls “intrinsically evil acts.” It is important to understand this term. It does not mean that the people who do them are intrinsically evil. It means that these acts are never morally good no matter the circumstances. We should never approve, perform or support these actions. Among these actions are abortion, euthanasia, embryo-destructive research, acts of racism, and same-sex “marriage”. In the words of FCFC: “There are some things we must never do, as individuals or as a society, because they are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor. Such actions are so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons. These are called ‘intrinsically evil’ actions. They must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned” (FCFC, #22). When giving each issue proper weight, intrinsically evil actions have extra weight because they represent direct assaults on human dignity.
Other Serious Concerns
Other issues, even if they do not involve intrinsically evil acts, are so important that faith requires that we give them serious attention and consideration. Among these are the economy, immigration, foreign policy, addressing terrorism, the environment, the national debt, systemic racism, health care and religious liberty. Again, in the words of FCFC: “Although choices about how best to respond to these and other compelling threats to human life and dignity are matters for principled debate and decision, this does not make them optional concerns or permit Catholics to dismiss or ignore Church teaching on these important issues” (FCFC, #29).
Faith does not give us one clear way to address these concerns. What’s the proper balance between generosity and national security when it comes to an immigration policy? What’s the best way to secure basic health care for everyone? What is the fairest tax policy or educational reform or jobs plan to make the best progress for helping the poor? There’s room, within faith, for different answers to questions like these, but there is no room for not asking them. When weighing things, these issues cannot be ignored.
Number and Kind
The distinction between intrinsically evil acts and other serious issues is just the beginning of developing an objective scale of values for weighing the issues. What else will help us give each issue its proper weight?
An example might help. The Church is opposed to abortion and the Church is opposed (when society can protect itself by other means) to the death penalty. But these issues do not carry the same weight for the Catholic conscience. Why not?
First, they differ in number. Nationally, abortion results in the killing of almost 1 million children every year—nearly 60 million since 1973, the year when the Supreme Court declared that abortion was a constitutional right. The death penalty resulted in the killing of 28 people in 2015, has never resulted in the deaths of more than 100 in a year, and the total is 1,437 since 1976, the year when the Supreme Court found the death penalty to be constitutional.
To be clear, those 1,437 deaths are not insignificant, nor without some legal issues surrounding. But, the number of deaths from abortion and the number of deaths from the death penalty are objectively different by a vast amount. That objective difference figures into the weight we give to each issue.
Second, these issues differ in kind. Abortion is the directly willed killing of an innocent person; the death penalty is the willed killing of those found guilty in a court of law. Again, to be clear, it is a violation of human dignity whether the person is innocent or guilty. But the death of the innocent and the death of the guilty are objectively different in their moral quality. That objective difference figures into the weight we give to each.
Abortion weighs more heavily than the death penalty on the Catholic conscience. The difference is not merely subjective, a matter of preference. It is an objective difference of number and kind.
Comparing the weight of abortion and the death penalty is fairly straightforward. Considering all the issues on an objective scale and assigning each its proper weight is more complex. Yet this is what it means to consider the issues and the candidates as a Catholic.
In order to do this and vote, we have to first make sure our consciences are properly formed as Catholics. These basic tools help us assign the proper weight to each issue. Identifying issues as intrinsically evil, or by number and kind, isn’t the last step, but it’s a place to start. It helps us replace a subjective scale of mere preferences with an objective scale of truths. It helps us replace political affiliation with Catholic identity.