Catholics at the Polls

Since Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney announced his vice presidential running mate as Represetative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin on August 11, articles have been periodically appearing referencing Ryan’s Roman Catholic background, even calling this election a battle of two Catholics (referring to Vice President Joe Biden on the opposing side).

There is speculation over the dilemma that will be facing Catholic voters this time around at the polls, referring to the fact that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has publicly reprimanded candidates of both parties for various parts of their platforms.  In terms of the Democratic position, the Bishops have taken issue with what they perceive as an attack on religious freedom in the form of the health care reform bill, commonly called “Obamacare,” and the more lenient policies towards abortion and same-sex marriage.

On the Republican side, and more specifically Ryan’s, they have firmly rejected his proposed budget as forgetting “the least of the least.” Daniel Burke writes in Religion New Service,

Biden agrees with the church on social justice issues like poverty, but runs afoul on gay marriage and abortion rights. Ryan, meanwhile, agrees with Catholic doctrine on abortion and gay marriage, but clashes with church leaders on social justice issues.  With Catholics comprising nearly a quarter of the U.S. electorate — and nearly a third in Midwestern swing states — the “Who’s the Better Catholic?” debate may become far more than an intrachurch squabble.

Whether either platform is right or wrong on any of these topics is beyond the scope of this article.  What I find interesting is that those reporting on the apparent dilemma seem to feel that the Catholic voters of this country will all of a sudden turn into lost sheep as they are unable to follow contradictory cues from the hierarchy.  For one, it seems to be a well known fact that Catholics in this country and worldwide are not blind followers.  So, as we do wind up to the election and prepare to take it to the polls, I ask that Catholics approach the polls as they always should, with their conscience, just as the bishops ask.

The bishops have been promoting the idea of a “seamless cloth” ethic, in which all policies relate to the other under the umbrella of promoting human dignity.  This includes their pro-life approach, their concern for the needy, promotion of traditional marriage, opposition to capital punishment, and support of immigration reform, to name a few.  In recent months it has become clear that neither the Democratic party nor the Republican party follow Church policy in all matters.  However, this has been the case in the majority of elections, although perhaps the bishops have not been quite as outspoken against the policies of individual candidates.

Since realizing that faithful Catholics who are not able to vote for such a seamless cloth are faced with a dilemma at the polls, the bishops have provided resources for what they call “Faithful Citizenship.”  The thrust of this argument is to develop the conscience of the individual in such a way that they may make a responsible decision among the issues.  In their document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” they claim, “We bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote. Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth. We recognize that the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience, and that participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election.”

A faithful Catholic’s vote is therefore not as clear-cut as it may seem.  Bishops have clearly criticized specific candidates for their pro-choice tendencies, but that does not mean that those in the pews did not and/or will not vote for that candidate.  Some may choose to vote according to different priorities, which may result in voting for a candidate who holds policies that contradict the policies of the bishops, which is acceptable: “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental
 moral evil.”

It is the individual’s conscience, which must decide the priorities on which they vote, and therefore, the outcome in which neither option is perfectly aligned.  It is a dilemma that all faithful Catholics have faced before, and it is just as troubling in today’s upcoming election as it was in the past.

So, just as the millions of Catholics have approached the polls in past elections, I implore you to do the same, with serious consideration of your conscience.  We may not be able to have it all, but we can do our best to work for the common good as we see it.  In fact, it sounds as if the dilemma is the same for all, Catholic or not.

Photo by Ben Sutherland, via Flickr Creative Commons.

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