Five Steps to the Voting Booth
Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
September and October 2008

This column on Catholic voting was originally prepared for the New Earth and Dakota Catholic Action in two parts. It is republished here as a single column.

“Your faith and your vote” is the theme for the voter education project launched by North Dakota’s Catholic bishops to help the state’s Catholics exercise their civic and moral responsibilities in the public arena. The project includes a
web site, voter education materials, and speaking engagements around the state.

“Your faith” and “your vote” are actually just the first and last steps to approaching voting. The five steps are: knowing your faith, forming your conscience, learning the issues, examining the candidates, and making your choices.

As with all things, we begin with our faith. As people of faith and reason, Catholics are called to bring truth to political life. Faith helps us see more clearly the requirements of a good society, namely respect for the dignity of all human life and a commitment to the common good. As Pope Benedict XVI has put it, politics is the engagement of reason, but faith purifies reason.

Our faith also teaches that responsible citizenship is a virtue, participation in political life is moral obligation, and that we can never separate our faith from political life without separating ourselves from Christ.

The next step is forming our conscience, since a well-formed conscience equips us to address political questions. We need to understand, however, what is really meant by “conscience.”

Conscience is not a “feeling” about what we should do or not do. It is not what we “deep down feel is right.” “Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed.” (Catechism no. 1778) Every person is obliged to follow faithfully what he or she knows to be just and right.

We have a lifelong obligation to form our consciences in accord with human reason, enlightened by the teaching of Christ as it comes to us through the Church. To have a well-formed conscience we must have a willingness and openness to seek the truth. Forming a conscience is aided by studying Sacred Scripture and the Catechism, examining facts, and engaging in prayerful reflection.

A well-formed conscience also means wisely exercising the virtue of prudence. Prudence enables us to discern the true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it. The ability to choose, however, does not mean that we can use an immoral means, even to achieve a good result. Certain acts are “intrinsically evil,” in that they are always wrong, not matter what the intended result. These acts must always be rejected, opposed, and never supported or condoned. Such acts include abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, destroying human embryos. genocide, torture, racism and the targeting of noncombatants in war.

Just as we have an obligation never to do evil, we also have an obligation to do good. The right to life implies and is linked to other human rights—to the basic goods that every human person needs to live and thrive. The moral imperative to respond to the needs of our neighbors is universally binding on our consciences. Doing good may be legitimately fulfilled by a variety of means. Catholics must seek the best ways.

Putting this all together, there arise three temptations. The first is equate different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity. Just because all threats to human life and dignity are moral issues does not mean that they are equal. The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many.

The second temptation is to use the distinctions to dismiss or ignore other threats to human life and dignity. Just because some issues are more important does not justify ignoring the others. Caring for the poor, ensuring educational choice, creating a just economy, respecting the rights of workers, abolishing the death penalty, and reforming health care, for example, are not just optional concerns merely because they do not involve the direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life.

The third temptation is treating prudential judgment as a “blank check.” Just because Catholics can legitimately disagree as to how to address an issue does not mean that a person can ignore the issue or Church teaching on the issue, or not treat it as a moral issue.

The next step for the Catholic voter is to learn about the issues. When doing so, it is not enough to know the basic facts from a secular viewpoint. Catholics have an obligation to know and understand what the Church teaches on those issues. Study the Catechism and the Compendium on the Social Doctrine of the Church. Explore the
North Dakota Catholic Conference and United States Conference of Catholic Bishops web sites.

Catholics should then examine the candidates in light of a well-formed conscience and the Church’s teachings on the issues. Judge the candidates according to their positions on the important moral issues. Resist the temptation to place a priority on “me,” “the party,” or “my business.”

Ask: Does the Candidate Oppose:

  • Abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and human embryo research?
  • The death penalty?
  • Laws and policies that dilute the unique and important role of marriage in civil society?
Ask: Does the Candidate Support:
  • Immigration reform that humanely secures our borders, provides a path to citizenship, protects workers, and fosters family reunification?
  • The right to provide public services without violating faith and conscience?
  • Ending the war in Iraq through a responsible transition that minimizes loss of life and protects human rights?
  • Helping the poor and most vulnerable members of our society?
  • Extending health care as a right to all people?
  • Enabling parents to choose the best educational setting for their children?
  • Policies that ensure a just wage, the right of workers to unionize and collectively bargain, the right to economic initiative, and private property?
  • Policies to protect and foster family farms, rural communities, good stewardship of natural resources, and the right of local communities to regulate for the common good?

Once we have the information we need to make choices. Applying the principles about prudence and the need to do good and avoid evil, several principles can help guide our decision making.

For example, a Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or torture, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in a grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.

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.

What is a morally grave reason? There does not exist a definitive answer to that question. Certainly, party preferences or self-interest would not suffice. Nor would any reason that diminishes or ignores the fundamental moral evil.

Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput offered this explanation: “It’s the kind of reason we will be able to explain, with a clean heart, to the victims of abortion when we meet them face to face in the next life—which we most certainly will. If we’re confident that these victims will accept our motives as something more than an alibi, then we can proceed.”

What if all the candidates hold a position in favor of an intrinsic evil? In those cases, 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. All of these decisions should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue.

Catholics are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee support. Yet a candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.

All of this may seem daunting. To some extent, it should. Exercising our civil obligations is a serious matter. Realizing that our votes, like all our actions, have consequences affecting our relationship to God makes the matter even more serious.

For Catholics, however, participation in political life is a moral obligation. We cannot turn our backs merely because it is hard. Participation in political life - of which voting is just one part - is not “safe” and comfortable. The journey of a Christian, however, is not about comfort and perceived safety. It is about doing what is right and God does not ask us to do something for which He has not prepared us.