Answers far from simple for Catholic voters

Published: September 1, 2016

By Father Taryn Whittington · Prefect of the House of Formation

— PUBLISHED OCT. 14, 2016 —

Father Whittington has a doctorate in philosophy from Baylor University. He taught philosophy at Malone University in Canton, Ohio before entering the seminary program for the Diocese of Little Rock. He was ordained to the priesthood in May 2016. The following addresses frequently asked questions about the 2016 election from a Catholic perspective.

How should a Catholic feel about this election season?

It’s been a strange, dispiriting season in our country’s political life, with public discourse plunging to lows that most us have never witnessed. For Catholics, who hold a high view of public life, this election has been especially disappointing. Substance has nearly disappeared from the debates. The topics filling the void have become so cringe-worthy it would be embarrassing, or simply inappropriate, to mention them explicitly in a diocesan newspaper or website. But I am not saying anything others have not said already, to the point of exhaustion.

You said that Catholics hold a high view of public life. What do you mean?

The Catholic Church, borrowing from Aristotle, views human beings as essentially political or social, not isolated units. Government can be, on this view, a means for improving the world we share. Catholics therefore have an obligation to consider the common good and not only their private interests when casting a vote. In other words, government is not merely a necessary evil but an expression of human nature.

What about the principle of subsidiarity? Can you discuss that?

According to the principle of subsidiarity, which the Church endorses, decisions should be made as close as possible to the people they impact. Local government generally deals better with local problems than a remote, centralized government. Local officials can view problems at close range. Having said that, local government can succumb, like every other institution, to injustice and corruption, and at times a higher level of government must intervene. We saw this in Little Rock, during the integration crisis at Central High School. Knowing when a higher authority should intervene is a difficult matter and requires a great deal of prudence.

Have we witnessed in this election a loss of trust in public life?

I imagine so. But the public has been disillusioned with politics for quite a long time, which helps explain the tenor of this election. We are not living in a time of optimism. The problems we face seem intractable. We see the hollowing out of industrial economies, which once provided a solid, middle-class income for people without a college education; the failure of immigration reform to gain political traction; the persistence of racial inequality across the country; the poor state of schools and the terrifying cost of a college degree; and the polarization of the population itself, which makes routine compromise nearly impossible, to say nothing of real accomplishment.

What issues should be at the top of the list when Catholics vote?

Most Catholics will put abortion at the top, and rightly so. But you need not be a religious person to understand the Catholic position on abortion. Someone of no religion can come to understand that a human life exists inside the womb. To extend legal protection to that life after birth and not a moment before is arbitrary. This issue is especially grave because it concerns our willingness to protect human life at its most vulnerable stage. It carries a lot of weight in every election.

Some stop here and say: Vote for the politician who opposes legal abortion. No other issue compares.

Yes, of course. Still, I think they need to consider the larger picture. Here’s a question we ought to ask: Is there really nothing a candidate can say or do that would cost him my vote, so long as he opposes legalized abortion? If the answer is “no,” then where do I draw the line? How wrong does he have to be on issues of grave concern and how bad does his character have to be before I decide to deny him my vote?

So we should weigh the issues and vote for the lesser of two evils?

No, I am not talking about choosing the lesser of two evils, for we can never intentionally choose evil. That is why it is unequivocally wrong to choose a candidate because he or she is pro-abortion. One might nevertheless conclude that a candidate horribly wrong on this issue will govern better overall, or at least ensure that other great evils will not occur. A voter might also help elect people from another party to Congress to modify or keep the president’s agenda in check — especially when it comes to Supreme Court appointments. We have a system of checks and balances, for which we should be grateful. And we can cast our vote for a candidate without giving that person our unqualified allegiance. We need not support everything our candidate supports, and after the election we can (and probably should) speak and act against certain parts of their platform. It is impossible, in any case, to support any party full stop and also align with the teaching of the Catholic Church on moral and social issues.

Is it permissible not to vote at all?

The bishops strongly urge participation in the political life of the country, a position that follows from the Church’s high regard for public life. Opting out is as much a political decision as casting a vote and a problematic decision at that. As the bishops put it: “In the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation …” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility)

Has political partisanship compromised the Church’s witness in the world?

I think so. Once we choose a political camp, we tend to accept a partisan political platform and align with that rather than the Church’s social teaching. What would happen if Catholics, a large presence in both major parties, pushed for change in areas where Church teaching conflicts with party doctrine? The point is not to turn a political party into an arm of the Church but to work with other people — of very different backgrounds — to create a more just society, as we understand that phrase. Catholic Democrats need to reckon with their party’s absolute stance on abortion and Catholic Republicans need to ask how we support and value people after birth. I know it sounds idealistic at the bitter end of a dark political season, but if Catholic citizens brought a larger vision to politics, perhaps we could broaden the political culture of this country. Perhaps we could help make our politics less polarized and more (dare I say it?) inspired. We need to become the salt of the earth, but we will not accomplish that mission if we are simply coopted by stale political ideologies. When that happens, we definitely compromise our mission in the world. When the ideology we embrace falls into disrepute, we fall too.

What if neither major party offers a candidate I can vote for?

We can also look outside the two parties that dominate the American political system and see if a party exists that has more in common with (or poses fewer threats to) Catholic social teaching. This also requires careful judgment: Will a vote for a third party be equivalent to opting out of the election or handing victory to a major-party candidate who, on balance, threatens more harm to the common good? Here we broaden the discussion, but the choices remain difficult.

To learn more about the Catholic approach to public life, see "Learn, pray, discern and vote conscience" or read Bishop Anthony B. Taylor's 2016 Faithful Citizenship homily.