Paul Fahey – July 25, 2016
In Part One of this series on voting with the mind and heart of the Church, I talked about the unique role that Catholics have in politics, using the USCCB’s document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship as my guide. Specifically, Catholics are called to be salt, light, and leaven in all areas of human culture, including the political arena. Thus, political participation is not only a good and noble thing, but it is also a moral obligation. However, as Christ warns, “…if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13). In other words, how are Catholic voters distinct from secular voters? How do we vote as Catholics and not as pagans? How do we bring light to the political arena and not simply acquiesce to the darkness?
The short answer is that we make Christ’s political priorities our own. We all have our own political preferences, issues close to our hearts, policies that may directly affect our life, families, or livelihood – and that’s great! However, as Catholics we are called to be docile before the teachings of Christ and to make the Church’s priorities our own. Only in this way, as the bishops say, will we “help transform the party to which we belong” and “not let the party transform us.”
The Church’s priorities are rooted first and foremost in the immeasurable dignity of every human person made in the image of God. Several things follow from this fundamental principle, and I want to highlight a couple of them. First, the Church is concerned with particular issues and not political parties. All of the major political parties in the US support policies that fundamentally violate human dignity. The embrace of any major party’s entire platform would be irresponsible and immoral for a Catholic.
Second, rooted in the principle of universal human dignity, the Church teaches that there are actions so opposed to human life that they can never be morally justified. These actions are called “intrinsic evils,” sometimes referred to as “non-negotiable issues,” and I want to spend most of my time talking about them. The USCCB explains:
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.
An intrinsically evil action can never be justified regardless of the circumstances. Note that this is different than a “regular” evil action. For example, killing a human being is evil, but not intrinsically evil. If a gunman stormed into a public building and started shooting at innocent people, a person could legitimately shoot and kill this gunman in order to defend their own life and the lives of others in the room. Thus, because there are circumstances in which killing another person is licit, killing itself is not intrinsically evil. However, intentionally killing an innocent person (i.e. murder) is an intrinsic evil.
The bishops go on to list some relevant examples of intrinsic evils that Catholics can never support or condone (note that this list is not exhaustive as there are other intrinsic evils that the USCCB does not mention):
A prime example [of an intrinsic evil] is the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia. In our nation, “abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others” (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 5).
…Similarly, human cloning, destructive research on human embryos, and other acts that directly violate the sanctity and dignity of human life are also intrinsically evil. These must always be opposed. Other direct assaults on innocent human life, such as genocide, torture, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified. Nor can violations of human dignity, such as acts of racism, treating workers as mere means to an end, deliberately subjecting workers to subhuman living conditions, treating the poor as disposable, or redefining marriage to deny its essential meaning, ever be justified.
With this list of intrinsic evils in mind the USCCB warns against two “temptations” that the faithful must avoid. The first temptation is thinking that there is no distinction, no difference in moral weight between issues. The bishops clearly state, “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. It must always be opposed.”
However, the bishops then warn us against the second temptation, which is to focus on just one issue and to ignore or dismiss the rest. The bishops go on to list care for the environment, racism, unjust discrimination, unjust war, torture, lack of basic resource, lack of health care, pornography, the redefinition of marriage, religious liberty, and unjust immigration policies all as issues of grave concern for Catholics. The USCCB states:
These are not optional concerns which can be dismissed. Catholics are urged to seriously consider Church teaching on these issues. 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.
Then to emphasize their point, the US bishops quote a fantastic document by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith titled Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life. This document says:
It must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility toward the common good.
With all of this in mind, two conclusions quickly become apparent. First, all major political parties actively champion intrinsic evils. Second, all of the major candidates running for president also actively champion intrinsic evils. So what options do Catholics have this presidential election? How can we participate in this election and not violate our conscience by condoning intrinsic evils and supporting policies that violate human dignity? Don’t despair, there are options. And that is what I will discuss in part three.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles or follow him on Facebook.