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Voting One's Conscience

Some people prefer not discussing politics or religion in social gatherings—and definitely avoid discussing them together.

On January 16, 2003, the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) released its 18-page Doctrinal Note about some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life. This statement is directed to bishops, Catholic politicians and laypeople in democratic societies.

The Note states, "It is commendable that in today’s democratic societies, in a climate of true freedom, everyone is made a participant in directing the body politic."

The Note urges Catholics to base their contribution to society and political life "on their particular understanding of the human person and the common good." In the 20th century, the Holocaust and totalitarian governments were two bitter examples of denying the moral law rooted in human nature.

"The Church recognizes that, while democracy is the best expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices, it succeeds only to the extent that it is based on a correct understanding of the human person," explains the Note.

Protecting Human Life

This document cites Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Gospel of Life that those directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a "grave and clear obligation" to oppose any law that attacks human life (#73).

The CDF Note says that identifying religious law with civil law can lead to unfair restrictions on religious freedom.

"The social doctrine of the Church is not an intrusion into the government of individual countries. It is a question of the lay Catholic’s duty to be morally coherent, found within one’s conscience, which is one and indivisible," says the Note.

Making Prudential Judgments

Conscientious voting includes making concrete choices about candidates or about issues. Each person must strive to develop a well-informed conscience. But two people could assess the same information differently and might make different conscience decisions.

Starting in 1976, the U.S. bishops began to issue, every four years, a reflection on political issues facing voters in this country. Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium was released in late 1999, long before any party platforms or candidates were finalized for the elections in 2000.

In Faithful Citizenship, the bishops invite Catholic voters to see their responsibilities in public life "through the eyes of faith and to bring their moral convictions to their civic tasks and choices."

The bishops wrote, "We believe every candidate, policy and political platform should be measured by how they touch the human person; whether they enhance or diminish human life, dignity and human rights; and how they advance the common good."

They continued: "As bishops, we do not seek the formation of a religious voting block, nor do we wish to instruct persons on how they should vote by endorsing or opposing candidates. We hope that voters will examine the position of candidates on the full range of issues, as well as on their personal integrity, philosophy and performance. We are convinced that a consistent ethic of life should be the moral framework from which to address all issues in the political arena."

Who Is Pro-Life?

Consider theoretically a state with two main candidates for governor. One of them campaigns to end all abortions yet also wants to increase the use of capital punishment and abolish many welfare programs. The other candidate deplores abortion yet is ready to uphold existing laws while arguing against the increased use of capital punishment and abolishing those welfare programs.

Which candidate is pro-life? Is either candidate totally pro-life? Must all conscientious Catholics vote for the same candidate? If politics is the art of the possible, will all conscientious people always agree on what is possible and how to achieve it?

In democracies, voting is often an act of conscience, which Vatican II described as a person’s "most secret core and sanctuary" (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, #16).

Uniting Faith and Life

The CDF Note is remarkable for its praise of democracies. The Holy See was very suspicious about them 150 years ago.

Democracies have nothing to fear from people whose voting is motivated by a well-formed conscience. In 1787, the drafters of the U.S. Constitution went as far as their consciences and current politics allowed. Later voters went further, for example, outlawing slavery and extending to women the right to vote.

Conscience choices are often difficult. But they cannot be avoided simply because there are many different opinions on the subject and people do not want to impose their moral values on others.

In politics, someone’s moral values will prevail, directing public policy. Conscientious voters ask, "Which moral values? Which public policy?"

St. Thomas More was martyred in 1535 for making a conscience choice. In 2001, Pope John Paul II proclaimed him the patron of statesmen and politicians. May we never fear to use our consciences in making political choices. —P.M.

The text of this CDF Note can be found at www.vatican.va.


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