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How ‘No Catholic Can Vote For ______ ’ is Wrong

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Note: This is the first of a two-part series that approaches issues for Catholics in the upcoming election. This column deals with the issue of conscience and prudence, and the next column will deal with public policy issues and the guidance from Catholic Social Teaching.

The two major political parties have finished their conventions, and so the election season has begun in earnest. A great deal of attention, of course, is focused on the presidential election, but there are so many elections for Congress, for state positions, and for local offices that we need to think broadly about how we approach every election and each position that is up for a vote.

In every race for public office, no matter how great or small, we are faced with a moral decision about whom to vote for. We know that there are so many factors to consider – but what is the basis for approaching every box we check on the ballot from a Catholic perspective?

The most fundamental idea that we must embrace is what the Church calls the “primacy of conscience.” This was clearly set out in the Vatican II document, “Gaudium et spes (The Church in the Modern World),” at article #16:

“Deep within their consciences, men and women discover a law which they have not laid upon themselves and which they must obey. Its voice, ever calling them to love and to do what is good and avoid evil, tells them inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For they have in their hearts a law inscribed by God. Their dignity rests in observing this law, and by it they will be judged.” 

Note that the bishops of the council made it clear that a person must obey their conscience. After a person has made the effort to form their conscience, and has been informed by reason, and Scripture, and Church teaching, they make a prudential decision, in conscience, to vote one way or another.

In one of the bulletin inserts on Faithful Citizenship published by the U.S. Bishops, they say: “The Church equips its members to address political questions by helping them develop well-formed consciences. ‘Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act. . . . (Every person) is obliged to follow faithfully what he (or she) knows to be just and right’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1778). We Catholics 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.”

All of this is to say that no one – not a bishop or a priest or a deacon or anyone who professes to speak for the Church – no one can say that Catholics can or cannot vote for a particular candidate or can or cannot vote for a particular party. Each vote cast must be a prudential decision in conscience by each Catholic.

And how does a person form their conscience? Again, the bishops give us guidance as part of their teaching effort for the 2020 election called “Civilize It.” They offer these specific ideas to form your conscience: 1) Begin by being open to the truth and what is right. 2) Study Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church. 3) Examine the facts and background information about various choices and be discerning in where we gather information. 4) Prayerfully reflect to discern the will of God.

The next column will address the very practical method of comparing issues and using facts, information, and Catholic Social Teaching to guide our decisions.

Deacon Don is the diocesan director for Catholic Relief Services and can be reached at deacondon@gmail.com.

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