Msgr. Owen Campion in his November 2010 article, “John F. Kennedy’s Election Lives On,” argues that Kennedy’s presidency reinforced “private” Catholicism but that this philosophical perspective already existed. He notes that at present “more than a few Catholic politicians, and many American voters, say that voting at the polls or in legislatures, is a ‘personal matter,’ putting other considerations on a par with, or higher than, Catholic values.” The result is that even though the Catholic Church’s position on abortion is well known, today “the ten states with the highest percentages of Catholic voters are represented by U.S. senators who favor abortion on demand. . .
That correctly described situation is enormously troubling and unfortunate. Part of the problem may be that some Catholics fail to recognize that Catholic values should permeate all their actions as Catholics. All of life should be illuminated by one’s values. A person’s faith should permeate every facet of her life. It should not be restricted to Sundays. A person is not a Catholic one day of the week and a citizen the rest of the time. She is an American seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and a Catholic seven days per week, 24 hours per day. One does not cease to be an American citizen when one attends Mass and receives the Eucharist. Likewise, one does not stop being a Catholic when one votes on legislation or enters a voting booth to elect candidates.
Another aspect of the problem may be that Catholics do not wish to impose their Catholic values on other people living in a pluralistic society. They do not wish that the values of other Christian denominations, or other religions be imposed either. That is a commendable position! No secular government should impose on its citizens the obligation of attending Mass on Sunday or being baptized, or venerating cows, or practicing salat. Nor should a state under normal circumstances prohibit dancing in public, drinking alcohol in moderation, congregating to celebrate the Eucharist, gambling at home, or eating beef. For a state to impose such obligations or prohibitions would be to violate either human or religious freedom. Religious freedom clearly is “based on the very dignity of the human person as known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself” (Dignitatis Humanae, No. 2).
We should not expect civil leaders in a secular pluralistic society to impose Catholic or other religious values. What we should expect them to do (pressuring them if necessary) is legislate against unjust and socially harmful behavior. We should expect them to promote order, peace, the common good, and justice. The secular society is ethically bound to legislate against unjust and socially detrimental behavior. It must both pass and uphold laws against social injustice.
A secular government cannot realistically be expected to legislate against getting drunk in the privacy or one’s home. But it should be expected to legislate against drunk driving. The state cannot be expected to legislate against pre-marital sexual activity between consenting adults dating each other. But it is morally obligated to pass laws against the killing of the children that result from such immoral sexual conduct, whether born or preborn. Infanticide and abortion should both be outlawed.
The state passes laws against murder, rape, child and spousal abuse, racial discrimination, assaults, muggings, and robbery, and well it should. These actions are all unjust and socially harmful. They are all crimes. It is because abortion is a crime against humanity that it should be outlawed not because the preservation of innocent human life is a Catholic value. Abortion is the destruction of the life of a young human being. “The moral gravity of procured abortion is apparent in all its truth if we recognize that we are dealing with murder. The one eliminated is a human being at the very beginning of life” (Evangelium Vitae, No. 58). Unfortunately, religious educators may not have stressed enough the criminal dimension of abortion.
Although there may be some doubt as to exactly when human personhood begins, science makes it abundantly clear that with fertilization a new, distinct human life commences that is different from that of mother or father. Membership in the human species from conception grants at least the probability that we are dealing with a human person from that moment. A truly civilized society does not grant permission to take the life of that which is at the very least probably a human being, a human person. What state would allow the implosion of a building that probably has human beings living inside it?
Civil authorities should have as their primary concern to establish laws guaranteeing that the rights of people within their jurisdictions are defended, promoted and respected. Government fails in its ethical obligations when it does not live up to this.
Catholics should not vote to impose their Catholic values on others. They should support religious freedom, remembering all the while that religious freedom has reasonable limits. No one can legitimately claim on the basis of religious freedom the right to abuse the fundamental rights of others, particularly when what is involved is the destruction of the most basic of all rights, the right of life itself. “The legal toleration of abortion . . . can in no way claim to be based on respect for the conscience of others precisely because society has the right and the duty to protect itself against the abuses which can occur in the name of conscience and under the pretext of freedom” (Evangelium Vitae, No. 71).
Voting by a Catholic should involve fidelity to a faith-informed conscience. Voting has repercussions in social justice. Therefore, it is never a purely personal matter. The Second Vatican Council teaches that “every citizen ought to be mindful of his right and duty to promote the common good by using his vote” (Gandium et Spes, No. 75).
Charles DeCelles, Ph.D., Professor & Chairman, Department of Religious Studies, Marywood University, Scranton, PA