How Should Catholics Prepare to Vote?

In 1831-1832 a 26-year-old Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville spent nine months touring the United States.

He talked with people, observed events, soaked up impressions of the bustling young nation to share with the people back home. The result, his book called “Democracy in America,” is regarded even today as one of the shrewdest studies of American political and social life ever penned. This is de Tocqueville’s account of the run-up to an American national election — a description as accurate in essentials now as when it was written: “The election becomes the greatest and, as it were, the only matter which occupies people’s minds. Then political factions redouble their enthusiasm, every possible phony passion that the imagination can conceive … comes out into the light of day. The President, for his part, is absorbed in the task of defending himself. He governs no longer in the interests of the state but out of concern for his re-election…. The whole nation descends into a feverish state; the election becomes the daily theme of newspapers, the subject of private conversations, the object of every maneuver and thought, the only concern of the present moment.” 

Catholic vote

Add a few items from today’s bag of political tricks — PACs and super PACs, the ubiquitous presence of media, attack ads, robocalls, televised presidential debates — and you’ve got a surprisingly accurate picture of the election of 2012. The nuts and bolts of politicking don’t change, and neither do the moral principles that guide — or at least ought to guide — Catholics’ participation in political life. While de Tocqueville, a Catholic himself, dealt with this subject, too, in citing the five principles for Catholic voters that follow, I’m not drawing on “Democracy in America,” but on documents of the Church, especially “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a 36-page statement by the U.S. bishops meant to help Catholic voters. (It’s available from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.) 

But note: Catholics also need to be aware of a new situation confronting the Church in America that has serious implications for their voting. As a Church lawyer put it a while back when briefing some journalists, where the Church used to face the challenge of maintaining legal prohibitions of certain morally reprehensible things, in this new phase the Church must resist government coercion to cooperate with them. Notable current examples include abortion, contraception, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage.  

With this background in mind, the five principles are these. 

1. Voting is a moral act — don’t vote frivolously or selfishly. 

Frivolous voting is illustrated in the case of a good Catholic woman who once confessed to me in some embarrassment that she’d cast her ballot for a particular candidate because she liked the photos she’d seen of his cat. She was a cat fancier, she explained, and resented all the attention paid to politicians’ dogs. Now she realized she’d made a mistake.  

An extreme case, no doubt. But it’s hardly uncommon for voters to be swayed by peripheral considerations like a candidate’s looks (bald is bad, I sometimes think), personal history (ethnic background, religious affiliation, etc.) or populist rhetoric rather than the substance of his or her policy positions and relevant experience. 

Frivolous voting merges with selfishness in the case of voters who stick with “their” party or interest group no matter what. The bishops’ document “Forming Consciences” says a definite no to that: 

“As Catholics, we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths” (No. 14). 

2. Don’t compartmentalize politics and morality. 

“Those who would treat politics and morality apart will never understand the one or the other,” British statesman, author and editor John Morley (1838-1923) once said. And the Second Vatican Council famously declared: “One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives…. Let Christians … be proud of the opportunity to carry out their earthly activity in such a way as to integrate human, domestic, professional, scientific and technical values” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, No. 43). 

Sad to say, this rule is frequently, even consistently, ignored in the political sphere. Machiavelli is the master, and political life regarded as a value-free zone, where, as Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.” 

A key part of the political vocation of serious Catholics today is turning this around — making it clear by their conduct that political activity is rightly guided by moral norms. 

3. Don’t absolutize politics, but don’t excessively relativize it either. 

Making politics the be all and end all of human life was a key component of 20th-century totalitarian systems such as Nazism and communism, with their secret police and thought control, gulags and concentration camps, all serving a mad vision of some sort of secular utopia. But it hasn’t vanished today. Pope Benedict XVI is right to warn against “the dictatorship of relativism” as a dangerous current reality. 

But so is an ancient tendency, found in some strains of Christian asceticism, to regard politics as having little or no real importance. The world is passing away, isn’t it, so what difference does politics make? Vatican II gave the final and definitive answer to that. What we do here and now, including political activity, has significance, the council taught; for in laboring on behalf of authentic goods — “human dignity, brotherly communion, and freedom” — we are helping build up the kingdom of God, which is “mysteriously present” even now and will be perfected when Christ comes again (see Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, No. 39). This may sound like heady stuff for Joe Voter, but it’s a crucially Catholic doctrine that Catholic voters need — and deserve — to hear. 

4. In speaking and acting on political questions, don’t let your passions take control. 

Politics is a highly emotional business; few things more readily rile up otherwise temperate and reasonable people than political arguments. Several years ago, during the question period after a talk I gave on an entirely different subject, I saw two Catholic men of my acquaintance nearly come to blows after one referred to supporters of legalized abortion as “baby killers.” 

Make no mistake — legalized abortion is a great evil and should be ended. But violent rhetoric and name-calling is more likely to hurt than help. Thank goodness, these two men didn’t actually fight, but they parted on very bad terms while the other members of the audience went away shaking their heads. Prudent people make their arguments by reason and moderation, not inflammatory words and incitement to violence. 

5. Form your conscience through study and prayer, then vote on the basis of moral principle, especially the common good, and your honest judgment of which candidate or candidates will do the best job protecting and promoting it.  

Democracy, Pope Benedict has said, “succeeds only to the extent that it is based on truth and a correct understanding of the human person.” Political systems that try to operate on some other basis sooner or later end in tyranny and injustice, however carefully that may be concealed by demagogic appeals to majority rule and the right to choose. But even within this framework of principle, people disagree over what priority to assign to particular issues in a particular election. The bishops don’t lay down a hard-and-fast rule, but “Forming Consciences” makes it clear that issues with a direct bearing upon the life and dignity of human persons necessarily come first. In that category are abortion, cloning, the deliberate destruction of human embryos, assisted suicide and euthanasia, together with questions of war and national security. That isn’t to say economic issues and other matters aren’t important — the bishops give plenty of attention to them as well, with particular emphasis on marriage and family concerns. But the modern assault on the sanctity of life requires that life issues be placed at the top of the list. Regarding the Church’s role, the bishops say its “obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society” is “a requirement of our faith” (No. 9). The Church doesn’t tell Catholics how to vote; but it has a right and duty to remind us of the relevant moral principles. 

Having described an American election, de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” adds this: “It is true that as soon as the result has been announced, this passion is dispelled, all returns to calm…. But should we not find it astonishing that such a storm should have arisen in the first place?” Astonishing — maybe. But that’s how the game gets played. TCA 

Russell Shaw is a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C. His 21st book, on the Americanization of American Catholics, is forthcoming next year.