Election 2012 is upon us. Many are calling it the most important election in their lives. The candidates and supporters have routinely emphasized that the Presidential candidates, their platforms, and their voting records are complete opposites. The two main parties in the United States have extremely different visions on nearly every issue of importance. And so, as is the American way, the campaign spin machines and the rhetoric are ramped up in anticipation of November 6.
How do we cut through the rhetoric so that we might become aware of and guided by Catholic principles and priorities? In answering this, we must be aware that it is virtually impossible to address election related matters without being accused of partisanship. Even Bishops face this accusation when they, for example, speak out regarding the primacy of life, marriage, and religious liberty. It remains, however, that we must sift through the nonsense and vote responsibly.
I suggest taking a step away from the political scene in the United States to consider the teaching of the Universal Church. In 2002 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life in which the Church provides Catholics in democratic societies around the world principles that are a sure and non-partisan guide. Surely, the CDF is immune from claims of loyalty to either the Republican or Democratic parties?
Recalling the example of Saint Thomas More, the first point of emphasis made by the Congregation is that our politics cannot be separated from morality. In this we must refuse to compromise. We must each vote in conformity with our well-formed Christian conscience, bringing to the social realm the moral precepts found in natural law. We are not necessarily called to bring religious precepts, but moral precepts that are common to all human beings and binding on all.
The abiding concerns of the CDF in this document are cultural relativism, the disintegration of reason and rejection of the natural moral law in favor of passing cultural and moral trends, and the marginalization of Christians from the public square. Noting that “moral anarchy” and the “oppression of the weak by the strong” is the inevitable consequence of these trends, the Church calls Catholics to actively participate so as to uphold the dignity of all persons (6). A democracy can only succeed if it is rooted in a correct understanding of the human person. “It is respect for the person that makes democratic participation possible” (3).
With this as the backdrop, the CDF distinguishes between “temporal questions that God has left to the free and responsible judgment of each person” and “non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society” (3). On the temporal questions, the Church claims no expertise in providing “specific political solutions” (3). While the CDF does not list specific examples of such temporal questions, these are understood to include economic policy, immigration law, and methods of providing healthcare.
The CDF prioritizes the “non-negotiable ethical principles” upon which democracy must be based. Quoting John Paul II, the CDF first addresses direct attacks on human life and notes that we “have a ‘grave and clear obligation to oppose’ any law that attacks human life…it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.” In the context of its discussion concerning such attacks on life, the CDF reminds us 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” (4).
The CDF then highlights abortion, euthanasia, experimentation on embryos, and “modern forms of slavery” as evils about which we may not compromise. Additionally, it stresses goods that must be protected: “monogamous marriage between a man and woman,” “the freedom of parents regarding the education of their children,” religious freedom, peace, and “the development of an economy that is at the service of the human person” (4). The above evils, without exception, may never receive support from a Catholic voter. The goods must always be pursued, though how that is accomplished will vary depending upon the political situation and the common will.
Limiting acts that “attack the very inviolability of human life” is the highest priority in the formation of consciences of Catholic voters, and “the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility” when we face political candidates that support policies that offend “moral principles that do not admit of exception.” As we vote on November 6, we must be very clear on the positions taken by the candidates on the issues, and we must discharge our responsibilities according to the principles taught by the Church.