Several Catholic leaders have recently commented that Catholics should not be “single issue” voters, meaning that they shouldn’t vote exclusively on the abortion issue. I agree. But it’s not necessary to be a single-issue voter to give the life issues the priority they deserve. Catholics should be “dominant issue” voters.
The Catholic Church proposes a vertical—not horizontal list of moral and social issues for political consideration. The life issues—including abortion, euthanasia, fetal stem-cell research, and cloning—are at the top of that hierarchy. These issues should be considered dominant in determining how to vote for two simple reasons: First, the protection of life—the right to life—is a moral principle that sits at the foundation of morality itself. And it’s one of the three foundational rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. There could be no right to liberty or happiness unless there were a living person in the first place.
Second, the Catholic injunction to oppose abortion is unqualified: Individuals are not required, or allowed, to make prudential judgments of the principle to a specific case. Appeals to private “conscience” cannot override this infallible teaching. In the Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Public Life, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger writes:
In this context, it must be noted also 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. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good.
Opposition to abortion, therefore, binds every Catholic on pain of mortal sin; it admits of no exceptions. There is no question, then, that as the dominant issue, a politician’s position on abortion qualifies him or her for the Catholic vote. From the perspective of the Church, not all the policy positions taken by candidates are of equal importance. Catholics, by understanding themselves as dominant-issue voters, can preserve the hierarchy of values at the core of Church teaching while not ignoring the legitimate spectrum of issues important to political consideration.
Furthermore, by understanding the dominance of life issues, Catholics will overcome their confusion about the difference between moral principle and prudential judgment. Unlike the admonition against abortion, most of the general principles proposed in Church teaching can be implemented in a variety of ways; it’s simply a mistake to assume—as the left often does—that one kind of implementation is more “Catholic” than another.
(The bishops’ conference issues dozens of policy recommendations every congressional session on issues ranging from broadband legislation to minimum wage and partial-birth abortion. Unfortunately, the average Catholic doesn’t discriminate between simple policy recommendations made by the conference and doctrinal statements and often wrongly assumes that they have equal authority.)
One final advantage to the dominant-issue approach is that it can help close the unnecessary divide between pro-life Catholics and “social justice” Catholics. There’s a clear continuity between providing someone with food and shelter and the willingness to defend his life when it’s threatened. The Church often employs the phrase “social justice” when addressing “the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1928).
The demands of social justice, then, begin with the right to life and end with the right to be protected from euthanasia or the temptation of assisted suicide. It’s a mistake to detach the idea of social justice from the protection of vulnerable life: The source of moral obligation to protect the unborn and to feed the hungry is one and the same—the inherent dignity of the human person.