What’s a voter to do?
Campaign signs have sprouted up like mushrooms across Montana’s front yards and busy intersections. Skillfully crafted ads and websites showcase each candidate’s pet positions and slogans. Doorbelling and debates are de rigueur. Strategically timed “letters to the editor” trumpet the down-home qualities of each political hopeful.
Beneath the surface of campaign rhetoric and sloganeering lies a morass of critical issues. The nation is at war. The federal budget is awash in red ink. The country is divided over immigration and polarized on a number of other vital issues.
Complex questions abound, making some voters feel overwhelmed or immobilized by the sheer number of complicated concerns: abortion, assisted suicide, death penalty, terrorism, gun control, global warming, foreign policy, affordable housing, fuel prices, universal health care, prescription drugs, environmental protection, exportation of jobs, prison reform, educational excellence, mental health, domestic violence, drug addiction, crime and punishment, human trafficking, just wages and working conditions, and fair taxation.
What’s a voter to do?
In recent decades the Catholic Church has developed a set of time-tested principles to help guide each individual, regardless of religious affiliation, who is facing difficult decisions in the polling place. Catholic social teaching offers a lens through which to view the litany of concerns facing the nation and to make decisions in light of the Gospel.
Catholic social teaching challenges the individual voter to think critically, ask informed questions, and avoid the tendency to vote along strict party lines or not at all.
Catholic social teaching is built upon important principles which offer guidance to the individual voter who is weaving through the heavy traffic of the day.
1. Human Life is Sacred
The foundational principle of Catholic social teaching is the inherent dignity and worth of every individual, from the moment of conception until natural death. St. Augustine – in light of Gen. 1:27 – described each person with the phrase imago Dei; that is, each person is made in the image of God. Catholic social teaching insists that “our human dignity is inherent and is neither conferred by society or state nor dependent upon any achievement or claim we make for it. Therefore, it is not ours to surrender nor can others take it away.” 1
The voter must pay attention to a candidate’s position on the continuum of human life issues. Does he or she believe in the sacredness of human life? Does the “right to choose” mean the right to kill an unborn child or allow state-sponsored suicide or homicide? The individual voter must ask the hard questions and read critically a candidate’s or party’s position on human life issues. We do well to pay attention when candidates receive endorsements from individuals or groups who hold positions inimical to Catholic social teaching on human life, e.g., Planned Parenthood, NARAL, the Hemlock Society, etc.
2. The Common Good
To paraphrase the poet John Donne, “no one is an island, no one stands alone.” Pope John XXIII described the common good as “the sum total of conditions of social living, whereby persons are enabled more fully and readily to achieve their own perfection” (Mater et Magistra, 65). Father Kenneth Himes, OFM, writes that “no description of the common good can exclude concern for an individual, [or] writing off some person or group as unworthy of our interest.”2
Since the earliest days of the Church, the community of believers expressed deep solicitude toward widows, orphans and the poor. The common good demands concern for a wide spectrum of persons who are voiceless or vulnerable, including the elderly, the poor, the dying, the unborn and those unable to care for themselves. It is important to listen carefully to the campaign commitments of each candidate vis-à-vis the most vulnerable in our midst.
3. Human Rights
Catholic social teaching, especially since the time of John XXIII, insists that “in our time the common good is chiefly guaranteed when personal rights and duties are maintained” (Pacem in terris, 60). What do we mean by human rights? Nations and cultures envision different approaches to human rights, depending on their economic, political and social strategies.
In his address to the 34th General Assembly of the United Nations, Pope John Paul II outlined some of the most important human rights endorsed by the Catholic Church:
"the right to life, liberty and security of the person; the right to food, clothing, housing, sufficient health care, rest and leisure; the right to freedom of expression, education and culture; the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to manifest one’s religion either individually or in community, in public or in private; the right to choose a state of life, to found a family and to enjoy all conditions necessary for family life; the right to property and work, to adequate working conditions and a just wage, the right to assembly and association; the right to freedom of movement, to internal and external migration; the right to nationality and residence; the right to political participation and the right to participate in the free choice of the political system of the people to which one belongs" (no. 14).
It is vitally important to evaluate a political party’s commitment (or lack thereof) to fundamental human rights and decide on their candidates accordingly.
4. Preferential Option for the Poor
Late in the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII urged the Church toward a “preferential option for the poor.” This vision not only seeks to provide compassionate care for those who are needy or vulnerable, but also demands that society seek ways to address the underlying causes of poverty and human misery. The preferential option for the poor includes a commitment to empower those beset by human need and provides concrete ways for them to regain their footing in society.
“Not only a hand out but a hand up” is another way to describe the preferential option and includes programs for education, rehabilitation, and exit strategies from the world of welfare, addiction, domestic violence, illiteracy, etc. Candidates do well to speak concretely about their vision to empower and liberate individuals and communities who are immobilized by poverty, unemployment and human need.
5. The Just War Theory
The present conflict in Iraq, along with a host of other venues where American forces are involved, has polarized our nation. Catholic social teaching provides important criteria that address the questions of when to go to war and how to wage war. The American bishops in their letter entitled “The Challenge of Peace” outline the following values that help individuals and politicians evaluate the just cause of armed engagement:
- competent authority: any decision to go to war must be made by the person or persons who are duly empowered to act on behalf of the common good.
- comparative justice: this refers to the need to determine which side is sufficiently right in its complaint about the other side.
- right intention: closely linked to just cause, this criterion calls for scrutiny of the motivation for war.
- last resort: all reasonable peaceful alternatives must be tried before taking up arms.
- probability of success: although often hard to assess, the idea is to avoid senseless or irrational use of force.
- proportionality: this refers to some calculation of whether the good to be obtained by war outweighs the harm to be caused.
- when the criteria for why and when are addressed, it remains to assess the means. It is important to evaluate the methods employed by combatants. As frequently acknowledged, there are crimes in war, even if the war itself is not a crime.
- discrimination: the most important distinction that must be made is between the combatants and non-combatants.
- proportionality: the assessment of good and evil should be applied not just to the overall war but to the particular tactics and weapons used in the fighting of the war. (The Challenge of Peace, 87-99).
Clearly the just war tradition is meant to engage and not replace our moral judgment. The just war theory requires that those in positions of authority continually and systematically evaluate the impact that war has on civilian populations and consistently prefer dialogue and diplomacy over armed conflict. It also demands that we follow carefully the rule of law as envisioned by the Geneva convention so that prisoners of war are treated humanely and justly.
The voter does well to listen closely to the position that each candidate holds in relationship to the elements of Catholic social teaching for a just war.
The Just Society
The fathers of the Second Vatican Council wisely asserted that the social order “must be founded on truth, built on justice, and animated by love.”
During this time leading up to the primary and general elections, the discerning voter, regardless of religious affiliation, will pay attention to the vision and values of Catholic social teaching. These time-tested principles will help us cut through the rhetoric and make informed choices that uphold the dignity of human life and protect the common good.
What’s a voter to do?
Do your homework. Think critically. Ask hard questions. Become politically involved. Challenge candidates and parties to act justly, and protect the most vulnerable and voiceless in our midst.
Catholic social teaching is the surest way I know to achieve a just society.
1 Kenneth Himes, Responses to 101 Questions on Catholic Social Teaching, Paulist Press, 2001, p. 31.
2 Himes, p. 36.