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Posted by on Nov 5, 2012

Conscience-Based Voting: A Challenge for Catholic Voters

As American Catholics go to the polls to vote for President in 2012, many are experiencing confusion regarding whether they can in good conscience vote for a candidate or party with a platform that allows Americans of whatever religion or no religion to choose abortion, contraception, sterilization and gay marriage. Don’t they as faithful Catholics have to vote for the candidate and party whose policies agree with the moral teaching of the Church and deny these choices to all Americans? By the same token, the Church has take a strong position in support of health care for all, cradle to grave social services, and the right to organize unions. Does this mean that Catholics cannot vote for either party? Does it mean that Catholics cannot hold public office?

A Clarification from the Holy Office

In 2004, Pope Benedict XVI, while still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the Church’s guardian of moral teaching as head of the Holy Office, offered guidance on this dilemma, underlining the principles involved for the Catholic voter. This guidance was issued in the context of whether and when Communion might be denied to Catholic politicians due to their actions in the arena of policy formulation and governing in a secular society.

“A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia,” Cardinal Ratzinger wrote.

“When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons,” he said. (emphasis added)

John Thavis, of Catholic News Service, in his report on Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement went on to explain:

“In other words, if a Catholic thinks a candidate’s positions on other issues outweigh the difference on abortion, a vote for that candidate would not be considered sinful.”

This position assumes that the individual Catholic’s conscience is in agreement with these Church sanctioned policies. A Catholic may decide that abortion is evil and wrong, that it is murder, but he or she may be reluctant to re-criminalize it for all Americans since it would lead to illegal and dangerous back street abortions. A Catholic might see such an anti-abortion law, refusal to pay for birth control, or rejection of gay civil marriage as a violation of the conscience of others that undermines basic freedoms in a secular republic. According to Catholic teaching, individual Catholics have the final responsibility for forming their conscience and making decisions. While Catholics are supposed to pay heed to the teaching and tradition of the Church, conscience is also the product of a prayerful reflection on all relevant domains of knowledge. To violate one’s conscience is a very serious sin.

And what of the Catholic politician who personally rejects abortion but refuses to vote to re-criminalize the practice? Does voting in a manner contrary to Church positions on these contentious issues automatically result in excommunication or other Church sanction? Are politicians required to vote in opposition to the positions of their constituents when those positions are not supported by Church teaching?

In Cardinal Ratzinger’s memorandum to Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, DC, he recommended a series of steps that might be followed by bishops in dealing with Catholic politicians. These include a process of pastoral guidance and correction. Denial of Communion, while certainly an option, was not presented as an essential step in the process, though it is included as an option in the case of “obstinate persistence” on the part of the politician. Comparison was made to Church rules allowing denial of Communion to divorced persons who remarry without receiving an annulment of their prior marriage and obstinately persist in receiving Communion. Nevertheless, some canon law experts have suggested that the situation of the politician may be much more complex than that of the divorced and remarried Catholic, so an automatic judgment that a case of “objective situation of sin” exists cannot be as easily made. The final decision of the American bishops on this question noted that a “prudential judgment” would be required in dealing with each case due to the complexity of the question.

Why a “prudential judgment” rather than an absolute, automatic condemnation? Because politicians are also required to form their own conscience and act in accordance with its dictates. The politician who personally opposes abortion, yet finds the risks to social order entailed by the re-opening of an entire field of criminal activity that exploits frightened girls and women too great to endorse re-criminalization of abortion, may in good conscience find that he or she must vote against such measures. Such an individual might be granted the same exemption as that received by the above-mentioned voter due to the “proportionate reasons” behind his or her decision.

Election 2012

The campaign of 2012 has seen a number of  ordained clerics, including bishops, stepping dangerously near, if not across the border between their role as teachers of the faith and their personal role as voting members of American society. This is unfortunate. It can confuse, frighten, and anger the faithful in a manner contrary to the teachings of our faith and the documents of the Second Vatican Council, including Dignitatis Humanae, which notes that coercion is never to be used as a means of bringing people to faith or influencing their decisions. Comments suggesting that the faithful who having struggled with the issues and come to a decision in good conscience that does not agree with that of their local bishop should abstain from receiving Communion are a form of coercion.

Canon Law experts take the position that the burden of deciding whether one can receive the sacraments is fundamentally a personal decision. If one is guilty of serious sin, then clearly one should not receive the sacrament. Yet who decides the state of my soul?

Both major parties have offered tickets in which the Vice Presidential candidate is a practicing Catholic. Yet the positions of the two candidates are not in agreement on significant issues of public policy, including reproductive rights, civil marriage rules, protection of the most vulnerable among us, the rights of workers, our place as a nation among others in the world, and protection of our common world’s environment. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has criticized the policies of the Democratic party on reproductive and homosexual issues. The Bishops have also criticized the economic and social justice policies of the Republican Party, as embodied in the proposed national budget developed by Vice Presidential candidate, Representative Paul Ryan, and endorsed by his Presidential running mate, Governor Mitt Romney.

Some argue that a hierarchy of “goods” exists that demands selection of leaders based on the relative position of the “good” in that hierarchy. Others argue that “single issue” choices fail to take into account a multitude of other considerations that play a much larger role in achieving the “common good” towards which we are to work.

Perhaps a case should also be made for pastoral guidance and correction for those politicians who fail to support the other pro-life issues we face – those, for instance, who would cut funding for programs such as WIC that provide nutrition support for pregnant and nursing mothers and their children. The right to life does not begin with conception and end with birth. As Cardinal Bernardin noted, life is a seamless garment: from womb to tomb. How we best support life through all of its stages is not always clear. That’s why we need to have Catholic politicians who are not afraid to face the complexity of these issues, struggle with the messiness of life, and, taking into account the teachings of their faith and their own experience of God’s love, make decisions to support or oppose measures that support life for their constituents and their fellow citizens – both those who share their faith and those who do not. Threats to refuse them the Bread of Life because their efforts to support life are not narrow enough threaten the freedom of all Catholics to enter the conversation, work to bring justice for all, and influence the development of the laws by which we govern ourselves. That would truly be a great tragedy – to close our ears to the whispers of the Holy Spirit in the signs of our times.

The Role of Ordained Clerics — To Teach and Clarify Church Teachings

The 1983 Code of Canon Law (Catholic Church Law) prohibits ordained clerics (deacons, priests, bishops, including cardinals) from publicly indicating in any way their personal preference in candidates. They are also forbidden to tell members of the faithful how to vote. They are, however, allowed to provide guidance regarding Church teachings and moral issues at stake.

In the light of this responsibility, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement first published in 2007, has laid out a series of guidelines for American Catholics: The Challenge of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. A summary of the document has been made available for distribution in parishes across the country. The document speaks of our duty to form our consciences carefully, to search for what is truly good in each situation and choose the best means to achieve it. Seven areas of Catholic teaching are included for consideration in the choice of elected officials.

  1. The Right to Life and the Dignity of the Human Person
  2. The Call to Family, Community and Participation
  3. The Rights and Responsibilities of Humans
  4. The Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
  5. The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
  6. Solidarity with Other Humans
  7. Caring for God’s Creation

The bishops call us to focus on moral principles, including the defense of life, the needs of the weak, and the pursuit of the common good. These are all issues which must be considered in the formation of conscience. They are all issues we must consider as we go to the polls to choose the men and women who will represent us in dealing with the challenges we face as a nation and as members of a world-wide community of human beings.

As we cast our ballots, let us remember to pray for the men and women who have stepped forward to accept the challenge of leadership. May they be guided by the Holy Spirit speaking in the depths of their heart to be compassionate and wise in their decisions and efforts to support life: from conception, through all its stages, to natural death.






  1. Kathy, this is beautifully laid out! I wish I could have had a copy to deliver to every voter I know, but I didn’t discover it in time. I have to check your blog more often! Great stuff!

  2. Thanks, Marsha. I appreciate your support. Now that it’s written, you can use it for future elections. We’ll likely continue to have to address the same concerns in the future as well.

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