Catholic Voters and the Dilemma of 2016

If you believe in conscience (as some voters now do) that the candidates in a particular election hold morally insupportable views on various serious matters, what should you do?

As the presidential primaries wear on, a potentially serious dilemma has begun to take shape for some voters.

The question isn’t for whom to vote in November but whether to vote at all.

Yes, the candidates of both parties who are currently considered to have a serious shot at the nomination do have their enthusiastic supporters. But for other voters these office-seekers inspire not just distaste but uncertainty about the moral acceptability of voting for any of them.

Keep calm. This is not a prelude to arguing for or against the policy views of Hillary or Bernie, Donald or Ted or John. Rather, the question I’m raising here is precisely this: if you believe in conscience (as some voters now do) that the candidates in a particular election hold morally insupportable views on various serious matters, what should you do? Some people already know their answer, but the fact that others are uncertain underlines the need for timely reflection on these matters.

The Catholic bishops of the United States anticipated the question last year and gave an answer worth considering. In a statement called Faithful Citizenship setting out general principles and presenting their own policy views, bishops said this:

“When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other human goods.”

Which is to say: either don’t vote or else vote for the one you believe will do the least harm.

Notice that the bishops call not voting “extraordinary.” When counseling voters, civic-minded religious groups generally tell them to inform themselves on the issues and candidates and cast their ballots in light of a responsible judgment about who will best serve the common good. Faithful Citizenship does plenty of that, and what it says is worth considering.

Catholic social teaching, the bishops point out, is grounded in four basic principles: the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. In a key passage unpacking the meaning of these principles, they say:

“Every human being has a right to life, the fundamental right that makes all other rights possible, and a right to access those things required for human decency—food and shelter, education and employment, health care and housing, freedom of religion and family life.”

Ideally, political debate would operate in the framework of principles like these. Alas, that’s hardly the case with American politics lately. What we’ve had instead has been, in the bishops’ words, “a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites, and media hype.”

Now Americans find themselves facing the unpleasant but predictable consequences of that approach to politics: candidates for the nation’s highest office whom some serious-minded, well-informed voters can’t conscientiously support. In Democracy in America that astute observer Alexis de Tocqueville blamed such an outcome on what he called “the natural instincts of democracy.”

“ I hold it proved,” the Frenchman wrote after an extensive tour of the United States two centuries ago, “that those who consider universal suffrage as a guarantee of the excellence of the choice made are under a complete delusion. Universal suffrage has other advantages but not that one.” Someone may shrink from saying de Tocqueville was right, but in times like these you can hardly say flatly that he was wrong.

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About Russell Shaw 267 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).