Lawrence P. Grayson
On November 4, people across this nation will have an opportunity to vote for those who will represent them at the federal, state and local levels. The work of these representatives, who will enact the laws and regulations under which we live, will significantly affect our lives for years to come.
The challenges before the nation are serious, highly political, and profoundly moral. There is the continuing destruction of unborn children through abortion and new efforts to eliminate the elderly through euthanasia and assisted suicide; movements to coerce Catholic health care, education, and social service ministries to violate their religious beliefs; efforts to undermine marriage as the permanent union of one man and one woman; and restraints on religious liberty and the exercise of individual conscience; among others. Many compelling moral concerns are dealt with at the state, as well as national level, and so votes cast for state senators and delegates can be as important as the votes for national office.
All issues are not morally equivalent. Some involve fundamental principles, such as the right to life, that can never be violated, even to achieve a good end. Others require prudent judgments about the best way to apply Catholic teachings to deal with compelling societal problems. It is a mistake, therefore, to make no ethical distinctions among the issues. The right to life is not simply one of a multitude of concerns of equal importance that should be acknowledged when deciding for whom to vote.
Abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, destruction of human embryos, and same-sex marriage are intrinsically evil, that is, the acts are immoral in and of themselves, regardless of the motives behind them, and must always be opposed. Certainly, health care, education, immigration, jobs, taxation and national security are also important concerns and should not be neglected. Advancing the benefits of these issues, however, cannot compensate for disregarding the value of a human life. The strongest economy, finest health care system, fairest immigration laws, and soundest economy do nothing for the child who is never born.
Pope St. John Paul II, in his 1988 apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici, stated: "The common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights -- for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture -- is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition of all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination." If one must choose between improving the quality of life and protecting life itself, human life must take precedence.
In matters of lesser moral definitiveness, there may be legitimate diversity among individual prudential judgments. Catholics may differ on approaches to reduce poverty, stimulate the economy, the best immigration, health care or housing policies, or on a decision to wage a just war because these judgments do not involve the direct choice of an intrinsic evil, while promoting various human benefits. This does not mean these issues are of lesser moral interest or can be summarily dismissed. They are significant concerns that challenge consciences and require action, but they are open to principled debate that may result in differing, even opposing, views.
Catholics not only have an obligation to exercise their right to vote, but have the additional responsibility to do so with a well-formed conscience, guided by the tenets and teachings of the Church. They are tasked to bring faith-refined principles, augmented with informed prayerful reflection, to the consideration of and decisions about candidates and issues. This duty is more than preparing to vote in a given election. Developing a well-formed conscience is a lifelong effort in order to deal with the changing conditions, issues and circumstances of the world.
When candidates support actions or programs that are intrinsically evil, they should be considered less acceptable for public office. As Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, an election guide issued every four years by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, teaches, “Those who knowingly, willingly, and directly support public policies or legislation that undermine fundamental moral principles cooperate with evil.”
The failure to protect life in its most vulnerable stages, or to support other intrinsic evils, renders suspect a candidate’s positions on all matters affecting human dignity. The right to life is a fundamental precept inscribed in America’s Declaration of Independence. If a candidate disregards a foundational principle of the nation and asks voters to violate their moral consciences, people have the obligation to cast their ballots for someone else.
With the duty of voting comes the responsibility to know where the candidates stand on the issues. One rarely finds a candidate with whom he agrees on everything. The key question is the relative importance of the issues on which the two disagree. A voter will have abetted a candidate’s future immoral actions if he helps elect a person who favors programs that are intrinsically evil when there is a morally acceptable candidate on the ballot.
What does one do, however, when there is no such alternative? Deciding not to vote is often not the best solution. When all candidates support an intrinsic evil, it is morally permissible to vote for the candidate who poses the least threat to human life and dignity and thus limit the harm. It is important, therefore, to vote with a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods.
In the coming election, every voice will matter, every vote count. Cast your ballot. Exercise your cherished right and solemn duty as a Catholic American citizen, faithful to the teachings of our Church.
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Published November 2014