Public witness on issues of public concern is natural for Catholics because we have a commitment to the common good and to the dignity of each human person. Those two pillars — the common good and the dignity of every human person — come right out of Scripture. They underpin all of Catholic social thought.
Of course, many other good people work from these same principles, including many who have no religious faith. But for Catholics, our political involvement flows from our religious beliefs about creation and salvation. The human person is made in the image and likeness of God. Christ died for each of us. The Church continues his work of salvation. Therefore the Church must engage herself in human affairs — not just by offering counsel for our personal lives, but also by guiding us in the public issues that shape our common future.
That includes politics. Politics is where the competing moral visions of a society meet and struggle. And since a large majority of American citizens are religious believers, it makes sense for people and communities of faith to bring their faith into the public square.
Real pluralism always involves a struggle of ideas. Democracy depends on people of conviction fighting for what they believe in the public square — respectfully and ethically, but also vigorously. For Catholics to be silent in an election year — or any year — about critical public issues because of some misguided sense of good manners is a form of theft from our national conversation.
To put it another way: If we believe that a particular issue is gravely evil and damaging to society, then we have a duty, not just a religious duty but also a democratic duty, to hold accountable the candidates who want to allow that evil. Failing to do so is an abuse of responsibility on our part, because that’s where we exercise our power as citizens most directly — in the voting booth.
The “separation of Church and state” can never mean that religious believers should be silent about legislative issues, the appointment of judges or public policy. It’s not the job of the Church to sponsor political candidates. But it’s very much the job of the Church to guide Catholics to think and act in accord with their faith.
And at a time when our religious freedom itself is being challenged and compromised in public policy, it is more critical than ever that we as Catholics — along with all people of faith — speak up in defense of religious liberty and our moral convictions.
Since this is an election year, here are nine simple points to remember that should guide us in our voting decisions as we move toward November. I’ve offered them in the past and will offer them again in the future precisely because they bear repeating:
1. George Orwell said that one of the biggest dangers for modern democratic life is dishonest political language. Dishonest language leads to dishonest politics — which then leads to bad public policy and bad law. So we need to speak and act in a spirit of truth, and we need to demand the same from candidates.
2. Catholic is a word that has real meaning. We don’t control or invent that meaning as individuals. We inherit it from the Gospel and the experience of the Church over the centuries. We can choose to be something else, but if we choose to call ourselves Catholic, then that word has consequences for what we believe and how we act. We can’t truthfully claim to be Catholic and then act as though we’re not.
3. Being a Catholic is a bit like being married. We have a relationship with the Church and with Jesus Christ that’s similar to being a spouse. If a man says he loves his wife, his wife will want to see the evidence in his love and fidelity. The same applies to our relationship with God. If we say we’re Catholic, we need to show that by our love for the Church and our fidelity to what she teaches and believes. Otherwise we’re just fooling ourselves, because God certainly won’t be fooled.
4. The Church is not a political organism. She has no interest in partisanship because getting power or running governments is not what she’s about, and the more closely she identifies herself with any single party, the fewer people she can effectively reach.
5. Scripture and Catholic teaching, however, do have public consequences because they guide us in how we should act in relation to one another. Loving God requires that we also love the people He created, which means we need to treat them with justice, charity and mercy. Being a Catholic involves solidarity with other people. The Catholic faith has implications for social justice — and that means it also has cultural, economic and political implications. The Catholic faith is never primarily about politics; but Catholic social action, including political action, is a natural byproduct of the Church’s moral message. We can’t call ourselves Catholic, and then simply stand by while immigrants get mistreated, or the poor get robbed, or unborn children get killed. The Catholic faith is always personal but never private. If our faith is real, then it will bear fruit in our public decisions and behaviors, including our political choices.
6. Each of us needs to follow his or her own conscience. But conscience doesn’t emerge miraculously from a vacuum. It’s not a matter or personal opinion or preference. If our conscience has the habit of telling us what we want to hear on difficult issues, then it’s probably badly formed. A healthy conscience is the voice of God’s truth in our hearts, and it should usually make us uncomfortable, because none of us is yet a saint. The way we get a healthy conscience is by submitting it and shaping it to God’s will; and the way we find God’s will is by conforming our lives to the counsel and guidance of the Church that Jesus left us. If we find ourselves disagreeing as Catholics with the teaching of the Church on a serious matter, it’s probably not the Church that’s wrong. The problem is much more likely with us.
7. But how do we make good political choices when so many different issues are so important and complex? The first principle of Christian social thought is: Don’t intentionally kill the innocent, and don’t collude in allowing somebody else to do it. The right to life is the foundation of every other human right. The reason the abortion issue is so foundational is not because Catholics love little babies — although we certainly do — but because revoking the personhood of unborn children makes every other definition of personhood and human rights politically contingent.
8. So can a Catholic in good conscience vote for a pro-choice candidate? As I’ve said in years past, the answer is: I can’t and I won’t. But I do know some serious Catholics — people whom I respect — who believe they can. I think their reasoning is mistaken, but at least they sincerely struggle with the abortion issue, and it causes them real pain. And most importantly: They don’t keep quiet about it; they don’t give up; they keep lobbying their party and their representatives to change their pro-abortion views and protect the unborn. Catholics can vote for pro-choice candidates if they vote for them despite — not because of — their pro-choice views. And they also need a proportionate reason to justify it.
9. What is a proportionate reason when it comes to abortion? It’s the kind of reason we will be able to explain, with a clean heart, to the victims of abortion when we meet them in the next life — which we certainly will. If we’re confident that these victims will accept our motives, then we can proceed.
In the end, the heart of truly faithful citizenship is this: We’re better citizens when we’re more faithful Catholics. The more authentically Catholic we are in our lives, choices, actions and convictions, the more truly we will contribute to the moral and political life of our nation.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput leads the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He is the author of Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (Doubleday), published in 2008.