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Moral Theology - September 2012

How do I decide which way to vote?

With some regularity, the U.S. bishops issue statements on timely issues and it would be wonderful if more Catholics read them. For instance, recent documents on marriage (Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan), on same-sex unions (Made for Life), immigration (Strangers No Longer Together on the Journey of Hope), and on religious liberty (Our First, Most Cherished Right) are terrific summaries of fundamental Catholic principles and applications of those principles to current problems of our culture. These documents, and the pamphlets, study guides and bulletin inserts that often accompany them, are a handy way for Catholics to learn more about our faith and how to live it.

The document The Challenge of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship provides marvelous guidance on formation of conscience in respect to voting, a moral act of tremendous importance. Our elected officials can vote to permit or forbid the killing of unborn children, the exercise of religious freedom, same-sex marriages, the welcoming of immigrants and the provision of health care to the poor, for example. The Catholic Church has an unparalleled wealth of thinking by brilliant and holy people on these issues, and, more importantly, is secure in the guidance of the Holy Spirit in formulating its doctrine.

There is much for Catholics to learn to be able to exercise the duty of voting responsibly. It is, for instance, essential to learn the distinction between intrinsically evil actions and matters involving prudential decisions. Briefly, abortion, sexual trafficking, payment of unjust wages and waging of unjust wars are all examples of intrinsically unjust actions and we should be trying to find candidates who oppose them. Prudential judgments are directed to finding the best means to achieve various ends, even the means for preventing intrinsically evil actions. We may disagree, for instance, on the best ways to prevent abortions, as well as disagree on the best way of providing affordable health care for all.     

If a politician supported abortion or wanted to limit religious liberty or wanted to refuse all assistance to illegal immigrants, for instance, it would be difficult to find a reason to justify voting for him or her. One of the reasons to vote for a candidate who supported intrinsically evil actions would be that his or her opponent also supported such evils and had worse positions on other matters. Indeed, many factors, in addition to a candidate’s stand on issues, need to be taken into account, such as competence and electability.

Those looking for guidance on how to determine which values and principles should guide their choice of candidates will find excellent guidance in the U.S. bishops’ statement The Challenge of Forming Consciences.

- Janet E. Smith


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