Separation of Church and the Voting Booth? The Moral Dilemmas of a Catholic American Voter

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By: Thomas Merante

With each election, Americans are reminded repeatedly of their civic duty to participate, the importance of “rocking the vote,” and how each party will get the country “back on track.” Yet with MTV ads screaming at teenagers to go to the polls and attack ads that aim purely at candidates’ character, it seems that the real issues are becoming lost in an election frenzy. Consequently, it can be very difficult to determine how to vote, especially when there are serious moral issues on the line, despite a constant news stream of information on the candidates, their positions, and public opinion on the positions. What moral questions should Catholic Americans ask when contemplating contemporary political issues, and what ethical dilemmas do they face in the voting booth?

First, it is necessary to reflect on why certain candidates are selected over others. Many people vote based on their conscience, who they feel will best lead the country based on a “gut instinct,” and the perceived character of the candidates. Ideally, each voter would vote by weighing the major issues and how the candidates will address them.

It is these hot-button issues that can create an ethical tension for Catholic voters; abortion, for example, is one of the most pressing social issues in contemporary political debate. Is it possible that abortion—even if immoral—should remain legal? Moreover, can a Catholic reasonably vote for a pro-choice candidate?

Many political thinkers and philosophers such as John Courtney Murray, S.J. have discussed the possibility of drawing a line between one’s public morality and one’s private morality in matters of political decision-making. In other words, we might believe an action to be morally wrong, but still support its legality. For example, Murray (himself a Jesuit) suggested that contraception should be legal—a position that generated controversy in the Church. Could the same hold true today in the abortion debate?

This distinction between public morality and private morality is an important one that many Catholic politicians have used to defend their positions on controversial issues. President John F. Kennedy declared in a famous speech before Protestant ministers in 1960, “Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views—in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates.” It may seem only fair that politicians try as best as possible to leave their religious convictions out of their decision-making process. Kennedy was not representing only the Catholic population of the country, but people of every faith. However, at the same time, it seems a bit unrealistic and perhaps even irresponsible for a politician to completely strip himself or herself of strong convictions when entering office.

The more important question for me, however, is whether I, a Catholic voter, should strip myself of religious convictions when I enter the voting booth. Should I vote to uphold and/or strengthen existing abortion regulations, or should I hold to what my Church teaches and what I believe? Is it selfish that I should vote for a pro-life candidate when the libertarians are yelling in one ear that women should have the choice to do whatever they wish with their bodies, and the liberals are yelling in the other that legal abortions could help promote a common good of some kind?

The answer, I believe, is no, it is not selfish. It is conscientious. It is an informed decision, albeit an unpopular one in my home state of New York. I believe that it would be irresponsible for me to simply abandon my religious beliefs when I enter the polling booth, especially when they inform my political convictions on a daily basis. But then I must ask myself, should single issues—even if they are of great importance for the Church, such as defending the right to life—alone determine how I vote in elections? If I, for instance, support a candidate who has almost everything right (education reform, good foreign policy, job creation) but is pro-choice, should this consideration overrule all other positive aspects of the candidate?

Many Catholic “voting guides” seem to think so. Around election time, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops releases a pamphlet called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” They state that a candidate’s promotion of “intrinsic evils”—racism and abortion are the two explicit examples given—should be sufficient to disqualify them from a Catholic voter’s choices. Of course I would never vote for a racist candidate, but I might consider a pro-choice candidate given his or her positions on other important issues.

When I first read this voting guide, therefore, I had a very strong, uncomfortable reaction. First and foremost, it was troublesome that a pamphlet—even one supported by the Bishops—was trying to steer my vote in the “right direction” both figuratively and ideologically (even though it claims that this is not its purpose). Next, the Bishops go so far as to state, “When all candidates hold a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, 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 authentic human goods.”

This brings Catholic voters to yet another voting dilemma: Catholicism is not overtly Democratic or Republican. If we divide political issues into “social issues” and “economic issues” as is often done, then Catholics should likely support “conservative” social positions (no legalized abortion) and more “liberal” economic positions (support for social programs, aid for the poor). Very rarely is there a candidate that would fully represent the Catholic position.

So should I not vote, or perhaps write in a candidate who stands no chance of winning? If I choose not to vote, then I forfeit a right that many people have literally given their lives for throughout our nation’s history. The better option, it seems, is to write in a candidate who cannot win the election. These, of course, are the two extremes.  In the middle is the equally difficult decision of choosing the “most morally acceptable candidate,” which oftentimes will not be immediately apparent.

This represents the ethical dilemma that many voters face. Though the act of checking a box in the voting booth takes only a moment, honest deliberation prior to Election Day requires countless hours. Voting is a serious civic responsibility that requires serious ethical consideration. As a Catholic American, there are many moral questions I must ask myself before voting. With midterm elections quickly approaching and the 2016 Presidential election on the horizon, these ethical considerations will present themselves once again in the near future.

Thomas Merante (FCRH ’15) double majored in International Political Economy and Philosophy at Fordham University, and is currently pursuing a law degree at the New York University School of Law. This essay was based on many class discussions from Dean Gould’s “Catholicism and Democracy” course, and was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education 2014 Dr. K. York and M. Noelle Chynn Undergraduate Essay Prize in Ethics and Morality.

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