I’ve touched on issues of voting and moral responsibility frequently here on this blog. They are important but also complex and can’t be boiled down to bumper sticker solutions and conclusions — at least not if we’re to take them seriously and also to remain faithful to the Church’s teaching and moral tradition. Cathleen Kaveny’s article, “The Single-Issue Trap,” in the September 28 issue of Commonweal, brings all of this out quite well. It is well worth a read.
She examines the U.S. bishops’ document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, which includes some important points I’ve highlighted. The bishops note, for example, that “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position.” The italics there are mine; that final phrase includes an important point that has been ignored by many, including some of the bishops themselves in recent months. The bishops’ document teaches that faced with a choice between candidates who both support intrinsic evil by their policies, a voter might choose not to vote at all “or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for a candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.”
Kaveny points out the weight that the bishops give to the issue of abortion today. It is indeed a grave and crucial issue. But she points out some important considerations that they might not have considered carefully enough in their presentation of the matter. (They are considerations that have been weighing on my own mind as I look toward next month’s presidential election.)
The bishops do not even raise, for example, the possibility that a particular candidate (or party) might fabricate a commitment to end abortion for strategic political reasons. Forming Consciences does not caution voters to evaluate the sincerity with which a candidate holds a particular position; rather, it seems simply to assume candidates will enact their platforms if elected to office.
That’s not a “liberal” or unorthodox thought. No one who pays any attention to today’s political landscape can doubt that there are politicians out there who would not hesitate to say what needs to be said to win votes, even if the words do not represent strongly held convictions or even anything the candidate seriously intended to act on if elected. To ignore that possibility is naive, at the very least.
And so Kaveny writes,
In assessing candidates for a particular office, four considerations are paramount: 1) Competence—does the candidate have the intellectual capacity, the experience, the temperament, and judgment to do the job? 2) Character—does the candidate have a good set of moral values and the integrity to pursue them in situations of temptation and fear? 3) Collaboration—can the candidate work well with other people, both political allies and opponents? 4) Connections—what are the moral and practical ramifications of the candidate’s political and financial connections for the manner in which he or she will carry out the job? Politicians, after all, do not act alone; they operate within networks of political power, including party affiliations, lobbyists, and big corporate and individual donors.
Consider a hypothetical situation. We must choose between two candidates: one who says he is pro-life solely for the sake of votes and who lacks all four of the above qualities; and one who is pro-choice on abortion, supports by his policies a wide range of other Catholic moral teachings, and possesses all four of the above qualities in spades? Can a Catholic still vote for the “pro-life” candidate, responsibly and intelligently? Can a Catholic vote for the pro-choice candidate, responsibly and intelligently? Isn’t this a clear illustration of why a politician’s statement of being against abortion can’t be the sole litmus test of who a Catholic should vote for?
Finally, Kaveny makes this crucial point, which we ignore at our peril and the peril of our society, including the very ones we seek to protect through our choices in the voting booth:
Issues, then, are not abstract propositions about the community; they are action items, indicating the problems that can be addressed by the tools available to political officeholders. Instead of evaluating the relative significance of issues in the abstract, voters should consider whether and to what degree the problems identified by the issues can be ameliorated by the particular candidate seeking a particular office.
The full article is here.
There’s no question, it would be much easier if we could simply ignore questions and considerations like this. They are complicated and nuanced, and that can be frustrating. But such the reality of life.