This year’s presidential election has many Catholics praying extra hard for guidance.
To examine the crossroads of political engagement and the Catholic faith, OC Catholic reached out to Greg Walgenbach, director of Life, Justice and Peace for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.
In that role, Walgenbach oversees a network of ministers who lead ministries in parishes and advocate for public policy that affirms a consistent ethic of life regarding such issues as abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, human trafficking, immigration, fair trade and homelessness.
OC Catholic: What is “the Catholic vote,” and how has it been observed in the past?
Greg Walgenbach: There is no “Catholic vote,” per se. The Church does not vote. Voters vote. And somewhere around 25 percent of the electorate of potential voters are Catholic. There is, however, Catholic teaching and the Good News of Jesus Christ. Yet the Catholic electorate is divided in ways not unlike the rest of our society.
OCC: What does this tell us?
GW: First, it tells us that voting is not always a straight line from Catholic teaching. Assenting to a point of moral theology is not the same as voting for a candidate who has a policy position on a set of legislative positions related to an issue of moral concern.
So, there are some degrees of separation here that will inevitably be addressed as an individual voter forms his or her conscience.
Second, it also tells us that Catholics are human beings, who – as Gaudium et spes [“Joy and Hope, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” was one of the four constitutions resulting from the Second Vatican Council] put it – share “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the [people] of this age.”
That Vatican II document went on to add: “Especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted,” gesturing at the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.
But Catholic voters, like other voters, are susceptible to partisanship, ideologies, greed, narrow-mindedness, hard-heartedness and inattention to truthfulness, as well as favoring a single issue or a narrow set of priorities or self-interest.
Our bishops remind us that “as Catholics we are not single-issue voters” and “a candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee support.” However, a candidate’s promotion of an intrinsically evil act like abortion, euthanasia, racism, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, sexual abuse, or targeting of noncombatants in war, to name a few, may lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.
OCC: How can voting be interpreted as an expression of one’s faith?
GW: Our bishops speak of the Church’s obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society as a requirement of our faith. Teaching others what Jesus has taught us is central to our call to be, as Pope Francis reminds us, “missionary disciples.”
In the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation. Voting is a way that we can serve the common good and be witness to God’s truth in the political life of the nation in which we live.
It also is an opportunity for a sort of gut check or integrity check as a disciple of Jesus. We can ask ourselves, “Am I more formed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ or by the political culture of the United States?”
If our politics is not challenged by the Gospel, by the Sermon on the Mount, by Catholic social teaching, I’m not sure we’re paying attention.
OCC: Is there any guidance on this issue from U.S. Bishops’ documents?
GW: Yes. For example, these words come from the U.S. Bishops’ document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which lays out in great detail both the challenges of our time and the importance of the formation of conscience for enabling faithful participation in public life:
“Catholics may choose different ways to respond to compelling social problems, but we cannot differ on our moral obligation to help build a more just and peaceful world through morally acceptable means, so that the weak and vulnerable are protected and human rights and dignity are defended.”
Our fundamental principle as Catholics is the dignity of the human person, which means that we care deeply about the dignity of the unborn, the refugee and immigrant, the dignity of women, people of color, those with terminal illness, those who are exploited at work, etc.
The teaching of our Church pushes against the cultural drive to choose between victims, ever leading us to look to defend the poor, vulnerable and the outcast, which echoes the constant refrain of the Old Testament prophets and the ministry of Jesus to the orphan, the widow, and the stranger – the preferential option for the poor.
OCC: Are there any resources you recommend for Catholic voters?
GW: Yes, please visit rcbo.org/faithfulcitizenship, which has a variety of links to documents from our church, including a helpful Frequently Asked Questions piece that is new this year from the California Catholic Conference.
Also of interest when it comes to making decisions specific to difficult choices in voting are the following paragraphs in “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”:
Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods.
A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position.
At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.
In the end, (voting) is a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching.