How should Catholics vote?

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Photo by Anthony Mazur

During the 2004 presidential election between President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry, the famous Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre penned a brief article arguing that the best vote for Catholics in November was no vote. “When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither,” MacIntyre wrote.

The question is posed every four years and is particularly pressing in a race as polemical and divisive as the present one. How, as Catholics, should we vote?

The Church has no “political doctrines” in the narrowest sense of the term. A genuinely Christian polity can exist as a democracy or monarchy, with one economic system or another, etc.—provided only that it be pro-life.

In American political discourse, being pro-life is basically reduced to being anti-abortion. 

Granted, this is an essential aspect of the Catholic social/political ethic. But the understanding of human dignity which makes abortion intrinsically evil is about far more than this one moral question. A genuinely pro-life ethic involves taking steps not just to prevent abortions, but to provide families the healthcare in whose absence so many mothers feel inclined to choose abortion. It involves facilitating adoptions and providing aid to families who struggle to raise their children by their own resources. It involves the preferential option for the poor. It involves a living wage for every working family. It involves environmental justice.

When we gaze into the abyss of American politics, we see that this pro-life vision is an impossible dream. 

As MacIntyre writes, “Try to promote the pro-life case that we have described within the Democratic Party and you will at best go unheard and at worst be shouted down. Try to advance the case for economic justice as we have described it within the Republican Party and you will be laughed out of court. Above all, insist, as we are doing, that these two cases are inseparable, that each requires the other as its complement, and you will be met with blank incomprehension.”

Catholics, of course, are not beholden to the logic that no vote is the best vote. What we are beholden to is the pro-life ethic which both parties find incomprehensible at best, and reprehensible at worst. The question is how we ought to participate, if we are inclined to participate, in a system that presents two intolerable alternatives.

This November, many faithful Catholics will vote to reelect President Donald Trump, while others will vote for Joe Biden. A well-formed conscience, I am convinced, can come to either conclusion. One can imagine a circumstance in which the “correct” vote was clear— say if the election were a mere referendum on the legality of abortion—but we know that this is not how our elections work.

Wherever there is good, there is evil; wherever there is evil, there is good. And it is always impossible to tell how much good and how much evil might come from electing one man over the other.

What must be unequivocally rejected are the following kinds of claims: “One cannot be a

Christian and vote for X.” “Our faith demands we vote for X.” “All Christians must support X.”

These claims not only say that Christians can make a home for themselves within American politics, but that this home already exists and is simply awaiting our arrival.

However, all these destinations have actually been constructed in opposition to the sole source of peace and justice which they supposedly seek. Are we really supposed to think that our faith demands certain participation in that which is hostile to it?

Such rhetoric bypasses the most important thing for Catholics to remember as we cast our votes in November. Every vote is a compromise, a concession to a system, to an entire way of viewing the world, which is fundamentally opposed to the Catholic one.

The message that Catholics need to hear, and the message that Catholics need to give, is that there is no salvation in any sense of word within our political machinations. 

It makes the faith smaller than the state when we pretend that Christian faith can make itself comfortable within American politics, such that we must vote for one candidate over the other, despite the fact that those candidates cannot even imagine a truly Catholic, pro-life society. Our faith cannot neatly fit into a political system that is fundamentally hostile to it.

So how should Catholics vote? Catholics should vote with the consciousness that they are strangers in a strange land, resident aliens in a nation which, as long as it denies the sole source of its liberation, has already damned itself.

5 COMMENTS

  1. After much reflection and with a well-formed conscience, I can say that this article is a whole lotta nonsense.

    Stop trying to give cover for Catholics to vote for Biden. This is not Bush v. Kerry. That happened before some of the current UD students were even born.

    Abortion is the preeminent issue, as so many of our bishops continue to emphasize: https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/us-bishops-tell-catholic-voters-abortion-is-preeminent-issue-in-2020-election

  2. “provided only that it be pro-life.
    In American political discourse, being pro-life is basically reduced to being anti-abortion.”

    “Provided only that it be pro-life???” Total ignorance of the entirety of Catholic Social Doctrine in this phrase. Ever heard of subsidiarity? The sacredness of marriage, the family, parental rights in education? Liberty of the Church? The duty of worship? The right to the just use of private property to support family, church, public defense? The limitation of the jurisdiction of the polity by the existence of metaphysically prior societies such as the family and the church…corporations and other voluntary civic associations? I thought that Leo XIII’s anti-socialist Encyclical Rerum Novarum: On the Condition of the Working Classes was part of the Western Civilization II core readings. If it is not being taught by a professor please report it to your local history department chair.

    (Your “seamless garment” social justice litany is so Cardinal Bernadin, so passe, so seventies! It’s as if John Paul II had never lived under Nazism or Communism or ever written an encyclical or codified Canon Law or gotten a Catechism of the Catholic Church published.)

    “Reduced to being anti-abortion???” Reduced? “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Pretty reductionist thinking right there.

    Yes, we have lots of varied remote and proximate duties to care for life once it is alive and kicking. But can we start our conversation about a just government with the great “Thou Shalt NOT”?

    • Dr. Hanssen,

      I’m not sure what prompted so caustic a response. I’m surprised that a professor, especially one as esteemed as yourself, would speak so dismissively to a student. Nevertheless, I’ll try to address some of your concerns.

      Yes, be assured, I have heard of all other principles of Catholic social teaching which you enumerated for me. Perhaps the point was overly subtle – it was more pronounced in an earlier draft of the article, which I trimmed down due to the editors’ wishes – but I believe I made it clear that I was using the phrase “pro-life” as shorthand for the entire body of Catholic social doctrines, since those doctrines are (I think we can agree on this) based on the inviolable dignity of human life. “Pro-life” captures this principle fairly well, I thought. Maybe you object to the stylistic decision. So be it.

      I am not sure what part of the article suggests that the author is “totally ignorant” of Catholic social teaching. No charitable reader could surmise from the above article that the author is “totally ignorant” of Catholic social teaching; nor, for that matter, could a charitable reader reasonably conclude that the author is especially well versed in Catholic social teaching — a short newspaper article can only accomplish so much. How you reached this conclusion is opaque to me. Do you teach your students to assume the worst in everyone they read?

      Further, I’m not sure what the seamless garment has to do with anything. I agree with you that the seamless garment theory involves some serious errors in moral reasoning. If you thought I was implicitly supporting such a theory, then perhaps I was not clear enough. Maybe you feel that only a seamless garment style of argument can justify a vote for a pro-abortion candidate. I would agree that this is a bad argument, but I disagree that it’s the only way to approach the matter.

      The point of my article was very straightforward, and I think I made it clear enough that any fair reader could surmise it. No, I am not trying to say that the party that supports abortion is pro-life. What I’m trying to say is that a legitimately pro-life politics cannot find a place within our country. Yes, the other party has the most important issue correct — they are at least nominally against abortion. But are they *positively* pro-life? If we use “pro-life” has shorthand for the entire body of Catholic social doctrines, as I have (perhaps imprudently) decided to do, I do not see how we can answer this question affirmatively. They reinforce the same economic paradigms that are wildly incompatible with papal teaching, not to mention their historical proclivity for unjust wars (although the previous Democratic president is not fully absolved from this accusation, of course), etc.

      Nevertheless, I too feel that it is exceedingly difficult (although not altogether impossible) to justify a vote for a pro-abortion candidate. But that is not really the point of my article. The point — this was made clear, to all willing to listen — is that a legitimately pro-life politics cannot be fitted within the contours of American politics. This is a fairly easy conclusion to reach, given the numerous papal condemnations of liberalism and Americanism.

      In my experience – and this is a matter of experience, and not a universal principle, to be sure – those Catholics who insist that we must vote for the anti-abortion party (a logic which I am quite friendly to, although not absolutely) often scoff at papal teachings on just wages, environmental justice, etc. To me, this is a sign that many of these voters have absorbed their conservative political orthodoxy before their Catholic orthodoxy. The purpose of my article was to fight against this tendency (although, to be honest, the people I had in mind while writing this article were actually those who insist that Catholics must vote for Biden — perhaps I was too conciliatory to that stance in order to open their ears more widely, so to speak).

  3. Samuel, my apologies. I wrote in haste and like you, in shorthand. “Caustic” is probably fair. I am eager, if you can forgive me, to meet in person to discuss. “The medium is the message” and on-line comments sections are not the best way to respond to an article.

    Nevertheless, I will try very briefly:
    1. I think we disagree with “using the phrase “pro-life” as shorthand for the entire body of Catholic social doctrines, since those doctrines are (I think we can agree on this) based on the inviolable dignity of human life.” It would require a longer conversation to explain why I think even as “shorthand” this is problematic.

    2. I am unclear which “economic paradigms are wildly incompatible with papal teaching” in your thinking. You mention “just wages” but I am not clear which “economic paradigms” are wildly incompatible with that and which ones foster that. I consider the long tradition of papal teaching to explicitly condemn “socialism” which destroys private property–the property of the family and of the Church.

    Neither I nor the other commenter were able to discern your argument against “those who insist that Catholics must vote for Biden.” We both (mis?)understood you to be arguing primarily against those who insist that Catholics must vote for Trump based on his record on the abortion issue versus Biden’s record.
    https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2020/09/71555/

  4. If I may disagree with the other commenters: I enjoyed your article, Samuel. I didn’t think it assumed or even implied a position of support for either candidate, but simply brought to light the fact that we, as Catholics, should be pro-life from womb to the tomb. This means to promote the sanctity of life for the unborn just as much as for the families at the border, for prisoners facing the death penalty, for our own God-given environment, just to name a few. You’re right that many Catholics of conservative taste tend to forget the latter chunk.

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