American Catholics are again asking whether they can, in good conscience, vote for a political candidate who supports public policies in matters of life and death that are antithetical to Catholic teaching. The answer is not obvious. Both political parties support policies that offend the Catholic conscience, including widespread support for abortion on demand among Democrats and consistent support for the death penalty among Republicans. The two parties also have wholly different views of immigration, entrenched racism and economic justice. The fact that these issues involve different moral goods does not diminish their moral force and gravity, for each makes a compelling claim on the conscience and discernment of the Catholic voter.
Yet while the right choice is not obvious, neither is it unknowable. The bishops of the United States have asked American Catholics to evaluate the moral issues at stake and the character and integrity of the candidates themselves, as well as what they are likely to achieve in office, and then to cast their votes in light of the principles of Catholic teaching and the dictates of their well-formed consciences. We can, therefore, dispense with the specious claim that a Catholic is in some way obligated to vote one way or another.
In ordinary times, this debate about Catholics and presidential candidates can be a healthy and spirited exchange about how Catholics should approach their civic duties in light of their deeply held beliefs. But this is no ordinary time. Our discernment, moreover, pertains not only to our beliefs as Catholics but to our duties as citizens. America magazine has always sought to balance those religious and civic duties. Since 1909, America has covered 27 presidential elections, including 19 of the 44 men who have served in that office. America’s commentary was not always right, accurate or prescient, but it was always guided by two overriding concerns: the moral character of political decisions in light of Catholic principles and the necessity of preserving the American constitutional order.
In ordinary times, the debate about presidential candidates can be a healthy and spirited exchange about how Catholics should approach their civic duties. But this is no ordinary time.
The first concern is an obvious one for a religious journal of opinion. The second is more specific to the history of the American Catholic community. For our forebears, the U.S. Constitution was a vital bulwark against the kinds of political and economic oppression that prompted millions of them to flee their homelands. The liberty and protection that the Constitution guarantees are still a primary motivation for the majority of the nation’s immigrants.
The Constitution itself is inspired by a theological worldview. Our founders believed that they were creating a form of government for a fallen world. Their true genius lay in how they accounted for the human predilection toward sin and division by creating a strict separation of powers that, paradoxically, would serve to unify the country and guard it against would-be tyrants and demagogues.
In time, a system of extra-legal conventions took hold to further the founders’ vision, including respect for the rule of law, a vibrant, free press and civilian control of the military. Yet as important as those safeguards were and remain, the constitutional order is ultimately dependent on the character and judgment of our elected officials.
The administration of Donald J. Trump has undermined the constitutional order to a degree unprecedented in modern American history, which prompts the editors of this review to register this unprecedented warning. The principal concern here is not with Mr. Trump’s positions on various public policies, some of which are right and some of which are wrong, but with the president’s disregard for the system of laws and customs that establish the necessary conditions for debate, decision-making and public accountability in this republic.
President Trump has undermined the constitutional order to a degree unprecedented in modern U.S. history, which prompts the editors of this review to register this unprecedented warning.
Mr. Trump has subverted the rule of law by politicizing the Justice Department and interfering in its deliberations and investigations in novel ways. Mr. Trump has also fired inspectors general across the government, those whose only job is to uncover wrongdoing. The president has repeatedly attacked the press, declaring them to be the “enemy of the people.” He has also disparaged the courage and sacrifice of the men and women of America’s armed forces; his eagerness to use troops domestically prompted military leaders to issue an unprecedented reminder that men and women in uniform owe their ultimate allegiance to the Constitution and not the president. Mr. Trump has also used the White House as a partisan stage, which is contrary to the spirit and probably the letter of federal law. He has flouted constitutional norms, including the requirement of Senate confirmation for his cabinet members and other executive officials, by granting power to “acting” department heads for months at a time, saying it gives him “greater flexibility.” Without any compelling evidence, the president has also consistently cast doubt on the integrity of the electoral process itself and has declined to state that he will abide by the judgment of the electorate. At the same time, in spite of the overwhelming evidence, Mr. Trump has downplayed attempts by foreign powers to interfere in American elections.
This pattern of presidential behavior is unique in American history. No doubt many of the men who have occupied the White House have at times skirted or shortchanged constitutional principles. But there is a difference between those presidents of both parties who at times tested or bent the boundaries of constitutional action in pursuit of their self-interest, and Mr. Trump, who time after time has demonstrated that his framework for decisions is merely transactional and that he has little regard for constitutional norms or the common good.
In the election of 2020, Catholics face the unfortunate reality that the ostensibly pro-life presidential candidate also represents a proven threat to the constitutional order.
To be sure, the editors of this review have important disagreements with the Democratic nominee, Mr. Biden. He has shown himself too willing to heed the demands of the extremists in his party, like when he abandoned his longstanding support for the Hyde Amendment, the federal law that limits public funds for abortions. There is also Mr. Biden’s uneven judgment in foreign affairs and his support for the Obama administration’s misguided position on questions of religious liberty. Parts of the record of Mr. Biden’s running mate, Ms. Harris, also concern us, like comments she made during congressional hearings last year that appear to be anti-Catholic.
Like many Catholics, for more than 40 years, America has consistently opposed the verdict rendered in Roe v. Wade. America still does. In ordinary times, the left’s increasingly extreme position on that issue might suffice for some Catholics to determine in conscience that they must vote against the Democratic ticket.
In the election of 2020, however, Catholics face the unfortunate reality that the ostensibly pro-life presidential candidate also represents a proven threat to the constitutional order. That threat is real. As President Gerald R. Ford said upon assuming office during a moment of constitutional peril, “Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men.” That means that the rule of law, the work of a vital free press, constitutional use of the military and a basic, operative respect for the separation of powers are not optional. For without those safeguards, this country will devolve into prolonged factional conflict—the outcome our founders feared most—which would mark the beginning of the end of a republican form of government.
Editor's note: America publishes a variety of authors offering their own views on the election and the candidates. This editorial presents the opinion of America Media’s editorial board, which is responsible for the content of the magazine. It is not an official statement of the Society of Jesus.