Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series of articles on the presidential election. For more, including alternative views on the candidates, visit americamagazine.org/election2020.
For years, I have said that I often feel politically homeless as a pro-life, social justice, consistent-ethic Catholic. This is not a badge of honor. If we Catholics are politically homeless, it is because we have failed to build a home. Sometimes we cannot even find shelter.
Our homelessness has many causes. We have not persuaded others to share our commitment to protect all human life and promote the dignity of all God’s children. Powerful partisan factions and ideological interests have emphasized personal autonomy and freedom over community and solidarity. Our church too often proclaims positions, rather than listening and learning, engaging and dialoguing in a search for the common good.
Our church too often proclaims positions, rather than listening and learning, engaging and dialoguing in a search for the common good.
I write from long experience trying to share the church’s moral principles and policy priorities. This has been a personal, professional and institutional journey for more than 40 years. I helped the U.S. bishops develop their documents on political responsibilities of Catholics. Over 12 presidential elections, these “Faithful Citizenship” statements have been among the most widely used, misused and abused statements of the bishop’s conference, offering both a useful moral framework for Catholic participation in political life and also opportunities for manipulation and distortion to advance narrow and partisan causes.
In this reflection, I look back to the beginning of those efforts, examine how these documents have evolved, address recent controversies and explore implications and applications in this critical election year. I do not offer this assessment as a moral theologian or church official but as someone who has worked at the intersection of Catholic faith and American politics for decades and has been in the rooms where bishops developed their statements on what it means to be Catholic and American, a believer and a voter in election years.
I also write as a Catholic layperson, convinced that our bishops, priests and religious have a responsibility to teach, preach and form consciences, not to tell us how to vote. As someone who encourages other lay people, especially young people, to apply the principles of our faith, I want to offer a modest contribution on how I am trying to do that in this election.
In 1975, I was a young staff person at the bishops’ conference. With the 1976 elections approaching, I suggested to conference leadership that the bishops offer a short summary of Catholic teaching on faith and politics and a brief review of their statements on key issues. I worked with colleagues to develop a simple text drawing on papal encyclicals, documents of the Second Vatican Council and bishops’ policy statements. On Feb. 12, 1976, the statement was reviewed, amended and adopted without controversy by the conference’s administrative board, which consisted of 40 bishops.
The message, “Political Responsibility: Reflections on an Election Year,” was a call to Catholics…
to vote, to become informed on the relevant issues, to become involved in the party or campaign of their choice, to vote freely according to their conscience.…We specifically do not seek the formation of a religious voting bloc; nor do we wish to instruct persons on how they should vote by endorsing candidates. We urge citizens to avoid choosing candidates simply on the personal basis of self-interest. Rather, we hope that voters will examine the positions of candidates on the full range of issues as well as the person’s integrity, philosophy and performance.
This modest statement inaugurated a precedent, and before each presidential election the U.S. bishops’ conference has offered a reflection on the moral responsibilities of Catholics in political life. Through 12 documents, the title changed from “Political Responsibility” to “Faithful Citizenship” to “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” The statements also grew much longer, from 3,100 words in 1976 to 17,800 words in 2019. They shifted from a basic summary of Catholic teaching on politics and issues to more elaborate teaching documents on conscience, prudence and moral considerations in voting. But they always called Catholics to active participation in public life: “Citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation” (No. 13).
Bishops insisted these were not traditional voting guides or political scorecards, nor a checklist of issues. They made it clear that Catholics “are not single-issue voters.” They insisted that voting is “a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching” (No. 37). The statements also outline responsibilities and limitations of the church in public life, suggesting ecclesial leaders should be political, not partisan; principled, not ideological; civil, not silent; and engaged, not used. Over 12 elections, the U.S. bishops encouraged Catholics to use the resources of our faith and the opportunities of our democracy to protect human life and dignity, seek justice and peace and advance the common good.
I understand that such statements have limited impact and reach, are far too long and that most Catholics are not actively looking for political guidance from their bishops. Nonetheless, these statements have been among the most widely purchased, downloaded and shared documents issued by the U.S. bishops.
In countless visits to dioceses, I found pastors generally welcomed these statements as a useful moral framework and pastoral resource. Partisans did not.
In countless visits to dioceses, I found pastors generally welcomed these statements as a useful moral framework and pastoral resource. Partisans did not. They were disappointed that the statements did not support their political, ideological or ecclesial agendas. While widely used, these statements were also misused or abused as individuals and organizations employed selective quotations, misleading interpretations or partial references in alternative materials to make partisan or ideological appeals. The greatest controversy concerned whether the statements adequately reflected distinctions among issues and priorities among different moral claims. “Faithful Citizenship” was criticized on the one hand for making opposition to abortion the defining criterion for voting and on the other for minimizing abortion’s moral gravity by including it in a list alongside other election issues. Both could not be true, and neither claim was accurate.
In 2007 the name, process and content of “Faithful Citizenship” changed. A task force comprising the chairs of key U.S.C.C.B. committees prepared a major revision, which was debated, amended and voted on by the entire body of bishops. This version focused more clearly on conscience and prudence, distinctions among issues and more specific moral guidance for voting. This new approach and name reflected Benedict XVI’s articulation of the church’s mission in political life:
It is not the church’s responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather the church wishes to help form consciences in political life, and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly. (“Deus Caritas Est,” No. 28)
The final document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” was approved by a vote of 221 to 4. This is the statement that has been essentially reissued in 2011, 2015 and most recently in 2019 with brief, new introductory notes.
In November 2019, U.S. bishops again debated “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” Several bishops, led by Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, argued that the current document was inadequate for these times, failed to reflect the mission and message of Pope Francis and relied on the category of “intrinsic evil,” which he argued was the wrong way to frame political choices. Conference leaders and the majority of bishops rejected the call to develop a new document.
I believe the resistance to starting over reflected a fear that divisions among the bishops would not lead to a better consensus about how Catholic voters should approach their choices. A major revision might also make public divisions on Pope Francis’ leadership and priorities and on the bishops’ assessment of political and moral challenges. My own view is that a new and shorter version, more fully embracing the teachings of Pope Francis and addressing new threats to human life and dignity and even democracy itself, would be better; but the bishops’ conference lacks the unity, capacity and sense of urgency to undertake such an effort.
The other major debate in November 2019 involved the document’s introductory note. Language declaring that “the threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority” was adopted, while a proposed amendment to include the following full paragraph from Pope Francis was rejected:
Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm, and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. (“Gaudete et Exsultate,” No. 101)
The amendment to include the full paragraph from Pope Francis failed by a vote of 143 to 69, perhaps because those who opposed the amendment framed it as a test of the bishops’ continuing commitment to defend unborn human life.
The fundamental test is whether we truly recognize the humanity of the unborn child, the full equality of people of color and the God-given dignity of those who suffer injustice.
In my view, the failure to include the full Pope Francis quote was a mistake and describing abortion as the pre-eminent priority is an incomplete and overly narrow moral criterion. Defenseless unborn children have a compelling claim on our consciences as a matter of justice and our duty to protect “the least of these.” We must oppose the destruction of the lives of children before birth, and we must recognize the scale and gravity of this issue. And just as the unborn have a special claim on our consciences, so too do those who suffer from the legacy of slavery and continuing racial injustice have a unique claim on our consciences and action. We must be clear that Black lives matter, especially when Black Americans are being killed before our eyes. When Covid-19 leads to the deaths of more than 185,000 Americans, when an economic crisis, health and other disparities disproportionately threaten the poor, vulnerable and communities of color, I believe the protection of the lives and dignity of all God’s children should be the moral imperative in this election year.
The fundamental test is whether we truly recognize the humanity of the unborn child, the full equality of people of color and the God-given dignity of those who suffer injustice. Sadly, Americans do not have a realistic option this November to cast a vote for a candidate who fully meets that test.
The polarization in American politics is increasingly reflected in our Catholic communion. Various voices are insisting you cannot be a Catholic and a Democrat or that no Catholic can vote for President Trump, challenging the faith of Joe Biden or the character of Donald Trump.
So what is a faithful Catholic citizen to do? We should reflect, discuss, engage, discern and decide; and at the same time, we should respect the consciences and choices of other Catholics. In my parish just outside Washington, D.C., we are blessed with enormous diversity. We are Democrats, Republicans and independents. Some of us, sadly, will not vote. Many will vote our party, pocketbook or even our prejudices. We have pro-life parishioners who believe support for abortion is disqualifying and will vote against anyone who supports legal abortion. We have Black parents who are repelled by the president’s racist rhetoric and responses to the current crisis and will oppose him. We have Latino families who face discrimination, deportation or loss of DACA status, and they will vote against a president who demonizes their families. We have leaders in Catholic climate change efforts who believe this is an existential threat to God’s creation and his people, and they will vote for candidates who take this seriously.
I try to understand the way they think and the votes they will cast. I might try to engage and even persuade some of them to think differently. But I am not going to tell any of them that they do not belong in our family of faith unless they think and vote the same way I do. In the words of Pope Francis, we are called to “form consciences, not replace them.”
As a pro-life, social justice, consistent-ethic Catholic, I am considering the criteria, distinctions and guidance in “Faithful Citizenship.” These three paragraphs are crucial (emphases mine):
Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote…. 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. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil.
There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons….
When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, 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. (Nos. 34-36)
In this election, at least two of these intrinsic evils are central issues: racism and abortion. On the evil of abortion, Mr. Biden, who started out in politics as a pro-life Democrat, has now under pressure embraced his party’s extreme abortion agenda, with federal funding for abortion and no restrictions. Donald Trump has moved in the other direction, from a “very pro-choice” position to committing to appoint judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade, oppose abortion in legislation and executive orders and establish conscience protections for religious objections to abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage.
On the evil of racism, the differences are also stark. Mr. Trump demonizes immigrants, fans the flames of race and division, refuses to denounce racist groups or actions and seeks to divide the country by overt appeals to racial fears. Mr. Biden condemns racism and seeks national healing, speaks for voting rights and against systemic racism. He served as vice president to the first Black president and chose the first Black woman to run as a major party’s nominee for vice president. At this moment of national reckoning on racial injustice and clear disparities in the impact of the coronavirus crisis, electing a president who will fight racism, not exacerbate it, is a moral imperative for me.
In the end, we vote for candidates, not issues. Who they are and how they lead is critical.
The Catholic Church’s efforts, working with others, have kept the cause of the unborn alive in a divided nation. However, after a quarter-century of waiting for justices appointed by Republicans to overturn Roe, when the pro-life cause has become increasingly partisan and Donald Trump is its political face, when Democratic pro-lifers are not welcome in their own party, I doubt we can look to ongoing political combat as the primary way to convince our fellow Americans to value and protect the lives of unborn children.
While Republican politicians promise pro-lifers anti-abortion judicial nominees, they often deliver judges who vote against voting rights, immigrant rights, workers’ rights, affirmative action and environmental justice as well—and whose decisions related to abortion are often disappointing to the pro-lifers convinced that appointment of judges is the most essential political goal.
In the end, we vote for candidates, not issues. Who they are and how they lead is critical. As the bishops point out, “these decisions should take into account a candidate's commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue” (No. 37).
Character, competence, honesty and integrity are crucial. This is not about religion. Character cannot be reduced to whether a candidate is a sincere believer, carries a rosary, goes to church or understands what is in the Bible. I have watched Joe Biden for decades and worked with him on occasion. Like most politicians, he sometimes exaggerates and dissembles. Mr. Biden’s story is one of faith and family, tested by tragedy. His political leadership reflects Catholic social teaching and Democratic party orthodoxy, limited by political pragmatism. I was deeply disappointed by his abandonment of the Hyde Amendment under the pressures of the primary campaign. I have also seen him stand up on issues of justice time and time again.
I do not know Donald Trump personally. But after four years of watching him in office, he seems to be consumed with himself, lacks empathy and will not accept responsibility. His language on women, people of color, media, political adversaries and the military is crude and unacceptable. His dismissal, dishonesty and delayed response to Covid-19 brought deadly consequences for tens of thousands. He seems to view faith as a political tool, not a way of life; and his past and present behavior seems to violate most of the Ten Commandments, especially “not bearing false witness.”
When neither party’s platform reflects the full framework of Catholic teaching, and when both candidates are committed to policies that violate Catholic moral principles, I will follow my conscience. I will exercise my prudential judgement to vote for the candidate who has the character, integrity and competence to serve; who will seek the common good and protect our democratic institutions; and who will do the least harm and the most good within our political and constitutional structures. And since neither of our present options reflects a full commitment to the Gospel, I am committed to work for better choices in our politics, parties and nation.
I will vote for Mr. Biden for what he can do to help us recover and heal, lift up those left behind, ensure health care for all and treat immigrants and refugees with respect. I will not vote for him to support his position on abortion, but in spite of it.
While I understand that others will come to different conclusions, my personal choice to support Vice President Biden is clear, but not without reservation. To frame this judgment in the words of “Faithful Citizenship,” I believe Mr. Trump’s character, lack of integrity and record on racism and Covid-19, among other matters, constitute “morally grave reasons” to oppose his re-election. I believe Mr. Biden has the “character [and] integrity” to lead our nation and is “more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.” I will vote for Mr. Biden for what he can do to help us recover and heal, lift up those left behind, ensure health care for all and treat immigrants and refugees with respect. I will not vote for him to support his position on abortion, but in spite of it.
For those who vote for Mr. Biden for similar reasons, we should be clear with ourselves, the Biden campaign, the Democratic Party and the American people that our votes to end Mr. Trump’s time in office and turn away from the chaos he foments are not a mandate to end all abortion restrictions, provide federal funding for abortions or to undermine religious ministries that serve the poor and vulnerable consistent with the principles of their faith. To the contrary: A vote for Mr. Biden carries with it a duty to work with others to reduce abortions and to support priorities, programs and ministries that serve women, children and families in need. Our responsibilities as citizens begin in the voting booth, but they do not end there.
Sadly, it is probably the case that a Catholic who fully embraces the teaching of Pope Francis—or Benedict XVI or St. John Paul II—could not be nominated for any national office, appointed to the Supreme Court or serve in a major cabinet position or in a senior position in the White House of either a Republican or Democratic administration. Imagine the vetting or Senate confirmation of a Democrat who opposes unrestricted abortion rights or conscience protections or a Republican who opposes the death penalty, supports immigrant or labor rights or is committed to strong action to address climate change.
When you are politically homeless, you need to seek shelter. We need to work together to find or build a home. We need to be more rather than less engaged, to find others who share our values, to dialogue and persuade people to join us. We need to insist that parties, media and elite institutions see us, hear us and open their doors to us as we seek to advance the common good. We especially need to avoid righteousness, cynicism and any judgment or condemnation of others. As the PBS commentator Mark Shields suggests, it is better to seek converts than to punish heretics.
I hope the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown, which I direct, offers a shelter for politically homeless Catholics. America Media offers such shelter. Pro-life pregancy centers are places we can work together. Our Catholic parishes, universities, organizations and ministries should be places for those seeking shelter. Pope Francis is a pastor for the politically homeless, reminding us that “Catholics tasked with political life must keep the values of their religion before them, but with a mature conscience and competence to realize them.”
For almost 50 years, I have been blessed to work at the intersection of Catholic faith and politics. I believe that in this election year, when our church is hurting and our nation is wounded, Catholics are called to be salt, light and leaven and faithful citizens more than ever. This may help us find shelter, if not a home.
Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series of articles on the presidential election. For more, including alternative views on the candidates, visit americamagazine.org/election2020.