When I cast my first vote in 2008, I was not Catholic. My subsequent faith conversion and corresponding experiences (earning a doctorate in theology and working for a community of women religious) have reshaped my politics in profound ways that have made it increasingly difficult to vote my conscience in any election.
I take comfort in knowing that the Catholic tradition is full of saints and prophets who wrestled with the imperfect nature of public engagement. St. Augustine, for example, grappled with a law that protected victims of human trafficking but condemned their captors to death. He ultimately sided with the victims of trafficking but urged authorities to change the law so it protected all lives. His moral turmoil is prescient in light of today’s pro-life dilemma.
The concept of the “signs of the times” can mitigate the impossible calculation of weighing the tragic enormity of abortion against every other injustice.
St. Pope John Paul II wrote that the campaign for human rights “is false and illusory if the right to life...the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.” But can we overlook any other moral wrong if a candidate assures us that he or she will not sanction abortion? Can we ever be justified in voting for a candidate who supports abortion rights?
The concept of the “signs of the times” can mitigate the impossible calculation of weighing the tragic enormity of abortion against every other injustice. Catholic social teaching recognizes that the faithful have the “duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (“Gaudium et Spes”). We are called to “decipher authentic signs of God’s presence and purpose in the happenings, needs and desires” of our world. Considering the signs of our times can help us determine which of our faith principles are most at stake—that is, where our vote will make the most impact by affirming the movement of the Spirit in society. Determining this requires prayer, attentiveness and humility. As Drew Christiansen, S.J., the former editor in chief of America, has written, “reading the signs of the times … [introduces] a different moral logic, not one of moral principles alone, but of attitudes, dispositions, and virtues.”
The Covid-19 pandemic—an obvious sign of our time—has revealed deep systemic injustices that require our attention if we are to recover and flourish when the crisis has dissipated. Movements for racial, immigrant and environmental justice are gaining momentum and could bear fruit if they are nurtured by good leadership. In this (and every) election, we must consider which candidate is capable of leading our nation through our particular time in history. Will a candidate support efforts to eradicate systemic racism—or deny that racism is a problem and even support and advance policies that perpetuate it? Will a candidate support immigration reform that welcomes and protects migrants and refugees—or impose policies that harm them? Will a candidate recognize the urgency of climate change and work to reduce emissions and pollution—or reject the scientific consensus and reduce environmental protections instead?
The Covid-19 pandemic—an obvious sign of our time—has revealed deep systemic injustices that require our attention if we are to recover and flourish when the crisis has dissipated.
Protecting the rights of the unborn and their mothers is always a critical issue. However, abortion rates have been declining steadily for decades, even under Democratic leadership, while multiple periods of Republican rule have failed bring about a federal guarantee of the right to life for the unborn. While we should continue to press candidates and elected officials to affirm the right to life, reducing abortion by addressing its root causes—in part by ensuring access to health care and child care—is an approach that, though imperfect, is worth pursuing. Indeed, the policies of the Democratic nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., may be more likely to reduce the occurence of abortion.
Pope Francis has proclaimed that “we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.” Being pro-life thus involves more than being anti-abortion: We must also consider the effect of our vote on others who are marginalized, especially people of color. Electing a president who will listen to the oppressed and work with them to address their concerns is, therefore, a pro-life vote. In future elections, reducing abortion through legislation that both affirms the dignity of the unborn and supports the rights and health of women might be on the table—a new sign of the times that might demand a champion of such legislation. Now, sadly, we do not have that option.
When Catholics are held hostage to a political party or issue, we move toward idolatry rather than faithful citizenship. If an elected official of either party continually violates our Catholic principles through policies or “attitudes, dispositions, or virtues,” then he or she should not be rewarded with our votes.
Catholic political engagement should not be a binary, zero-sum game, and responding to the signs of the times can help us to vote our conscience when neither party fully affirms the principles of our faith. Provided, of course, that we continue to advocate and act on behalf of all who are marginalized and vulnerable once our ballots have been cast—because a vote is simply an initial, hesitant step in moving our nation toward justice.