Bishop Robert W. McElroy is the bishop of the Diocese of San Diego and a longtime contributor to America. Recently, Bishop McElroy spoke with Sebastian Gomes of “Voting Catholic,” a podcast from America Media that helps U.S. Catholics discern their vote in the upcoming presidential election. The bishop tackles the issue of abortion, the political polarization of Catholics and how to vote with a well-formed conscience. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sebastian Gomes: I want to start with a meeting that took place among the bishops last November. In that meeting, a new introductory letter to “Faithful Citizenship” was presented to the bishops for their approval. The letter included the following statement: “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself.” Can you take us back to that moment and tell us what your concern was about that statement?
Bishop McElroy: In my own view, abortion is a pre-eminent issue for Catholics—one of several.
My concern was that when you say abortion is the pre-eminent issue we face as a nation, you are setting up an election choice. The church’s teaching is that evaluating candidates and deciding who you should choose has to do with certain qualities about the candidates, but it also has to do with their positions on a series of key issues in Catholic moral teaching. The concept that brings them all together is called the common good. The common good is, in Catholic theology, the advancement of the whole series of issues in society, which allow the fullest expression and enhancement and achievement of human life and dignity for all people in our society and in the world.
To say that abortion is the pre-eminent issue in a particular political season is to reduce the common good, in effect, to one issue.
To say that abortion is the pre-eminent issue in a particular political season is to reduce the common good, in effect, to one issue. And that’s a distortion of Catholic teaching. In fact, the assertion that abortion is “the” pre-eminent issue in this political campaign for Catholics is itself a political statement, not a doctrinal one.
It’s hard to conclude that the bishops would expect you to not be a single-issue voter, just based on what it says in the letter. How can Catholics understand holistically what the bishops are saying?
Read the whole document. Because when you read the document, it speaks of this broader notion of the common good. It points to all these different issues that our society is divided on.
[It tells you to] look at climate change, which threatens to end the whole of humanity. Look at the divisions we have in our nation now, in terms of race and class, the undocumented. You see all of the consequences of the pandemic are magnified by issues of race and class. If someone reads through that with an open heart and wrestles with God, then that’s a great thing. But don’t pick one sentence out.
I’m wondering how a Catholic should engage with the statements from Pope Francis, as well as the statements that they hear from their bishops and read about here in the United States.
I think Pope Francis is pointing to us that broader notion of the common good, that all of those elements need to be taken into account and that it is a mistake to reduce Catholic moral teaching to one issue. That is not faithful to our tradition.
There was an interesting analogy that came out 30 years ago in these discussions, arguing that abortion is the primary moral issue. The analogy is because the issue of life is the foundation of the house of the common good. The common good is built on top of it, but the foundation is life, and thus, among the issues of life, the defense of the unborn [is] so important.
But I would say this: The house itself and the foundation rest on the earth, and the earth is at stake in climate change and in the care for creation. And so you don’t have a house and you don’t have a foundation if you don’t have the earth [or] a habitable place for our humanity.
Could you comment on the politicization of issues and how Catholics can wade through that?
The tragedy for Catholic voters who are believers and take their faith seriously is that, at the present time, the partisan structure of American politics absolutely bifurcates Catholic teaching. There are certain issues where, in general, Republicans far better represent the teaching of the church: abortion being one, euthanasia, many issues of religious liberty. And then there are certain issues where the Democratic Party [represents church teaching]: climate change, issues of poverty and racism.
The problem that voters face is the believer is literally homeless in the party structure of the United States. There is no partisan platform that even begins to approximate what Catholic teaching is.
Some people say that if you vote for one candidate or another, that you’re not a “real” Catholic. What do you make of those statements?
It is a terrible assault on our faith. Catholic faith and identity are not reducible to one’s political stances. Catholic faith is believing in God, having a relationship with God, understanding the life of the church, loving the church, walking in the pilgrimage of [a] life of faith on this earth. That’s what Catholic faith is.
But for people to say that because on a particular political issue you diverge from what the church teaches you are not a Catholic anymore reduces our faith to simply a political creed. Our faith is much more than that.
Do you have advice for Catholics in that regard?
When we come to the conclusion of who we are going to vote for, there is always an air of regret because we know that any of the major candidates fall short in substantial areas from our teaching. Kierkegaard has this wonderful quote: “We do something with fear and trembling and sickness unto death.” In other words, we’ve reached the conclusion. Then, what is the best way for us to vote, to try to advance the common good?
For people to say that because on a particular political issue you diverge from what the church teaches you are not a Catholic anymore reduces our faith to simply a political creed.
And when we do that, we do that as a sacred act. We don’t do so with a sense of triumphalism, therefore, that we want to stomp on the other side. And it is hard not to do because we let our politics become viscerally like a game, like sports. We have teams that we root for. But that is not the Catholic method of discerning voting and of citizenship.
We hear a lot about the importance of being well-informed and properly forming your conscience. Can you just give us a simple explanation of what that means and what that looks like?
We have a conversation with God that leads us in the right direction at our core. And so we listen to the teaching of the church, and we need to lay aside all of the triggers that are in our society that are meant to build up the partisan antagonisms. They get us all going in the wrong direction on conscience.
Ask ourselves: What are the better angels of our nature calling us to seek for our nation or for our state or for our city? And we set aside these tribalisms and set aside self-interest and really look to say, what is the common good? That is, the well-being of everyone in the various dimensions of their lives and our society as a whole. What advances that? And if we strive to do that, then we have followed our conscience, and we must vote that way, and God calls us to that.
But one of the dangers in our society is we live in a world in which news channels and all these other silos only reinforce our pre-existing worldviews. And that is a disaster for conscience. I feel the silos we are in are self-reinforcing on so many levels now that it is crippling to [a] good conscience.
It sounds like forming your conscience is not about coming to some conclusion once and for all. It is something that is ongoing and complicated and is a struggle. And something that needs to be revisited. Is that correct?
Yes. It is easier when you are voting for issues because you are voting on the issue. You can come to a conclusion on the issue much more easily. When you are voting for candidates, you have to take into account their positions, but you also have to take into account their character, their leadership, their competence and ask yourself in this particular moment, who is going to be better at achieving the common good? Your judgment is temporary because at this given moment, what does our society most need attention to in order to advance the common good and what God calls for us in society as makers of a better world.
Is it accurate to say that an individual's conscience is the most authoritative voice that we have to turn to, that we have to reflect on? The church teaches us to guide us, but my own conscience is the most authoritative voice. Is that right?
The church is meant to bring us the proclamations of the Gospel lived out in various ages and handed onto us with the wisdom of the development of our doctrinal tradition. So we have to give great credence to that.
But as a matter of fact, Catholic teaching is always that in your core of your heart, when you were just there with God, after you’ve listened to the teachings of the church, after you’ve listened to other issues and treatments of this, and you sit down and you pray and ask, you know, what is God calling you to do?
The great enemy of conscience is rationalization. We often convince ourselves that the thing that God is calling us to do and that the right thing to do is that which best serves our interests or our desires.
If you are doing that authentically, then your highest authority is conscience. In Catholic teaching, not only can you follow your conscience, you must. It is sinful not to follow a well-formed conscience.
The great enemy of conscience is rationalization. We often convince ourselves that the thing that God is calling us to do and that the right thing to do is that which best serves our interests or our desires. We rationalize, and that is really true in the political realm. And so we have to be very careful about rationalization creeping in because it does.
Bishop, you’re a citizen, too. I won’t ask you to endorse a candidate or to reveal how you're voting. But how do you, as a Catholic and a citizen approach your responsibility to cast a vote on election day?
In the end, it comes down to the same process for anybody else who is a believer, who is trying to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ into account, the teachings of the church into account, the situation we face in our nation, in our state, in our world into account.
Some races, I find it easy to conclude, O.K., this candidate I’m going to vote for. And some races are harder to conclude. So, I sit down and do my best and go through the various things and try to come to a conclusion. But when I do so, and when I vote, no matter how clear it is to me I should vote for this person or for that person, there is a sadness in me at what is not there in them rather than what is there because of our politics at the present moment.