By Thomas Peters
Pope Benedict XVI and Catholic Cardinal-designate Raymond Burke both recently characterized voting as a moral act with spiritual consequences.
The pope said that “decriminalizing abortion is a betrayal to democracy,” since he believes the procedure denies rights to the unborn, and recently said that Catholics should use their vote “for the promotion of the common good.” Burke called voting a “serious moral obligation” and added that Catholics “can never vote for someone who favors absolutely what’s called the ‘right to choice.’”
If Catholics largely disregard the church’s teaching (the 2008 Catholic vote for president went to pro-choice Obama), does what the pope says matter? Is voting a religious act or purely political?
Catholics believe their faith should inform their vote.
To answer the question simply, voting is both a spiritual and political act. After all, how could something as important as voting not be a part of our moral life, how could it not be part of what we are called to do well? Catholics believe we have a moral obligation to be good citizens, and that our faith should guide us to help make good political choices.
One of the important distinctions to make when talking about Catholics and voting is between self-described Catholics and “active Catholics” (defined as individuals who attend Mass at least once a week on Sunday as they are supposed to). Catholics serious about practicing their faith are more likely to attempt to form their political beliefs according to their religious ones.
It should therefore be no surprise that active Catholics are more likely to support candidates who, like the Church, place a special emphasis on the rights and dignity of unborn life, on the importance of safeguarding traditional marriage, promoting religious freedom, attending to the needs of the elderly and poor, etc.
By the same token, active Catholics take the guidance of the pope and their bishop seriously, even as less active Catholics are more likely to ignore the pope and bishop’s advice. It is true that there is an intense debate taking place within the Church about what it means for a Catholic to be a good citizen and what “voting Catholic” means in action, but the pope and American bishops have been very clear: all Catholics have a responsibility to form their conscience according to the teachings of Christ and the Church. So what the pope says definitely matters.
A last point: many people have the idea that the only thing the pope and bishops do when they try to guide Catholics in voting is to say “no” to some candidates and proposals. In fact, the pope and bishops only say that individuals (and they do not mention names) ought to vote for candidates that will truly work to promote the common good. In other words, behind every “no” of the Church is always a deeper “yes” to man’s flourishing – a vigorous yes to the opportunity of achieving a better, more just society for all of us, Catholic or otherwise.
Thomas Peters is the founder of AmericanPapist.com, where he discusses the intersection of faith and politics.