Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting Out Into The Deep
October 26, 2012
St. Gregory of Nyssa, one of the great early Fathers of the Church, said that, morally, we are our own parents. By our actions, by the choices we make in response to the values we prioritize, we form our character. By telling the truth we become an honest person. By sacrificing unselfishly for others we become loving. By taking what doesn’t belong to us, we become a thief. Our values, choices and actions all help to mold who we are and eventually they manifest who we have become.
We are now 11 days from the election and it’s important for all of us to remember that voting is a supremely moral action. First, to exercise the right vote is a moral duty (“Catechism,” 2240). It is one of the important ways in which we follow the commission Christ has given us to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and the leaven of our culture. A person who chooses not to vote is opting to be profoundly and literally irresponsible, to forsake the responsibilities he or she has as a Christian and as a citizen. That’s why the Church considers the choice not to vote a serious sin of omission.
But it’s not enough merely to vote. We also need to vote as salt, light and leaven, as responsible stewards who are striving to promote the common good. Like any moral action, how we vote expresses what we prioritize. Depending upon the values we’re expressing in our electoral choices, we could be voting either morally or immorally, and forming ourselves to be either morally better or morally worse.
Catholics are called to vote in accordance with the truths and values of the Catholic faith, according to a well-informed conscience. Many Catholics today are confused about what the conscience is, not to mention how to inform it and act morally in accordance with it. At a practical level, many people think that “conscience” means simply one’s own thoughts about right or wrong, or one’s preferences about the way things ought to be, or one’s gut-instinct about what one should do.
Conscience, rather, is an organ of sensitivity — like an “inner ear” within our head, heart, and soul — given to us by God by which we’re able to hear His voice telling us to do or avoid something or helping us to see whether something we did or failed to do was in accord with what He wanted. Conscience is not an “oracle” barking out divine mandates but an “organ” by which we tune ourselves to what God is saying to us. Just like an ear, however, this organ can lose its hearing — and even when it can hear clearly, it can listen to and believe falsities and lies.
Catholics are called to form their consciences to be able to hear, as clearly as possible, God’s voice guiding us. We’re given various “hearing aids” — God’s word, the “Catechism” and teaching of the Magisterium, prayer, the lives of the saints and the wise counsels of trustworthy men and women with well-trained consciences. But the essence of voting according to a well-formed Catholic conscience means to be turning to the Lord and asking Him, “How should I vote?”
Voting is not a morally autonomous zone. It’s certainly not an area about which God is indifferent, leaving us on our own to vote for whoever or whatever we “like” as if our choices were amoral and inconsequential. We can clearly see from the history of the Jewish people how God approved of certain leaders and political decisions and thoroughly disproved of others. Our leaders matter to God. Our votes matter to God.
So how does God want us to vote? Do we need to read lengthy tomes to discover what God wants us to factor into our electoral decisions? Is it hard to decipher God’s values and priorities and what He’s asking of His faithful sons and daughters? In most cases, no.
He is the Lord of life. In a choice between a candidate who recognizes that abortion is the massacre of innocent human beings and intends to work to reduce and eliminate it and one who celebrates abortion as a great civil “right” and even wants to force Catholic individuals and institutions to have to pay for it, is it complicated to figure out which candidate’s values God wants us to support? Similarly, would He want us to vote for or against candidates and legislation that would give doctors the ability to help patients commit suicide?
God instituted Marriage in the beginning as the union of one man and one woman, as a reflection of His own image. Would He want us to support candidates who see Marriage as He does or those who believe that such an idea of Marriage is bigoted, unconstitutional, and needs to be redefined to embrace husband-less or wife-less unions?
God founded a Church, calls us to use our freedom to live our faith through acts of charity, and wants us to be people who conscientiously follow His voice. Would He want us to support candidates who defend freedom of conscience and religion or those who want to use their office to compel Catholic institutions, priests, nuns, families and businesses to pay for other people to have free chemical abortions, sterilizations, and contraception?
The answers, for those of a well-formed conscience, aren’t complicated.
Could a Catholic ever vote for someone who supports abortion, doctor-prescribed suicide, the redefinition of Marriage and attacks on freedom of religion and the rights of conscience? Only in extreme circumstances, when the person abhors the evils that the candidate supports and votes for the candidate for reasons that the future Pope Benedict in 2004 said would be “proportionate” to the gravity of those evils.
What would such issues be? They would have to be so grave as to persuade an African-American, for example, to vote for a KKK member or a Jew to vote for someone anti-Semitic, since Catholics need to be against the evils mentioned as African-Americans are rightly against racism and Jews against anti-Semitism. The justification would have to be sufficient that one would feel comfortable saying to the Lord at the particular judgment, “I really believed in conscience that you wanted me to support that person despite the intrinsic evils that the candidate supported because I believed that the evils the other candidate supported were objectively even worse.” That’s a very high standard indeed.
Unfortunately today there are many candidates who support what God and His Church have emphatically taught as intrinsic evils. Even more unfortunate is that many Catholics reflexively vote for them. To support such candidates is to become materially complicit in the evil they do when elected. When we choose to vote for them, we’re prioritizing other values — often party affiliation, or financial concerns, or a candidate’s “likeability” — over fighting with God the real moral evils the candidates support. Such votes express our character, or better, our lack of character.
As we prepare for November 6, let’s keep in mind that it’s a moral decision that will be considered in the election at the end of our life in which we’re the candidate and God has the sole vote. May we prepare to cast our ballots by listening for His voice in conscience and responding in such a way that when we meet Him face-to-face, He’ll be able to say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”