As we seek to promote the common good, Catholics have a role to play in society that no one else may fill. While we know that to do this we must form our consciences in harmony with faith and reason, the complexities of our political landscape cause political decision making to be far from a simple task. How then do we make practical political decisions?
The first thing we must do as Catholics is to take everything to prayer. We must pray for the virtue of prudence – “right reason in action” (CCC, 1805) – as well as for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially wisdom, and counsel. Given us in Baptism and Confirmation, these gifts also obliged us to frequent the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.
Then, it is imperative to remember prayerfully that political decisions are all moral decisions, as they are aimed at the good of society, and every individual. Thus, we properly evaluate how we should vote in the same way that we evaluate all other moral actions. We consider the quality of the three sources of morality in the action (CCC, 1750): the object, intention, and circumstances.
These three “make up the ‘sources,’ or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts” (CCC, 1750). By properly evaluating each of these sources, we can come to a sound conclusion of the goodness of a political action. For an act to be morally good, all these three – the object, intention, and circumstances – must be good. If any one of these is evil, the act is morally evil.
As we discuss this, we will use voting as our main consideration, though it is far from the only political action in which we have the responsibility to engage. In doing so we will also explore these additional moral principles: the principles and themes of Catholic Social Teaching (in our consideration of the moral object) the ends do not justify the means (in our consideration of moral intention), formal and material cooperation, and the principle of double effect.
The most important source of morality, the object, is the act itself, the thing done as it tends toward some end.
In voting, it is not simply the abstract action of voting that we consider (exercising the virtue of patriotism), but as this action that tends toward specific ends or purposes. This all must be considered as central to the morality of the action.
By voting we choose for or against legislation or a political candidate. In doing so there may be many unknown factors that lie in the future or in the free choices of the candidate. And so, we should research and know for what or whom exactly we are voting. If legislation, makes it necessary, just, and proportionate? If for a candidate, what powers does the office exercise? What is the candidate’s track record, and their stated political goals?
As faithful Catholics, we must then evaluate either the legislation or the candidate according to the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, in order to determine the moral nature of the object (of the act of voting). The essential principles of Catholic Social Teaching, which give us a clear view of the moral priorities that make for a just and good ordering of society, include:
- The dignity of the human person: “Human life is sacred. The dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision of society,” (USCCB, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, 44). Without this principle, justice is not possible. Every human being, from the moment of conception to natural death, is created in the image and likeness of God, is willed by Him, irreplaceable, and immeasurably valuable. All morally good human actions – including political actions – affirm this truth. All intrinsically immoral actions violate this principle in some way, or directly, such as abortion, racism, euthanasia, and others. Intrinsically evil acts are always and everywhere wrong. Therefore, in the first place, we must consider carefully how a piece of legislation, or a political candidate, aims at defending and promoting human life and dignity.
- The common good is the goal of political action. It is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (Gaudium et Spes, 26). It must not be fashioned in a way that pits the good of the majority against the good of the minority or the individual. It is a recognition that there are goods common to a whole community, above and beyond my individual good, including the good of the most vulnerable. “Hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow” (Isaiah 1:17c).
- Subsidiarity accomplishes justice by ensuring that decisions are made at the most immediate level of society. Higher levels of society should only aid lower levels when they are in real need of intervention. Subsidiarity does not simply apply to different levels of government. The state cannot achieve the common good entirely through its own agencies. A detriment to justice, this would undercut the competency and agency of people and authorities closest to a given decision. Therefore, to accomplish the common good, the government must empower the natural and free agency of the lower associations, especially the family. “It is impossible to promote the dignity of the person without showing concern for the family, groups, associations, local territorial realities … to which people spontaneously give life and which make it possible for them to achieve effective social growth.” (CCC, 1882; CSDC, 185)
- Solidarity is the commitment toward others in society that “highlights in a particular way the intrinsic social nature of the human person, the equality of all in dignity and rights and the common path of individuals and peoples towards an ever more committed unity” (CSDC, 192). Both a social principle and a moral virtue (CSDC, 193) solidarity is characterized as a deep commitment to the common good and every individual; an affirmation of the unity we share as God’s children. Therefore, candidates and legislation must aim at building solidarity among all people.
In considering the above four principles of Catholic Social Teaching, we can also consider the seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching from the U.S Bishops, (which include some of the above principles):
- The life and dignity of the human person;
- the call to family, community, and participation;
- rights and responsibilities (that every true right has corresponding responsibilities);
- the option for the poor and vulnerable;
- the dignity of work and the rights of workers;
- solidarity; and
- care for God’s creation.
For more information on these themes and principles, follow this link to visit the Common Themes page.
With these principles and themes in mind, we can gain a reliable understanding of the morality of the object (as well as the intention) of political decisions that we must make.
After the object, the second element in making moral decision is the intention. The intention is the purpose that motivates a person to act. In voting, we choose a candidate or legislation so that some set of objectives may be fulfilled through the candidate’s actions, or through the directives of the legislation.
Our intentions must be founded on more than mere sentiment, and conversely, we must refrain from votes solely motivated by the promise of personal gain. To do so would cause democracy to become the tyranny of the masses.
Rather, any moral act must aim at the charity and justice as the proper intention, including political action. Love or charity is to “will the good of another”, and justice is the virtue which ‘gives to each his due’ (CCC, 1766; 1807; 1928).
The principles of Catholic Social Teaching essentially flow from and expand on charity and justice. Thus, if we act with intentions informed by Catholic Social Teaching, and which take into account the specific nature of the political action, we can be confident that our intentions are good.
An essential moral principle related to intention must be considered. And that is that the ends do not justify the means.
This principle clearly shows that the moral object is the most important source of moral actions. No matter how good the intention may be, it cannot make an objectively unjust action good: such as encouraging an abortion with the intention of increasing the quality of life for the mother. Seemingly good desires for someone can never outweigh the moral evil of taking an innocent life. Even the best intention may not violate the right to life possessed by the unborn child from the moment of her or his conception. Decisions regarding the creation and destruction of human life are always grave ones, touching upon questions of mortal sin.
We must never promote grave and intrinsic evil or consent to the morally evil actions of others. Likewise, we cannot attempt to solve societal problems for some groups by disenfranchising others.
The final consideration in making moral choices is circumstances. Neither circumstances nor good intentions can make an intrinsically evil action good. But otherwise considered, the surrounding circumstances can increase or diminish the goodness or badness of a moral action.
Circumstances can be hard to judge in voting. An indispensable way to know and judge the circumstances is careful and balanced research into relevant factors on the political and legislative scene. This can help determine the true context of the vote.
When circumstances call for or reduce the need for legislation, it can increase or diminish the goodness of the proposed legislation. An example would be circumstances surrounding the expenditure of public funds: if the expenditure does not provide a notable advantage for those in need, then to use funds to create them may be unjust. The inverse may also be the case.
The expected success or failure of legislation or candidates is also included among the circumstances. Limiting legislative and political factors may come into play here.
We are not here treating circumstances surrounding the voter as such, such as coercion, which may diminish freedom and moral responsibility in their voting.
Other Moral Principles
Other important moral principles to consider here include formal and material cooperation and the principle of double effect.
Formal and Material Cooperation – When you aid in another person’s action by your own actions or intentions it is called cooperation, and that cooperation can be material or formal, or both. If you share the intention of the act, such as offering moral support, it is formal cooperation. If you aid the act through material help, such as funding in support of an act or voting in favor of it, it is called material cooperation.
In terms of formal cooperation, it is never acceptable to offer any degree of such cooperation with evil actions. While we must always avoid material cooperation, at times we are unable to avoid remote material cooperation. Remote material cooperation occurs when you cooperate in some way with a moral act by providing the conditions or material that make the act possible in a manner that is some steps removed from the act itself, and does not give the impression of sharing the intention (scandal), such as paying taxes that in part go to immoral acts. We are always required to avoid close material cooperation, such as voting for legislation that directs tax funding to unjust purposes, especially intrinsically evil ones.
Further, in reviewing and voting for legislation we must be careful not to provide material cooperation in unjust acts that may be couched within otherwise sound legislation.
Principle of Double Effect – Finally, we must keep in mind the principle of double effect. In this principle, we see that some good actions may have unintended but sometimes unavoidable bad side-effects. In this consideration, an action can be morally good if:
- the action or object itself is good,
- one only intends to accomplish the good effect and not the bad effect,
- the good effect cannot come as a side-effect to the bad effect (this would violate ‘the ends don’t justify the means’), and
- the bad effect is not disproportionate in gravity to the intended good effect.
It would be a very rare situation that a political candidate sees eye to eye on every point of importance for Catholics. Even more difficult, often every candidate in an election espouses views contrary to Catholic teaching. Do you vote for no one? While this is an option, it would still be out of the ordinary (USCCB, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, 36).
Therefore, we must first evaluate the good that a candidate, or legislation, promotes with a proper understanding of the degrees of value between moral issues. We must then choose the option that produces the greatest good closest to the foundation of human life and dignity. The Bishops of the United States have recently reminded us that abortion is the preeminent moral issue of our day (USCCB, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, Introductory Letter). It may follow that in prioritizing such direct threats to human life and dignity we may unwillingly aid in the undesirable commission of some evils of lesser gravity not through a means chosen but as an unwilled side-effect. And while this is rightly saddening, for the greater good the decision may still be permissible and just.
The main action we have been evaluating is voting. Beyond voting there are many different manners of political engagement that we can employ that can all be morally evaluated using the principles discussed above, including urging our legislators regarding just decisions; engaging in civil discussion and debate; raising awareness about issues to peers and elected representatives; peaceful protests, among others.
We should then return in prayer to our loving God who is the Lord of history. Remembering that “there are no just structures without people who want to be just” (CCC, 2832) we must pray for our leaders, country, and world, that through charity and truth together we may build a just community, culture and civil society, for the glory of God.
For more information on forming your conscience to faithfully engage society for the common good read the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops document Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship. Also, join the Catholic Legislative Network for weekly updates and action items to make your voice heard.