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Voting for a political candidate is an important way in which we as citizens strive to achieve the common good. But this is often fraught with ambiguities that make it difficult. Likewise, there are often deep moral questions at stake for which the Church has a clear message. It is therefore understandable that some might desire the input of the Church regarding who might be the best candidate. So why doesn’t the Church endorse political candidates?
The reasons for this are many, and while maintaining the tax exemption status of the Church does play a part, it is not the main reason. That rests on the relation between the work of the civil authorities and that of the Church herself.
The Second Vatican Council made clarifying distinctions between the competencies of the Church and the civil government. While not strictly unrelated and disengaged from each other, the Church gave clear teachings that can help us understand why it does not endorse candidates.
In Gaudium et Spes, after teaching important principles by which governments must be set up and aimed at the common good, the Fathers taught that the Church, while not disengaged from the morality of political action, is at its heart nonetheless independent from it:
“The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system. She is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person” (GS, 76).
The Church and the political community are autonomous and independent in their own fields while being both devoted to the social and personal vocation of the same individuals. And thus, Gaudium et Spes explains that the greater that mutual cooperation can be fostered between the two “the more effective will their service be exercised for the good of all.”
Further, to remain effective in her mission, the Church may forgo some privileges and even rights previously enjoyed if in doing so offers a greater advantage. It is with this posture in the relation between the Church and the political community that we look at the question of candidate endorsements.
We can see that, by maintaining objectivity and appropriate distance from certain political activities, without surrendering her urgent teaching role, the Church finds it more expedient and more in line with her universal and timeless mission to refrain from candidate endorsements.
This is to avoid scandal or ambiguity in proclaiming the Gospel, and in creating needless divisions among the faithful. While many may believe that our Catholic Faith impels us to vote for a particular candidate, it is a rare occasion that a political candidate stands for everything that the Church teaches both in positions and track record. By not endorsing candidates which to greater or lesser degree may be at variance with Church teaching, the Church avoids projecting confusion about Catholic truth. Similarly, the Church avoids the possibility of future scandal by not endorsing candidates who may, after being elected, change their positions or fail to fulfill their promises.
Harmonious with this vision of the Church’s relation to the political community, canon law (church law), in defining the rights and responsibility of clerics (clergy), prohibits them from taking public office which would entail exercising political power (Can. 285 §3); or from taking “an active part in political parties” (except for permanent deacons). This is true except in cases judged by those in ecclesiastical authority to be greatly needed to achieve the common good (Can. 287 §2). And therefore, the Church, in order to fulfill her own proper and universal mission, remains independent of partisan politics.
But does the Church offer any guidance in terms of voting?
Yes. In her role and authority representing Christ as teacher, the Church gives sure guidance and direct teaching in areas of legislation and even at times political actions. This is her right and responsibility in forming the consciences of both Christians as well as all people of good will. As Gaudium et Spes teaches:
“…the Church should have true freedom to preach the faith, to teach her social doctrine, to exercise her role freely among men, and also to pass moral judgment in those matters which regard public order when the fundamental rights of a person or the salvation of souls require it” (GS, 76)
The Church does this in proclaiming and applying Catholic Social Teaching to the social circumstances of different times and places. The faithful are urged to steep themselves in a deepening understanding of Catholic Social Teaching, as well as to read the signs of the times locally, nationally and globally, to live faithfully and intelligently Christ’s call and command to love our neighbor as ourselves.
In that spirit the US Bishops teach that, “a Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position” (USCCB, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, par. 34). This would be formal (or intentional) cooperation in grave evil. However, a Catholic who does not share the intention of the candidate regarding these intrinsically immoral acts, may for morally grave reasons, vote for this candidate if the gravity is real to warrant this course of action. Further, “when all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act”, a Catholic may vote for the candidate less likely to advance such morally flawed positions (thus at least tempering such evils), and which may promote other moral goods (USCCB, 36). A Catholic in this case may also choose to refrain from voting, perhaps as a form of protest. The Church also reminds us that there are many other means of continually engaging the political community to strive to build a more just and equitable society beyond voting. And so, our responsibility to build a just civilization goes beyond the polls into our everyday lives.
Where can I gain more guidance on how to remain consistently Catholic, maintaining a clear conscience, while engaging in the political arena and in voting? View the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops document Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship. Also, sign up for the Catholic Legislative Network for action items and additional guidance.