Discerning How to Vote as a Catholic by Fr. Louis Arceneaux, C.M.

I am an active Roman Catholic priest. I am opposed to abortion and I wish we Roman Catholics in leadership had done and continue to do a much better job of promoting the dignity of every human being from the moment of human life within the womb of a woman to the day of death. At the same time, I am opposed to the view that is espoused by far too many Catholic clergy, religious, and laity that declares that opposition to abortion is the overriding issue when making choices of candidates for any position of public office, from members of Congress to governors and presidents. I am not alone in that position. Actually, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops agrees with me. In their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” they state:

Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods. A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia . . . or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.

There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position . . . may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil. (#34–35)

I appreciate the carefully composed document of our Catholic bishops. However, at the US bishops’ fall 2019 gathering, they approved a letter to be included with the full document. In that letter, the bishops expressed the view that opposing abortion was the preeminent issue facing Catholic voters. A number of bishops, including Cardinal Blaise Cupich and Bishop Robert McElroy, opposed this narrow focus but did not gain approval of their approach. We voters must deal with a detailed document that presents a complex approach and a letter that is more narrowly focused. As a result, Catholic voters need to reflect and decide how they will form their personal consciences based on what they learn from our bishops, from other sources of Catholic social teaching, and how they think the views of the candidates live up to the totality of Catholic social teaching.

In making our decisions about voting, we need to realize that there is much more to being pro-life than being opposed to abortion. We need a consistent ethic of life that supports all life issues, including the life of our planet, antiwar initiatives, and the abolition of the death penalty. Pope Francis as well as Cardinal Cupich and Bishop McElroy have all written and spoken out in this way for a true, complete pro-life approach to life and voting.

Bishop McElroy spoke to the challenges in a lecture he gave on “Conscience, Candidates, and Discipleship in Voting” at the University of San Diego on February 6, 2020. In this presentation, he made the salient point that we do not vote for issues alone; we vote for particular candidates, applying the bishops’ criteria for choosing one candidate over another. He also noted that it is not only the candidate’s position on a particular issue that is important, but also the candidate’s opportunity, competence, and character that matter. We need to be clear that the candidate is a person of honesty and integrity, and that he or she is competent to affect the issues and will have the opportunity to do so.

As we prepare to vote in November, we need to reflect prayerfully about which candidate will promote and have an impact on carrying out more of our Catholic social principles such as the dignity of the human person, the common good of all people, and the care of our planet. No candidate is perfect, yet we are called to choose the most capable.

Fr. Louis Arceneaux has been a priest in the Congregation of the Mission since 1966. After studying and later gaining a doctorate in theology at San Anselmo in Rome, he taught theology and served in seminary formation for 15 years before moving on to other pastoral ministry, including parish ministry, retreats, and promotion of peace and justice. He is presently on the leadership team of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests and helped develop their proposal for renewal of seminary formation. Further reflection on Bishop McElroy’s statement is available in the editorial of our March 2020 issue.

4 replies
  1. Bernardine Dupre
    Bernardine Dupre says:

    Great article! More of the church’s leaders should promote these values to their congregations and not be afraid of losing members and their money.

  2. Frank Sacks, C.M.
    Frank Sacks, C.M. says:

    Many thanks for this useful articulation of our Catholic responsibility as voters. I have shared it by email with a number of my Catholic friends inclined to be “one issue” voters.


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