NEW YORK — Moral theology often focuses on individual policy decisions and how they measure against Catholic teaching — but too little attention has been paid to how Catholics should navigate voting for specific candidates, said Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego in a sweeping address ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
“Prudential judgment is not a secondary or deficient mode of discernment in the Christian conscience,” he said in a lecture on Thursday. “It is the primary mode.”
“There cannot be faith-filled Catholic voting without the virtue of prudence, exercised within the sanctity of well-formed conscience,” he added.
The California bishop’s talk, “Conscience, Candidates and Discipleship in Voting” was delivered on February 6 at the Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture at the University of San Diego.
McElroy began his address by drawing on Pope Francis’s 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium where the pope said that Catholics must not remain on the sidelines of elections.
Voting, said McElroy, is the primary means in which Catholics “rooted in conscience and in faith” can participate in “the just ordering of society and the state,” noting that the pope says that political lives “must be seen as an essential element of our personal call to holiness.”
“We are called in our lives as citizens and believers to be missionaries of dialogue and civility in a moment that values neither,” he said. “And this requires deep spiritual reflection, courage and judgment. It demands a Christlike dedication to seeking the truth no matter where it may lie, and defining our politics and voting in the light of the Gospel.”
McElroy outlined what he called ten “salient goals that emerge from the Gospel and the long tradition of Catholic faith” as Catholics face the 2020 election: “The promotion of a culture and legal structures that protect the life of unborn children; the reversal of the climate change that threatens the future of humanity and particularly devastates the poor and the marginalized; policies that safeguard the rights of immigrants and refugees in a moment of great intolerance; laws that protect the aged, the ill, and the disabled from the lure and the scourge of euthanasia and assisted suicide; vigorous opposition to racism in every form, both through cultural transformation and legal structures; the provision of work and the protection of workers’ rights across America; systematic efforts to fight poverty and egregious inequalities of wealth; policies that promote marriage and family, which are so essential for society; substantial movement toward universal nuclear disarmament; and the protection of religious liberty.”
The San Diego bishop’s remarks come just two days after the U.S. bishops released new videos to supplement Faithful Citizenship, their quadrennial document on voting. The latest videos and its supplemental letter were the subject of much debate over the past year and a half, in which McElroy was an ardent proponent that a new version was needed to better reflects the priorities of Francis, as the last version of the document was published in 2015.
RELATED: U.S. bishops release ‘Faithful Citizenship’ videos ahead of elections
In the end, however, the bishops voted only to produce a new introductory letter, along with the new videos. Included in the new letter is language that the U.S. bishops consider abortion their “preeminent priority.”
At the general assembly of the U.S. bishops last November, McElroy objected to the language saying, “It is not Catholic teaching that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face as a world. In Catholic Social Teaching, it is not.”
Without explicitly referencing that debate, McElroy further explored those tensions in his lecture on Thursday evening, juxtaposing the immediate “death toll” from abortion and the long-term death from climate change. One, he said is more immediate and the other he said threatens the future of humanity. Both, he said, are “core life issues” for the Church.
“Even in an age when sonograms testify with the eloquence of truth and life itself that children in the womb are genuinely our brothers and sisters, our daughters and sons, the annihilation of their humanity in perception and in fact continues,” he said of the abortion debates, adding that the nation seems to be splintering between those who want to move the country toward greater protections of the unborn and those who seek to expand abortion rights.
Turning to climate change, he said, “the trajectory of danger unleashed by fossil fuels is increasing so rapidly, the next ten years are critical to staunching the threat to our planet. The United States, which was once a leader in this effort, has in the current administration become the leader in resisting efforts to combat climate change and in denying its existence. As a consequence, the survival of the planet, which is the prerequisite for all human life, is at risk.”
“There is no mandate in universal Catholic social teaching that gives a categorical priority to either of these issues as uniquely determinative of the common good,” he cautioned, adding that “the designation of either of these issues as the preeminent question in Catholic social teaching at this time in the United States will inevitably be hijacked by partisan forces to propose that Catholics have an overriding duty to vote for candidates that espouse that position. Recent electoral history shows this to be a certainty.”
Echoing his November remarks to the U.S. bishops, McElroy then said that “the drive to label a single issue preeminent distorts the call to authentic discipleship in voting rather than advancing it,” warning that Catholic social teaching cannot be reduced to a “deductivist model.”
Despite the complexities of these issues, in the end, he said Catholics are forced to vote for a candidate rather than a policy issue, and to do that one must discern which candidate is best capable of advancing the common good.
“In making this assessment, opportunity, competence and character all come into play,” he said.
When it comes to opportunity, he said that Catholic voters must weigh the realistic opportunities a candidate would have, if elected, to promote policies that advance the common good during his or her term. Competence, he argued, requires an assessment of intelligence, insights, and expertise — not merely aspirations. For 2020, in particular, he warned, character is a “particularly compelling criterion” given the current divisions and degradation the country is facing.
“Today, leaders in government embrace corrosive tactics and language, fostering division rather than unity,” he lamented. “The notion of truth itself has lost its footing in our public debate.”
Concluding his remarks, McElroy turned to the need for well-formed consciences guided by prudential judgments, expressing frustration that some Catholic commentators have said that prudential judgment lacks a sufficient understanding of the truth.
“They say that there is a categorical claim to support candidates who legislatively oppose intrinsic evils, but only a secondary claim for candidates whose proposals rest on prudential judgment for their moral discernment,” he said. “To say this is to miss the central element of Catholic teaching about conscience and prudence. As the Catechism notes, ‘With the help (of prudence), we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to be avoided.’”
Turning once again to Francis, McElroy revisited the pope’s 2015 historic address to the U.S. congress, giving him the final word.
“Pope Francis said a nation is great when it defends liberty as Abraham Lincoln did, when it seeks equality as Martin Luther King did, and when it strives for justice for the oppressed as Dorothy Day did,” he concluded. “Let us pray that our nation moves toward such greatness in this election year, and that faith-filled prudent disciples are leading the way.”
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.