Much of what any given Catholic will consider regarding voting is driven by matters of prudential judgment, and well-formed conscience. For instance, in the helpful pamphlet entitled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops states:
In this statement, we bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote. Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth. We recognize that the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience, and that participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election.The Conference later adds:
Catholics may choose different ways to respond to compelling social problems, but we cannot differ on our moral obligation to help build a more just and peaceful world through morally acceptable means, so that the weak and vulnerable are protected and human rights and dignity are defended.So, in this document, referencing several of the sources I note above, leaves much to the individual conscience, but does insist on certain boundaries and norms to be followed. For instance, the document cautions against two tendencies.
Two temptations in public life can distort the Church’s defense of human life and dignity: The first is a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity. The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed. The second is the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity.Finally, and relatedly, the document weighs these certain moral boundaries with the response to each, saying:
Racism and other unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, pornography, redefining civil marriage, compromising religious liberty, or an unjust immigration policy are all serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act. These are not optional concerns which can be dismissed. Catholics are urged to seriously consider Church teaching on these issues. Although choices about how best to respond to these and other compelling threats to human life and dignity are matters for principled debate and decision, this does not make them optional concerns or permit Catholics to dismiss or ignore Church teaching on these important issues.Consistent with the general Catholic avoidance of specific governmental forms, there is very little about separation of powers, federalism, or other ideas which conservatives of our time focus upon and discuss. However, the document does outline some general concerns which Catholics may used to judge political actions. These are:
- Human Dignity: "Catholic teaching about the dignity of life calls us to oppose torture, unjust war, and the indiscriminate use of drones for violent purposes; to prevent genocide and attacks against noncombatants; to oppose racism; to oppose human trafficking; and to overcome poverty and suffering."
- Subsidiarity: This is consistent with the Catholic idea that we are social animals, inclined to live in society. "The principle of subsidiarity reminds us that larger institutions in society should not overwhelm or interfere with smaller or local institutions, yet larger institutions have essential responsibilities when the more local institutions cannot adequately protect human dignity, meet human needs, and advance the common good."
- The Common Good: "Human dignity is respected and the common good is fostered only if human rights are protected and basic responsibilities are met. Every human being has a right to life, the fundamental right that makes all other rights possible, and a right to access those things required for human decency—food and shelter, education and employment, health care and housing, freedom of religion and family life."
- Solidarity: "We are one human family, whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they may be. Loving our neighbor has global dimensions and requires us to eradicate racism and address the extreme poverty and disease plaguing so much of the world. Solidarity also includes the scriptural call to welcome the stranger among us—including immigrants seeking work—by ensuring that they have opportunities for a safe home, education for their children, and a decent life for their families and by ending the practice of separating families through deportation."
As you may note, there are specific policy goals scattered in here ("safe house, "education for their children" and so forth). How these matters are accomplished is still, however, a matter of prudence and individual judgment. So, therefore, a Catholic can vote, without necessary sin (this, of course, is a matter of interior disposition), to limit illegal immigration and, simultaneously, to seek to better the condition of the migrant living in the United States without contradiction.
What I often find lacking in Catholic documents, especially the guides such as discussed herein, is any sense of concrete political situation, and how far a countries' political structures must be respected in light of any otherwise laudable goal. The same seems to hold true for many Catholics. Some people, discussing a political question, look solely (so to speak) at whether a stated political goal is acceptable and laudable to the Faith, and then whether a certain candidate or politician supports it. If so, then other conditions seem secondary.
For instance, I have in mind a recent article by Peter S. Rieth on the Imaginative Conservative website. Mr. Rieth, a self-described "a Subject of the Queen of Australia and a citizen of the American Republic," takes the approach that Christian Conservatives can and should support Bernie Sanders in his candidacy. In fact, Mr. Rieth states with no seeming hyperbole in place:
As poor a reflection on our politics as it may be, few of the remaining candidates come as close to embodying Catholic conservative hopes for America and the world as Bernie Sanders.I think Mr. Rieth is an excellent example of a literate, intelligent, commentator who embodies precisely the approach of goal-judgment I described above, without regard to specific political institutions or (perhaps) human nature. Let me explain.
First, consistent with ethical rhetoric, we must make an attempt to understand Mr. Rieth's argument. First, Mr. Rieth notes that, while abortion and sex are important topics of consideration, a Catholic conservative is (or ought to be) "far more preoccupied with war, peace and justice." Continues Mr. Rieth, "It is precisely because Senator Sanders is a life-long socialist that Catholic conservatives can be sure that a Sanders Presidency would use all of America’s resources on the international stage to end war, not start it, to mend divisions amongst nations, peoples and religions, not aggravate them." Mr. Rieth spends several long paragraphs on the problems of continued military intervention, concluding that "Only a President Sanders, precisely because he is an intellectual socialist and because all of socialism is fundamentally anti-imperialist, would give hope to Catholic conservatives that the United States would work for world peace."
While we may question the wisdom of immediately conflating general ideas of socialism with a self-declared status, and using them to project behavior, let us continue to discover Mr. Rieth's argument. Mr. Rieth proceeds to discuss areas where Catholic conservatives disagree with Sanders. For instance, Mr. Sanders will not likely nominate Supreme Court justices who will overturn cases such as Roe and Obergefell. Yet, Mr. Rieth argues, "President Sanders would likely not forbid those of us for whom life is sacred from pleading with our fellows to choose life. In addition, a President Sanders will likewise be uninterested in stopping Catholic conservatives from loving their husbands and wives and remaining committed to their sacramental marriage vows." Essentially, because abortion and marriage are issues which Christians should work on personally or extra-politically, and are not likely to be limited in that effort by Sanders, these are non-issues.
Mr. Rieth then notes that Sanders has a voting record which a Catholic conservative should respect on economic issues. Mr. Rieth notes that Sanders "recognizes the fundamental immorality of what has sadly become routine in the GOP: cutting government programs theoretically intended to help the public good in favor of government programs theoretically meant to help private interests." Moreover, "Catholic conservatives should turn their backs on the GOP and embrace Senator Sanders, who understands that we should have the economy serve human needs, rather than have humans serve economic utility."
With that, Mr. Rieth closes his arguments, and I hope I have summed them accurately here. I will leave aside an in-depth discussion of various moves which seem problematic to me. For instance, Mr. Rieth's ignoring a voting record when it doesn't help his case, citing it when it does help and ignoring it when it doesn't. For instance, see here, where Sanders voting to require corporations to cover services such as contraception. Or, here, where Sanders voted against a bill exempting religious organizations from discrimination claims for sexual orientation and gender identity. Or, the manner in Mr. Rieth minimizes difficulties in his argument by deeming them issues of personal work rather than political concerns where it seems to suit his needs. Mr. Reith may no doubt have responses to these claims, but they are aside from my main point.
Rather, I think Mr. Rieth, which discusses mostly general principles throughout his discussion, is an example of someone who seems to weigh general principles against others, then decide whether to vote based upon those principles. Questions of political power, of governance, of prudence and even subsidiarity, seem often ignored.
Let me give an example, or several. For the following, I use here the reasoning of Aquinas (especially from the Summa) - why reinvent the wheel, after all? It is true that Aquinas is not the ultimate authority on all things political, but his is a careful, thorough, Catholic, intensely well-read, mind. He provides an excellent framework for consideration.
We may be sure that Mr. Rieth is concerned with justice. He mentions the word or its root at least a few times in his article. Aquinas, as with many things, takes time to carefully define the term. In order for any given act to be "just" in the political realm, there must be certain conditions met. Aquinas:
[T]hree conditions are requisite for a judgment to be an act of justice: first, that it proceed from the inclination of justice; secondly, that it come from one who is in authority; thirdly, that it be pronounced according to the right ruling of prudence. If any one of these be lacking, the judgment will be faulty and unlawful.I think it is important to consider the requirement that a judgment "come from one who is in authority." In looking at Mr. Rieth's estimation of Sanders, Mr. Rieth is not specific about how and when Sanders might promote the policies Mr. Rieth finds laudable. For instance, Mr. Rieth believes that Sanders would promote peace, and not war. However, despite recent presidents' actions, pursuant to our system of government, declaring war should belong to the Congress, and directing that war, to the President, who executes the declaration. Problematically, were Sanders to refuse going to war after a declaration, then Sanders runs the risk of two unjust judgments - the ability for the President to decide on war, and the ability for the President to refuse to execute a valid judgment of Congress. (This presumes that the reason for Sanders' refusal is not due to Congress lacking one of the other Conditions.)
That Aquinas here specifically refers to political powers of the one in authority cannot be doubted. That he recognizes that different political systems and different individuals may fulfill different roles also may not be doubted. In the Summa, Aquinas states:
It belongs to the notion of human law, to be ordained to the common good of the state. In this respect human law may be divided according to the different kinds of men who work in a special way for the common good: e.g. priests, by praying to God for the people; princes, by governing the people; soldiers, by fighting for the safety of the people. Wherefore certain special kinds of law are adapted to these men.So we see first that different laws ordering to the common good may apply to different statuses in society. Moreover:
[I]t belongs to the notion of human law, to be framed by that one who governs the community of the state, as shown above (Question 90, Article 3). In this respect, there are various human laws according to the various forms of government.And finally, to tie this all back together:
Wherefore even as it would be unjust for one man to force another to observe a law that was not approved by public authority, so too it is unjust, if a man compels another to submit to a judgment that is pronounced by other than the public authority.We in the United States have a tripartite government which divides the functions into separate bodies, legislative, executive, and judicial. It behooves Catholics to take considerations such as Aquinas posits here when considering candidates for any political office, including judges. Just as it would be unjust for the Judiciary to enforce laws through its own police force, so it would be for Sanders, as President, to unilaterally enact policies in the same manner as he did in Congress. We must consider the nature of justice, not simply as commutative or distributive in type, with an abstract comparison of generalized principles along the way, but whether any particular action (legislative or executive) is unjust by reason of usurping judgments committed to another servant of the public good.