Why the Church won’t tell Catholics who to vote for

By Dr. Brett Salkeld, Archdiocesan Theologian, Archdiocese of Regina

As we approach the upcoming federal election, Catholics are forced to answer the question, “How does my faith inform my politics?”

As citizens, we have the right to vote based on our values, and as Catholics we have the duty to do so.  Any suggestion that we should refrain from “imposing” our Catholic values on a pluralistic society is non-sense.  Those who do refrain from voting according to their own values simply let others “impose” their values on the rest of us unchallenged.

Simply put, politics is about imposing our values on society.  And democracy, while imperfect, is more or less the best way we’ve figured out how to go about imposing our values on each other peacefully.  The principles of both democracy and Catholicism insist that we vote our values.

But, if this is the case, wouldn’t it be easier if the Church did the calculus for us?  The Church is, after all, the expert on Catholic values.  Isn’t it?

Well, yes.  Which is why the Church can tell us how to vote.  I am using the term “how” in a very specific way.  By it, I do not mean the Church can tell us which party deserves our vote. But the Church can help us to make a decision informed by our faith by making clear which issues are of utmost importance, and how we might make a faithful discernment when such issues are not dealt with in a satisfactory way by any one party or candidate.

Now, even Catholics who think that the choice of which party a Catholic should vote for in the next election is obvious tend to agree that the Church cannot pronounce that choice from the pulpit (or any other organ of the Church, such as a website).  On this, all seem agreed, though we might do well to consider why this should be the case.

If, for example, the only reason the Church should not make such pronouncements is because it could get in trouble with the state (e.g., by losing charitable status), one solution that presents itself is to provide an endorsement of the preferred party in ways that are clear enough for any Catholic who is paying attention to know what is being suggested, but ambiguous enough to be able to avoid the charge of having directly endorsed that party.  Such a solution asks a priest, bishop, or diocese to walk a tightrope.  Too far one way and the faithful might vote for the wrong party.  Too far the other way and legal troubles await.

Within this construal, the only thing preventing the Church from making the desired pronouncement is fear of running afoul of the authorities.  But there are other even more important reasons why the Church will not tell us who to vote for.

Consider the following situation.  A given party fully supports Catholic teaching on an issue of utmost importance, but has an ambiguous relationship with many other elements of Catholic teaching.  The Church endorses that party because none of the other issues rise to the level of importance as the one on which the party and the Church are in full agreement.  Catholics vote en masse for the party and it forms the next government.  That government then fails to keep its policy promises on the issue of utmost importance while governing in a way that is objectionable according to many other Catholic values.

In such a situation, what happens to the Church’s credibility?  How likely are the faithful to pay attention the next time the Church tells them how to vote?  Or how to do or think about anything else?  And what does the party (and the other parties) learn from the experience?

Not only is the Church’s credibility harmed in this situation.  Parties simply love issues on which they can reliably get votes without ever having to follow through in terms of policy.  They may even benefit from leaving the issue unaddressed in order to get the same votes next time around.

Do not misunderstand me.  None of this is to say that any Catholic who voted for the party in question voted poorly.  That party may well have been the best option available to an informed Catholic conscience.  The point here is that, even if it was the best option available to an informed Catholic conscience, it is still not helpful for the Church to offer an endorsement.  An individual who votes for what ends up being a bad government can say, “I did my best with the information I had, and I did not and do not will for things to turn out as they have.”  The Church does not have that luxury.

Nor does any of this mean that the issue of utmost importance is any less important.  It remains essential for Catholics to pursue justice and good public policy on such an issue with fervor and commitment.  And in so doing, they should enjoy the full support of the Church.  Just because the Church can’t pronounce on parties does not mean she cannot pronounce on issues, or even policies.

But beyond the legal and even prudential reasons we have already discussed, there is another, perhaps even more fundamental, reason why the Church cannot and will not tell Catholics who to vote for.

Scripture is quite clear that we are not, as the Psalmist says, to put our trust in princes.  In the Old Testament (1 Samuel 8), God is loathe to give Israel a king like the other nations and warns them of what life under a king will be like.  And in the New Testament (Matthew 22) Jesus famously tells us to “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

This latter passage is often, and correctly enough, interpreted to mean that Christians should pay taxes, obey any just laws, participate in civic life, and other such things that make one a good citizen.  That is not wrong.  But there is a subtext here that is easy to miss.  Implied in Jesus’s phrasing is that there are things that do notbelong to Caesar.  This is actually of some importance.

There is a temptation as old as politics itself to see in politics the mechanism for the salvation of the world.  One of Caesar’s titles was “soter” – savior.  One thing Jesus would not have us give to Caesar is that title.  That one belongs to God.

We see this temptation constantly in contemporary political culture.  Every election, it seems, it the most important in living memory.  Every election will decide the destiny of the nation.  This issue, this candidate, this party, this year.  These things are painted in almost apocalyptic terms.

It can become so bad that we begin to see all of life through the lens of politics.  It becomes our chief organizing principle.  And when it is, Christ isn’t.  The biblical term for this is idolatry.

In 1925, Pope Pius XI established the Feast of Christ the King.  In a time when nationalism, communism, and secularism increasingly threatened many of the world’s most powerful nations, the Church reminded us that the powers of this world are ephemeral.  Christ is the King, not only of our hearts, but of the world and of history.

It is the role of the Church to remain above politics.  To remind us that politics is not our final end and that no politician, party, platform, or policy is our savior.  This does not mean that Catholics do not participate in politics.  It does not mean they should not work diligently on political campaigns that they are convinced in conscience will contribute to the common good, or that they should not pursue justice for the unborn, the elderly, the foreigner, the poor, the widow and the orphan through political means.  Rather, it means that they are free to do so without the burden of having to save the world through that necessary but imperfect mechanism.  And free to live well in a world that is so much more than a political battlefield.

Politicians and elections and issues come and go.  They are important.  But they are not the most important.  If the Church does not remind us of that, who will?

This column is published courtesy of the Archdiocese of Regina  – Part 1 of a series:

Part 1: Why the Church Won’t Tell Catholics Who to Vote For

Part 2: How (not) to vote like a Catholic

Part 3: The Lesser of Two Evils?

Part 4: Voting Like a Catholic – Tools for Discernment