In 2007 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, a guide for American Catholics seeking to discern their political responsibilities in view of the upcoming 2008 national elections. In 2011 the bishops reissued the same document for the 2012 elections, along with a new introductory note. Though no one doubts that the ballots cast by Roman Catholics are a key factor in national elections, it’s unclear what impact the bishops’ guide has on that vote. A 2011 poll suggests that only a small minority of American Catholics consulted Forming Consciences before the 2008 election. Nonetheless, journalists, politicians, political strategists, and political scientists take the document seriously, viewing it as a significant intervention in American political life made by the religious leaders of a powerful segment of voters.

How should Forming Consciences and other voting guides issued by the bishops over the years be understood? What, exactly, is their purpose? The guides do not endorse any candidate or list of candidates—indeed, they can’t without the USCCB losing its tax-exempt status. Yet clearly the bishops intend to influence Catholic voters by shaping their consciences in accordance with Catholic teaching. Furthermore, while the voting guides acknowledge the enduring principles of Catholic social teaching, their emphases clearly reflect the bishops’ perception of the challenges facing the American people during a particular national election. One might more properly say, then, that the bishops’ guides are “issue” guides, largely dedicated to articulating Catholic teaching on controversial issues in a particular election.

To situate these guides in the context of Catholic moral and political thought, it’s instructive to note their evolution since the original 1976 version. In Political Responsibility: Reflections on an Election Year, the bishops addressed themselves to all Americans; insisting that “we specifically do not seek the formation of a religious voting bloc,” they assumed implicitly that the interests, responsibilities, and perspectives of Catholics were broadly consonant with those of all Americans, particularly those who are religious. The guide’s title expressed its worry over widespread political apathy, cynicism, and “the abandonment of political participation.” While it did not flinch from the problems facing American society in 1976, Political Responsibility tacitly presupposed that effort and commitment in favor of the common good would be rewarded with results. Moreover, it presumed that the church’s political efforts would be joined—or at least appreciated—by all people of goodwill. Such a belief rested on an array of optimistic assumptions; there is a natural, almost youthful energy in the guide’s call for all Christians to “join together in common witness and effective action to bring about Pope John’s vision of a well-ordered society based on truth, justice, charity, and freedom.”

By 2007 these optimistic assumptions had evaporated. The tone of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship is decidedly battle-weary, suggesting a lament for a nation mired in political crisis and trapped in a moral self-contradiction verging on hypocrisy. Whereas in 1976 the bishops addressed the challenge of political engagement, by 2007 the predominant concern is moral skepticism and relativism; the bishops worry more about the human capacity to recognize moral truth than about the motivation to act upon it. Accordingly, their text emphasizes the church’s capacity to teach the moral truth relevant to political society. “What faith teaches about the dignity of the human person and about the sacredness of every human life helps us see more clearly the same truths that also come to us through the gift of human reason.” As its title indicates, the guide is concerned about faithful citizenship—citizenship exercised in accordance with the truths recognized by the Catholic faith.

Forming Consciences is directed primarily to Catholics, and manifests a pervasive desire to steer the Catholic population toward a distinctly Catholic type of political engagement, one that will “apply authentic moral teaching in the public square.” In 1976 the bishops hoped their words would “provide an opportunity for thoughtful and lively debate,” whereas the 2007 document invites deference, even obedience, stressing “the moral responsibility of each Catholic to hear, receive, and act upon the church’s teaching in the lifelong task of forming his or her own conscience.” One might say that the 2007 drafters suspect there has been too much debate over the past few decades—and not enough effort on the part of Catholics to accept and act upon magisterial teaching.

The two guides show striking differences in both content and treatment. In 1976 the bishops identified eight issues for the reader’s consideration—abortion, the economy, education, food policy, housing, human rights and U.S. foreign policy, mass media, and military expenditures—and covered them for the most part with brief summaries, referring readers to other documents, listed at the end, for a fuller explanation. In contrast, the 2007 guide identifies many more issues, and circles around them again and again. Part 1 lays out seven key themes: the right to life and the dignity of the human person; the call to family, communion, and participation; rights and responsibilities; the option for the poor and vulnerable; the dignity of work and the rights of workers; solidarity; and caring for God’s creation. Part 2, titled “Applying Catholic Teaching to Major Issues: A Summary of Policy Positions of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,” groups fifty-seven (!) issues under four broader themes: human life, family life, social justice, and global solidarity. Finally, part 3 identifies ten “policy goals that we hope will guide Catholics as they form their consciences and reflect on the moral dimensions of their public choices.”

The most obvious contrast between the two guides is their different prioritization of the issues—in particular, the emergence of abortion as the paramount issue. In 1976 the bishops began with abortion only because they presented topics in alphabetical order. In contrast, the 2007 begins with abortion and goes on to treat the topic repeatedly and with special emphasis. Affirming the status of the unborn has not only acquired pride of place in the years since the bishops’ first electoral missive; it has also acquired a certain organizational force and power. The right to life for the unborn is repeatedly used to provide the touchstone for the theoretical evaluation of other issues. Quoting Pope John Paul II, the USCCB goes so far as to say that any concern for human rights is “false and illusory” if it does not include an antiabortion program. The document regularly mentions the plight of the unborn in connection with other issues to which it is not commonly linked, such as the preferential option for the poor and marginalized, and the need to combat violence. The moral framework of Forming Consciences presents the right to life as standing at the center of all other rights. For the bishops, there is no doubt that the right to life is the fundamental issue of social justice.

This ordering of issues shapes the bishops’ advice regarding voting. “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position,” they write. And while they also remind us that “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,” note the contrast: a clear prohibition against voting for a candidate because he or she supports abortion rights, but only a vague admonition against “indifference or inattentiveness” to other important moral issues. The USCCB could have made the point in the reverse way, with a clear prohibition of voting for someone with an unacceptable stance on other moral issues, set over against an admonition against “indifference or inattentiveness” to abortion. But the bishops did not do so. The logical structure of the passage prioritizes abortion.

So when can a Catholic vote for a prochoice candidate? According to Forming Consciences, “a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position” may vote for that candidate “only for truly grave moral reasons.” Regarding abortion, the bishops’ discussion seems to limit this option to a situation where there is no prolife candidate available. “When all candidates hold a position in favor of an intrinsic evil,” the guide advises, “the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.”

Given the guide’s sustained emphasis on the importance and uniqueness of abortion, what does it mean for the bishops to affirm that “as Catholics we are not single-issue voters”? “A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support,” the bishops assert. “Yet a candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.” Nowhere does the document straightforwardly allow a Catholic voter to select a prochoice candidate if there is a prolife candidate in the race. In contrast, on numerous occasions the USCCB affirms the decision to refuse to cast a vote for a prochoice candidate, even if the only alternative is to refrain from voting altogether. The ordering of issues is clear: First consider abortion and then consider everything else. Other moral issues become important after the candidates successfully pass the abortion hurdle.

Consequently—in contradistinction to the 1976 document—the USCCB now strongly encourages Catholics to walk into the polls with one particular issue at the top of the list. Only after emphasizing again that “the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions” do the bishops gesture toward other factors involved in electing a candidate: “a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue.” This one lonely sentence pointing to the need to evaluate the personal qualities of the candidate reads like little more than a half-hearted afterthought in the context of Forming Consciences’ overwhelming emphasis on abstract issues. The guide does not pursue the logical follow-up questions. The bishops do not even raise, for example, the possibility that a particular candidate (or party) might fabricate a commitment to end abortion for strategic political reasons. Forming Consciences does not caution voters to evaluate the sincerity with which a candidate holds a particular position; rather, it seems simply to assume candidates will enact their platforms if elected to office.

But aren’t questions about character, integrity, and efficacy the crucial questions? What do we do, after all, when we vote in an election? Selecting a candidate for public office means judging a candidate’s probable exercise of his responsibilities while in office. It combines judgment about the merits of the candidate with a prediction about the nature of the challenges he or she will face during the upcoming term. In assessing candidates for a particular office, four considerations are paramount: 1) Competence—does the candidate have the intellectual capacity, the experience, the temperament, and judgment to do the job? 2) Character—does the candidate have a good set of moral values and the integrity to pursue them in situations of temptation and fear? 3) Collaboration—can the candidate work well with other people, both political allies and opponents? 4) Connections—what are the moral and practical ramifications of the candidate’s political and financial connections for the manner in which he or she will carry out the job? Politicians, after all, do not act alone; they operate within networks of political power, including party affiliations, lobbyists, and big corporate and individual donors.

The point of electing candidates to an office is to empower and enable them to accomplish a set of tasks in service of the common good. Various qualities go into being an effective political servant. These qualities are not fungible, and a certain minimum level of achievement is indispensable with respect to each: saintly demeanor does not make up for lack of experience or intelligence; strategic brilliance does not compensate for antisocial behavior, and so on. Precisely because politics is not a solitary activity, the same criteria for holding political power ought to be applied with respect to the party with which a particular candidate is affiliated. In some cases, in fact, the voter’s view of the party ought to be decisive. Depending on the situation, “voting the party” rather than voting for a particular candidate may be a morally justifiable strategy. If party politics are strong, then voters in a general election often find themselves choosing between already assembled political teams with competing governing strategies and priorities.

Such reflections allow us to gain some critical perspective on the idea of faithful citizenship—and on Forming Consciences. First, it would have been wise for the bishops to focus on what it means to vote for a candidate rather than an issue. Yes, the bishops’ tax-exempt status prevents them from endorsing or opposing particular candidates; it does not, however, prevent them from reflecting on a candidate’s competence, collaborative abilities, connections, and character. What are the virtues of a good public servant? Recent Catholic moral theology has witnessed a resurgence of interest in the role of virtue in the moral life; it would make sense to extend the analysis to the virtues necessary for political leadership, particularly in a pluralistic liberal democracy such as our own.

In that context we might ask, Does someone who does not support overturning Roe possess ipso facto a defective moral character that renders him or her unfit for office? In my view, the answer very much depends on the reasons underlying the position. Living in a pluralistic society requires citizens to develop a sense of which views fall within the category of “reasonable, but wrong.” So, for example, the character of a candidate who thinks that unborn life has no value whatsoever at any stage in pregnancy should be evaluated differently from one who thinks that American society is too divided over the issue to make fundamental alterations to U.S. constitutional law.

Let me emphasize that I am not implying that abortion is not important or even fundamental. I mean only to say that part of the reason abortion is such an intractable issue is that social patterns have crystallized around the fact that abortion is a readily available, widely used, and legal option. Moreover, the fundamental legal status of abortion is not subject to significant immediate change by any elected official, including the president. Because the Supreme Court has conferred constitutional protection on a woman’s right to choose abortion, it will take the Supreme Court to reverse its own holding—or a constitutional amendment. It is true that the president appoints Supreme Court justices who then go on to serve life terms. No president, however, can control how many nominations he or she will get to make, or whether the Senate will confirm them—or, for that matter, how a justice votes after he or she is confirmed. Finally, there is good reason to think that the justices are acutely aware that overturning Roe could be as destabilizing to the legal system as the original opinion was some forty years ago.

Am I suggesting that a candidate’s stand on legal abortion is insignificant? Absolutely not. I do believe, however, that simply correlating a politician’s stand on Roe v. Wade with a vote for or against him or her does not do justice to the question of how, morally, citizens should vote. After all, apart from referenda items, voters are asked to select among people, not positions. Election guides would do well to place more emphasis on assessing the fitness of candidates for a particular office. That assessment should include scrutiny of both the candidate’s moral character—paying particular attention to the virtues and vices most likely to be involved in the elected post—and the candidate’s social and political networks. With whom will he or she work? To whom will he or she be loyal? These are key questions. Many election guides, however, emphasize instead the issues they perceive to be (or hope to be) relevant to the voters. The election guides issued by the USCCB are no exception.

How, then, should citizens think morally and practically about the issues relevant to a particular election? In my view the term “issue” is vague; too often the word simultaneously encompasses the diagnosis of a problem, an account of its cause, and a proposed solution. Evaluating a candidate’s stand on the issues requires careful attention to each of these three factors. Furthermore, political issues and the underlying problems they highlight claim our attention in different ways. Some are important, even fundamental, because they go to the basic structure of the political community; others are urgent because the mandate to protect the well-being of the community demands that they be addressed here and now. Issues, then, are not abstract propositions about the community; they are action items, indicating the problems that can be addressed by the tools available to political officeholders. Instead of evaluating the relative significance of issues in the abstract, voters should consider whether and to what degree the problems identified by the issues can be ameliorated by the particular candidate seeking a particular office.

For nearly forty years, abortion has been a constitutionally protected practice, and its legal status is not immediately susceptible to any sort of significant change at the federal level. The difficulty of changing this reality via a constitutional amendment has led large segments of the prolife movement, including the U.S. bishops’ conference, to concentrate on achieving that same goal indirectly, by electing presidents who will over time remake the Supreme Court. It seems to me that the divisions in the country that make the direct strategy practically impossible also tell against the effectiveness of this indirect strategy.

Moreover, the indirect strategy has significant moral problems. Supporting a constitutional amendment directly targeted at undoing Roe conflicts with few, if any, of a voter’s other duties to promote the common good, and merits serious consideration. But the prolife movement’s indirect strategy of making abortion a litmus-test issue for voters, with the expectation that they will elect officials who will somehow overturn Roe, does raise red flags. The duty of a voter is to promote the common good by selecting the best candidate for a political office in light of the range of factors I have outlined. Given that most office-holders have multifaceted responsibilities, voters cannot consider only one issue—even a fundamental issue—in casting their ballots. Presidential elections are no exception.

Voters cannot blind themselves and focus single-mindedly on one issue in the abstract, even if the issue is abortion. They must select among candidates, not among issues—and they are morally required to do so in light of the concrete challenges and possibilities for the common good posed by a specific election at a specific time. This, and not a litmus test of issues, is what forming consciences for faithful citizenship is really all about.

This essay is adapted from her book Law's Virtues: Fostering Autonomy and Solidarity in American Society (Georgetown University Press). Funding for this article is provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Published in the 2012-09-28 issue: 

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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