Voting One's (Catholic) Conscience

“The owl of Minerva,” the philosopher Hegel famously wrote, “takes flight only with the coming of dusk.” In other words, wisdom comes after the fact—in John Henry Newman’s lovely words, when the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over. The upshot is that philosophy, to quote Hegel again, “always comes too late” to change the world.

Marx disagreed. If, though, the wisdom we’re talking about is perfect apprehension of the “logic” of history by us mere mortals—reading, as it were, the mind of God—then for what it’s worth I’m more than willing to agree with Hegel’s claim. What’s more, I’m even anxious to do so! But make the wisdom humbler; separate it, that is, from Hegel’s philosophical system, or Marx’s. Say it consists of apprehension of the springs of the natural and social worlds and of the principles of a properly human life, plus of course (to sweeten the pot) the insight to realize those principles in practice. This wisdom, to say the least, does not appear any easier to come by. In fact, in the middle of things, as we find ourselves, I’d venture the best we can do is to approach it obliquely, through a glass darkly. From this perspective, even the putatively wise among us look to be but the blind, or nearly the blind, leading the blind.

These dark thoughts were inspired by—how could you have guessed it?—Donald Trump. I have now collected so many thoroughly-considered, well-written denunciations of him as patently unfit for the office of the presidency that my cup runneth over. Like so many others, Democrats and Republicans alike, I am daily scandalized by some or other comment of his. The latest that comes to mind is his claim that, should he lose in November, it will be because the election was rigged. What candidate of a major party says that in our democracy? What candidate of a major party would contemplate saying that without the gravest evidence?

One thought that the Trump phenomenon has inspired in me in calmer moments is that, while in retrospect it might appear clear just when a nation toppled into authoritarianism (take the collapse of the Weimar Republic with the Nazi seizure of power), or just what a historic decision portended, in the middle of things the stakes are so much harder to judge. Come at the thought this way. Just what does our nation risk with the election of Trump? Does the Trump phenomenon truly give reason to worry that dictatorship “can happen here”? Is the U.S. “at a moral crossroads,” as Peter Steinfels claims in one of the more valuable articles in my collection of denunciations? I tend to share these worries and others, but again I’ve been impressed by how difficult it is to grasp the stakes, see through the fog and murk, see otherwise than through a glass darkly. It’s interesting in this regard that W.B. Yeats’s all-too-oft-quoted poem “The Second Coming” was written in the aftermath of World War I, in 1919. The best among us must not lack all conviction, and to me the passionate intensity of many of Trump’s supporters is a terror to behold. I’m lately of the mind, however, that the best among us ought also to feel some measure of sympathy for those before us who did not judge historical events aright—who failed to realize that some “rough beast” was about to be born. Humility compels us to acknowledge that, in the middle of things, whether the center will or will not hold can be, sometimes and in some ways, obscure.

Another thought I’ve had in calmer moments is that the USCCB’s “teaching document on the political responsibility of Catholics,” Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, has been outstripped by events. I don’t make this claim as a criticism of the bishops, as if they should or could have seen Trump coming. The current edition of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship was approved by the bishops in November 2015, when no one knew what was slouching our way. At that time, it appeared politics as normal was still in the cards—or so we were assured—and so it was no abdication of responsibility on the part of the bishops simply to re-issue, with minor revisions, the same document published in 2007 and again in 2011. (See the document’s introductory note for this history.)

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I appreciated working through Forming Consciences, and for what it’s worth I recommend it as well worth studying. What’s more, it’s not as if either the principles of Catholic social teaching—the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity (§5)—have suddenly lost all credibility, or the document’s injunction to the faithful to form our consciences “in the light of the truths of the faith and the moral teachings of the Church” (§18) is any less imperative. But I do think the Trump phenomenon has exposed limits to the document’s teaching. That is, I do think the Trump phenomenon makes it clear the document needs more thoroughgoing revision the next time around.

At its center, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship identifies “[t]wo temptations in public life [that] can distort the Church’s defense of human life and dignity” (§27). To quote further, “The first is a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinction between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity” (§28). The ethical distinction in question, it appears a bit later in the document, is between intrinsically evil acts that must be opposed in principle—like abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, racism, and torture, among others—and issues that admit “principled debate” (§29), where “[p]rudential judgment…in applying moral principles to specific policy choices” might lead to disagreement among people of good faith (§33). The bishops give as examples of such issues “armed conflict, housing, health care, immigration, and others,” presumably including economics, education, and environmental degradation. By the way, the document quotes §43 of Gaudium et Spes that it is a duty of conscience of lay persons to see to it “that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city,” to which end they may look to priests “for spiritual life and nourishment” (see Forming Consciences, §§12-13). The quotation then passes over a number of sentences, however, beginning with two very much to the point: “Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his own distinctive role.”

The second temptation in public life, according to the USCCB, “is the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity” (§29). That is, it is a temptation to hold that, because how to respond to environmental degradation, for example, admits “principled debate,” it falls among the class of “optional concerns which can be dismissed,” or where the church’s teaching can be discounted in a way that it can’t on non-negotiable issues like, first and foremost, abortion. Armed conflict, or war, is another instructive example in this regard. Although armed conflict is not intrinsically evil—according to the tradition, war may be just or unjust depending on circumstances and motive—it is nonetheless the case that an unjust war might be a graver evil than an intrinsically evil act, say like gay marriage (to choose from the bishops’ list). The upshot is that there is no justification for focusing only on intrinsically evil acts that must be opposed in principle and pleading indifference to all else.

These points seem to me well taken. There is an important ethical distinction between the church’s teaching on abortion and, say, what Pope Francis would have us believe about “buying and selling ‘carbon credits’” (Laudato Si’, §§170-171). Abortion must be opposed in principle; whether markets in pollution should be supported or not is open to debate. At the same time, care for our common home is not negotiable, and so it is incumbent on people of good faith to work toward effective ways to practice stewardship of creation. The bishops are then right to proclaim, “As Catholics we are not single-issue voters” (§42). Yet they are also right to underscore the gravity of supporting a candidate who “promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion” (§42). Supporting a candidate for that reason would be formally cooperating in evil (§34). Note, however, that if the bishops were to teach that the best way to reduce abortions in the United States is to concentrate on overturning Roe v. Wade, this teaching, like Pope Francis’s on carbon credits, would admit “principled debate.” As Cathleen Kaveny wrote back in 2008, “Identifying infamies is one thing. Deciding upon a strategy to deal with them is something else again.”

But here's the crux: to my mind anyway, the Trump phenomenon has made apparent that this set of considerations is too narrow and legalistic. In view of how the Democratic and Republican parties have developed over the last several decades, the bishops’ teachings regarding the “temptations in public life” came to mean that conscientious Catholics could vote Democratic only if they did not thereby intend to support the pro-choice cause (morally impermissible formal cooperation) and they judged the Democratic positions on nearly all else—war and peace, poverty, immigration, health care, the environment, economics—to possess a moral gravity sufficient to overcome the prima facie obligation to support the pro-life cause increasingly identified with the Republican party (compare Forming Consciences, §35). The activism of a coterie of bishops in 2004, 2008, and 2012, and over Notre Dame’s honorary degree to President Obama in 2009, surely reinforced this message. Voting Democratic was cooperation with evil, though it could be morally permissible “remote material cooperation,” in then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s terms, so long as it was done for other, proportionate reasons. Against this background, it makes sense that the so-called Catholic vote is split, with a majority leaning Democratic, but “sharply divided along racial and ethnic lines,” as a recent Pew Research Center report found. (Hispanic Catholics, the church’s growth population, overwhelmingly favor Hillary Clinton; white Catholics narrowly favor Trump.)

The problem with the bishops’ framework has been succinctly put by the theologian Vince Miller: “Cooperation is oriented toward questions of how one cannot act, more than how one should.” In other words, in coming at the question of how to vote through the lens of cooperation with evil, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship draws our attention first and foremost to obstacles to overcome for our conscience to be clean. The right vote accordingly takes its lead from the imperative to avoid the wrong vote, on pain of a guilty conscience. But that is so, well, 1980s. It seems to me that, in 2016, what each of us needs, to quote Miller again, is to make sure that our conscience is “fully formed by the range of Catholic moral teaching relevant to the vote,” so that our “decision in conscience (no matter how fraught)” might be “clearly and explicitly motivated by [our] Catholic faith—not one undertaken aside from or against [our] faith.”

Another way to make this point is that the lens of cooperation pinches the vision we need to make a fully conscientious choice. Faced with the Voice, Lord knows that we the people now need vision. Which leads me to wonder in closing: Would it be possible for the bishops to speak again?


P.S. Vince Miller’s article is collected, together with Cathleen Kaveny’s 2008 article and a number of other excellent reflections, in the volume Voting and Holiness: Catholic Perspectives on Political Participation, edited by Nicholas Cafardi and published by Paulist Press in 2012.

Bernard G. Prusak is associate professor of philosophy and director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Catholic Moral Philosophy in Practice and Theory: An Introduction (Paulist Press, 2016). 

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