Some Catholic Preliminaries to the Presidential Campaign

At the moment, there are already close to a dozen official or unofficial candidates for the presidency with perhaps more to come, both Republicans and Democrats. Unfortunately, without exception, the views of the Democratic candidates are in important respects – abortion and marriage come immediately to mind – deeply incompatible with the teachings of the Church, and therefore it is unacceptable for a practicing Catholic to vote for them.

What should a Catholic expect from candidates? First, to foster the common good of all citizens. And what does this mean? It is easy enough to explain that in general terms (although at some point the terms become so general that only tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot would take issue with them – and perhaps even they might try to rationalize that they, too, were serving the common good.)

It means respect for the person as such. In the name of the common good, public authorities are bound to respect the fundamental rights of the human person. Society should permit each of its members to fulfill his or her vocation. In particular, the common good resides in fostering the conditions for the exercise of the natural freedoms indispensable for the development of the human vocation.

The common good also requires development of the social well being of the group itself. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says (sec. 2419) that the “Church receives from the Gospel the full revelation of the truth about man;” that when she bears witness to man in the name of Christ, to his vocation to this dignity and to the communio of persons, she teaches the demands of justice and peace in conformity with divine wisdom.

The Catechism also explains (2420) that the Church may properly make moral judgments about economic and social matters when the fundamental rights of the person and the salvation of souls require it. In such moral matters, she bears a mission distinct from that of the political authorities. She also strives to inspire right attitudes with respect to earthly goods and social questions, applying the true meaning of her tradition, always living and active, in whatever circumstances may arise.

It is the proper function of authority to arbitrate between various interests in the name of the common good. Under the concept of solidarity, this requires that secular authorities should make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life. The Church tells us this is food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, and the right to establish a family, among many other things.


This solidarity, however, is not a blank check for income redistribution or limitless government programs. We’ve seen what happens when governments try to take charge of economies and what properly belongs to the people and civil society – and it isn’t pretty. For almost a century, the Church has pointed out that solidarity also needs subsidiarity – the formal protection of the independence of individuals and groups – to do its proper work.

Finally, the common good requires peace: that is, the stability and security of a just order. This presupposes the authority to ensure, by morally acceptable means, the security of the society’s members. It is the basis of the right to legitimate personal and collective defense.

Of course, at the heart of all this is the dignity of the human person at all stages of life, from conception to a natural death. Taken together, these are the truths that precede and are independent of any society or system of government. They are the truths that, in the words of our Declaration of Independence, are “self-evident” rather than created by a constitution or statute. As such, they cannot be denied by the state.

The right to life belongs to this category, but so does the sanctity of traditional marriage. As the Catechism says, political authority must be exercised within the limits of the moral order and must guarantee the conditions for the exercise of freedom. This is true justice.

In the months ahead, we Catholics will hear from candidates who are Catholic and we will have the chance to see if they are sincere in their faith. There are also several non-Catholic candidates who agree with us on crucial contemporary issues regarding marriage and the sanctity of human life. They are committed to ending the holocaust of millions of unborn children and the degradation of women through the grave sin of pornography.

Political differences on these sorts of questions do not fall into the category of “prudential judgments,” such as what is the proper level of military funding or which is the fairest tax system. The more basic issues are either/or questions that derive directly from the moral law.

In judging the fitness of the presidential candidates, let’s be sure not to forget the senators and representatives and others who will also be up for election. We need to assess their positions and hold them responsible, as well.

May the Holy Spirit raise up men and women of true public virtues so that our country can return to the standards of the Ten Commandments and the natural law handed on to us, even if imperfectly, by our Founding Fathers.

Fr. C. John McCloskey is a Church historian and Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.