On the Matter of Catholic Voter Guides

Given the likely election of the most virulently anti-Catholic and pro-abortion presidential candidate ever (more so even than the current resident of the White House), the inevitable “blame game” is about to begin, even within our parishes.

I sometimes receive requests to preach more forcefully on elections from the pulpit. They’re mostly meant to garner support for some candidate or issue favored by the person making the request – most often, concern over the number of pro-abortion bumper stickers in the church parking lot. “Those people” need to be converted – and, indeed, they do. But aside from an occasional joke, I avoid electioneering talk from the pulpit.  Why? Cowardice? Fear about the Church’s tax-exempt status?

Before every election cycle, Church bureaucracies across the country scramble to craft Catholic “voter guides.” Voter guides may make it appear that the clergy are on top of the game, doing something “important” about hot button issues.

There are countless meetings, committees, and legal reviews to ensure that guides comply with election laws – especially to avoid anything that will risk the Church’s tax-exemption. That’s understandable. But in the process, an important distinction is lost between Catholic principle and prudential judgment, as well as the respective roles of clergy and the laity.

To my eye, “Catholic” voter guides always fall short because, by design, they provide ammunition for both candidates. Candidate A can claim to be pro-life because he opposes legalized abortion on demand. Candidate B does the same because of opposition to the death penalty or support of greater spending on education, etc.

Frankly, a Planned Parenthood voter guide would be far more provocative – and useful – than what’s prepared by Church bureaucracies.

Priests and bishops have a duty to preach clearly about Catholic principles in matters of faith and morals. They should offer stern warnings about proposed policies and laws that clearly violate Catholic principles. But the laity have the duty and right to apply Catholic principles in “prudential judgments.”

There is a crucial distinction here. Catholic faith and morals comprise the “religious sphere” of the Church – which is distinct from the prudential “political sphere” of the laity. The two spheres may intersect in places (e.g., abortion is always wrong and it’s no violation of the laity’s rights when clerics insist upon this, even as a matter of “politics”).  But a clear distinction is required to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

voting_booth

If pressed, I could propose a voter guide that befits the dignity of Catholic principle. I’d keep it very simple:

1) Be aware that your vote has moral consequences because you are cooperating in the political positions of a candidate;

2) Inform your conscience with authentic Catholic teaching, especially on the “hot button” moral questions; and

3) Select a candidate most likely to promote Catholic morality, or least likely to undermine or inflict damage.

Clergy are quite right to remind the faithful that overlooking the horror of abortion and the baby-mutilating activities of Planned Parenthood is a mortal sin – and threatens their salvation. These intrinsic evils are not matters for prudential judgments.

Clergy may also legitimately weigh in about certain prudential judgments, provided they clearly identify their judgments as non-binding on conscience. Unfortunately, the waters have been muddied for decades by churchmen who fail to identify their prudential judgments (on questions like immigration policy, government spending, climate change, etc.). These are distinct from Catholic principles such as the Ten Commandments that bind in conscience.

The result is that many people incorrectly conclude they are dissenters if they disagree with, say, the USCCB’s immigration policy. It is a particularly dangerous form of clericalism to ignore the laity’s right to make prudential judgments proper to them.

Such clericalism has increased for decades. Many priests and bishops are all too comfortable dabbling in politics. Ironically, this clericalism either reinforces existing views or falls on deaf – or resentful – ears. In my experience, it’s extremely rare for any bishop or priest to change anyone’s core political views.

One reason we seem about to elect the most pro-abortion candidate in American history is that so many Americans, including parents and boyfriends, have been complicit in the 60-million abortions since Roe . There is now widespread fear of being “judgmental” resulting in moral and political paralysis.

But clericalism also includes sins of omission. Excommunication, for example, is a religious act of charity and clarity. The Church (usually a bishop) uses it for the salvation of the soul of the person excommunicated, and to remove scandal.

Formal excommunication would notify nominally Catholic politicians, who promote abortion, that they are in danger of eternal damnation. Which would send a clear message to Catholics on the eternal consequences of voting, and is perfectly within the religious sphere.

Excommunication attracts attention to all involved. In the currently poisonous political culture, it invites various kinds of retribution. Catholic voter guides, as we have come to know them, are bland and wearisome because they perpetuate the blurring of Catholic principle and prudential judgments. Most disturbing of all, such voter guides seem – at least subliminally – designed to provide cover for the failure of legitimate Church disciplinary actions.

If you think these observations misguided, consider this: If laity allow clergy to give them advice about how to vote, perhaps clergy should allow laity to advise them on whom to excommunicate. Why not an “Excommunication Guide” prepared by the laity for the clergy?

Indeed, such an uprising by the faithful laity might be very helpful in clearing the moral fog.  Then again, maybe the resulting venom would be unhelpful. So why not stick with the proper distinctions and allow the laity prepare their voter guides on their own?

The Catholic Church exists to proclaim Christ.  Clergy should consider themselves guardians and teachers of the Faith, with legitimate disciplinary tools for the salvation of souls.  The role of the laity – according to their state of life and position in the political sphere – should be respected and encouraged, for better or for worse.

Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky

Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.

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