I have been doing a little bit of out-of-season pondering about politics and morals. No election is coming up, so maybe we can explore the topic of "single-issuevoting" without being bogged down in discussions about any particular candidates or ballot initiatives.
(N.B.: For simplicity and clarity, I am restricting the following discussion so that "pro-life" and "pro-choice" refer primarily to legality of abortion. I won't be discussing in this post issues that many people find blurrier, like cloning or same-sex marriage laws. I might generalize my arguments to these in a later post, but for now "legal abortion" is the model "life" issue: that is, I will write as if it is the only one.)
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Not quite two years ago I wrote a post called "Putting the careful thought up front," in which I described a conversation which gave me insight about being a so-called "single-issue voter:"
[My friend] said she appreciated hearing about my decision (not made without some struggle) to become what is often called a single-issue voter. So often the so-called single-issue voters are derided for not putting much thought into the decision. But in describing the process by which I became convinced to vote pro-life, I'd pointed out without noticing that there is usually a great deal of thought put into those decisions up front --- and that careful and reasoned thought shouldn't be discounted.
I really appreciated that insight, because to be honest I hadn't been giving myself much credit for that up-front deliberation. I'd sort of internalized that "single-issue-voters-don't-have-to-think-hard" message and have been kind of quietly bummed and embarrassed about being a primarily pro-life voter, as an identity, even if I've been fairly confident about each vote I've cast...
That struggle, that thought, isn't nothing. It doesn't become nothing just because it is over and it ended in a firm conclusion.
That conversation still ranks as one of the most personally important political conversations I've had, because it allowed me (finally) to "own" my identity as a voter who votes pro-life first.
So I was thinking a little bit about various bishops' directives of varying forcefulness exhorting the Catholics under their jurisdictions to avoid voting for pro-choice candidates. I don't have a catalog in front of me of which bishop said what when, so I'm going with my general impression here which is that there's some variety in how they've phrased it:
- some have said that a Catholic incurs sin who votes for a pro-choice candidate over a pro-life candidate without a "proportionate reason," i.e., some political reason that the voter honestly believes is as grave as the life issues
- some have said that it's practically impossible for a Catholic to vote for a pro-choice candidate over a pro-life candidate without incurring sin, which is basically the same as the last category except that added to it is the force of the bishop's specific teaching that there is almost never an issue as grave as the life issues
- some have only gone so far as to teach that a Catholic incurs sin who votes pro-choice candidates "on purpose," e.g. who really does support the pro-choice position and isn't even trying to balance the life issue with other political issues
- some may have been basically silent except for activities as part of the bishops' conference.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this sums up the various bishops' public pronouncements.
Side note: One thing I do not know anything about is whether any of the bishops have spoken about the case when voters are deciding only between pro-choice candidates -- may Catholics cast a vote for one of them, or must we withhold our vote? I have generally assumed that if there aren't any viable pro-life candidates (this happens a lot in my Congressional district), we're still obligated to exert our voting power usefully, which to me means voting for the best candidate available, but I respect the choice to abstain from voting in this situation and, as I said before, I do not know whether any bishop has expressed an opinion or a directive telling his flock to avoid casting votes for pro-choice candidates even when there is no choice, or no viable choice, of pro-life candidate.
OK, so back to my main question. One thing I want to know is: What is the primary purpose of the bishops' teaching their flocks, with any strength at all, to avoid "voting pro-choice?" Does that sound like a dumb question? It's not.
Is it primarily:
(a) a warning to each individual Catholic to help each one of us avoid committing a sin in the voting booth, and to call to repentance those of us who have knowingly supported pro-choice candidates to a degree that constitutes sin. This would be the bishop speaking to, and teaching, each Catholic as an individual.
(b) a means of organizing Catholics into a bloc in order to get pro-life people elected so that we will get pro-life policies in our country. This would be the bishop speaking to Catholics as a group, i.e., to the local church.
(c) a means of spreading the Gospel, i.e., educating anyone who happens to hear or read the bishops' words, Catholic or not, about the operative principles here: just about our highest worldly responsibility is to protect innocent and powerless people, and that means all kinds of innocent and powerless people, and when we live in a democracy we have to use our voting power as a means to do that. Also known as: converting hearts and minds. This would be the bishop speaking to the whole population living in the boundaries of his diocese.
So, I'm thinking that all three of these purposes are probably in play, but that (a) and (c) are together the ones that actually comport with the bishop speaking in his role as a bishop. (B) certainly is part of it, but I'm inclined to suggest that this constitutes what we would call "political activity" rather than "pastoral activity." A bishop is a citizen, a voter, and a public figure and so he's certainly able to engage in political activity, so I'm not censuring him for engaging in it. But I'm inclined to view the political purpose as secondary to the pastoral purpose. After all, the role of the bishop is, mainly, successor to an apostle. He is a pastor, which means that he properly confers sacraments and teaching. (A) and (C) are teaching. (B) really isn't.
So, why make the distinction?
Well, it occurred to me that a lot of Catholics speak about our religious obligation to vote pro-life as if it were equivalent to a religious obligation to get pro-life people elected. These are not the same thing, and I think we should be more careful with our words, because of the logical consequences.
The obvious difference here: Individual vs. corporal.
To "vote pro-life" is an individual act, one act per vote, you could say. I have a ballot before me: assuming I understand the candidates' positions well, marking some of those boxes (depending on the roster of candidates) might constitute committing actual sin. The bishop's role here in purposes A and C above is to help me understand the ramifications of the political positions so that I cast my vote in full knowledge and thus full freedom (even though with fuller freedom comes fuller responsibility and thus the possibility of fuller guilt). The bishop's directive engages me just as if I were sitting in his office and he were telling me, "I really want to help you avoid doing something wrong, because I'm concerned about your soul." He has a responsibility to teach in this way to every one of the Catholics in his diocese, and in a slightly different way to teach the non-Catholics he can reach as well.
But to "get pro-life candidates elected" is not like this. No individual can "get pro-life candidates elected." No individual can bear the responsibility to "get pro-life candidates elected."
And yet, many Catholics who (like me) are personally convinced that they must vote only for pro-life candidates, at least when they have a chance of winning, put it in these terms.
Why do you always vote pro-life? Why are you a single-issue voter?
"I vote pro-life because the life issues are the most important, and we have to get pro-life candidates elected. If only all the Catholics would consistently vote pro-life, then we would elect so many more pro-life candidates."
This is probably true, but it is also a political answer. When we answer that way, we are answering as a political actor, not as a Christian. It is answering the question on a particular "turf": the sandy ground in the arena of politics.
Now, in truth, we are both Christians and political actors, and so maybe in some situations the political answer is appropriate. But the Christian doesn't have to answer on that turf, in those terms. We could answer differently.
Why are you a single-issue voter?
"I vote for pro-life candidates when I can because I know that if I cast my vote to support abortion, I'd be committing a real sin.* I can't have that on my conscience and I won't take part in it, even if that means I have to sacrifice my best interests when it comes to the other issues."
This is a Christian answer and an honest one. Of course, it is guaranteed to lead to an awkward silence in certain situations. Because it is a Christian answer and an honest one.
In this post, notice that I haven't said whether Catholics do have an obligation, not just to cast our own votes without committing sin (a negative moral obligation in our political lives), but to do all we reasonably can to get pro-life people elected (a positive moral obligation in our political lives). I want to explore this more and I will do so very soon in a future post. To get you started down the same road I'm looking at, you could read this short post at Disputations.
*Note that this answer involves I-language: "if I voted to support such-and-such a candidate, I'd be committing a sin." This is intentional and is more than psychobabble interventionspeak: it would be false to say or imply, "if YOU voted for such-and-such a candidate, YOU would be committing a sin," because this rests on the assumption that the "YOU" has full knowledge of the candidates, comprehension of the issues, and the conviction that pro-life voting is necessary. It isn't fair to hold people to that standard unless you know them very well and you are sure they meet it, or you are a bishop and it is your job to teach them and bring them up to that standard. But it's always fair to hold yourself to a strict moral standard.