“We call this year a test of our democratic institutions because increasing numbers
of our fellow citizens regard our political institutions and electoral processes
with indifference and even distrust.”
The quote at the top of this page is from a 1976 USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) document titled Political Responsibility, a pastoral message from the United States bishops to American Catholics. Reacting to the fact that politics and social issues change, the document has evolved through 12 versions in the last 44 years; the title changed from Political Responsibility to Faithful Citizenship to Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.
Our country has become increasingly polarized and given to harmful and thoughtless rhetoric. This is a challenging election year for all citizens of our country, including Catholics.
“We need to participate for the common good. Sometimes we hear: a good Catholic is not interested in politics. This is not true: good Catholics immerse themselves in politics by offering the best of themselves so that the leader can govern.”
Pope Francis, 2013
However, as Catholics, we are called to engage with, not abandon, the political processes of our country. That includes voting.
The purpose of this page is to address some issues that conscientious Catholics may have with deciding how to vote this election year. Passages from Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship are referred to on this page to shed some light on concerns we may share about voting and the election. Any underlining, italics, or other highlighting has been added to focus on a particular part of a passage.
You are encouraged by all means to read and refer to the complete and original document, which can be found on the USCCB web site. Unless otherwise noted, the bulk of the material on this page is drawn from that source and is designated by the abbreviation “FCFC,” followed by a paragraph number.
Should I vote at all?
Yes. It’s a duty for Catholics to do so.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 2240), “Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country.”
Can’t the Church tell me exactly who I should vote for?
No. The Church does not advocate for any particular politician or party.
As Pope Francis said in a recent interview, “According to you, you have difficulty in one and you have difficulty in the other. In electoral campaigns, I never say a word. The people are sovereign. I’ll just say a word: Study the proposals well, pray and choose in conscience.” (Pope Francis, October 2 interview with John Sullivan, NY Times Magazine)
“The Church is involved in the political process but is not partisan. The Church cannot champion any candidate or party. Our cause is the defense of human life and dignity and the protection of the weak and vulnerable.” (FCFC, 57)
Catholics don’t vote by formula. Nor does the Church direct our vote to a particular candidate or political party. The role of the Church is to help us to develop a well-formed conscience to make informed choices in the area of politics, as in all other areas of our lives.
“In this statement, we bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote. Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth. We recognize that the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience, and that participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election.” (FCFC, paragraph 7)
Is there a guide to help me decide who to vote for?
Yes. It’s your conscience.
A well-formed conscience is required to inform our vote.
“The Church equips its members to address political and social questions by helping them to develop a well-formed conscience. Catholics have a serious and lifelong obligation to form their consciences in accord with human reason and the teaching of the Church. Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere “feeling” about what we should or should not do.” (FCFC, 17)
Voting is “a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching” (FCFC, 37)
As Pope Benedict XVI explained, “It is not the church’s responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather the church wishes to help form consciences in political life, and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly.” (“Deus Caritas Est,” No. 28)
Are there policies that should be particularly important to me as a Catholic?
Yes. Some policies are considered “intrinsically evil” by the Church.
None of us would feel that making a decision to raise or lower taxes is as morally weighty as a decision whether or not to engage in genocide. We recognize that some issues are morally more consequential than others.
There are some things that we must never support, either as individuals or as a society.
“Two temptations in public life can distort the Church’s defense of human life and dignity: The first is a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity.” (FCFC, 27 & 28)
The bishops go on to explain this and to offer examples of such issues:
“A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil.” (FCFC, paragraph 34)
Intention is critical.
Can I vote for someone who opposes an important Catholic issue?
Yes. But the decision to do so is not a simple one.
We Catholics should vote as moral individuals. But, as moral individuals, we must acknowledge that we may find ourselves in the voting booth, being asked to choose among candidates, all of whom fall short of Church teachings on social justice.
Paragraph 27 of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship introduced the “Two temptations in public life (that) can distort the Church’s defense of human life and dignity.” The second one is this:
” . . . the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity. The current and projected extent of environmental degradation has become a moral crisis especially because it poses a risk to humanity in the future and threatens the lives of poor and vulnerable human persons here and now. Racism and other unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, pornography, redefining civil marriage, compromising religious liberty, or an unjust immigration policy are all serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act. These are not optional concerns which can be dismissed.” (FCFC, 29)
A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act. . . “if the voter’s intent is to support that position.” (FCFC, 34). What we are instructed to do is to make a balanced decision, based on a well-formed conscience:
“There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil. When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, 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.” (FCFC, 35 & 36)
So, yes: As Catholics following the above guidelines, we can vote for candidates of any political party, but only after reference to our conscience. In making the decision, we must rely on prudence and judgement that accords with Catholic doctrine and social teaching.
It is not easy, but we must choose. We must consider the entirety of the candidates’ political views and policies, their background and character, their integrity and competence to serve, and their willingness to seek the common good and protect our democratic institutions. And this must be done with reference to the Gospel message and the teaching of the Church.
We are obligated to follow our conscience. As Thomas Aquinas said, “Every judgement of conscience, be it right or wrong, be it about things evil in themselves or morally indifferent, is obligatory, in such wise that he who acts against his conscience always sins.” But we are equally obligated to form our conscience to conform with the Gospel and the teaching of the Church. That formation requires us to work very hard, to examine both the political stance of a candidate and the moral teaching of the Church, and to judge the former in terms of the latter.
No one candidate is likely to be ideal. Keeping in mind that all issues are not of equal importance, we should choose the candidate who will do the least harm and the most good in advancing us toward the Church’s vision of social justice; which is to say, the Kingdom of Heaven. And this must be done with reference to the Gospel message and the teaching of the Church.
As Pope Francis said, “Our defense of the innocent unborn, needs to be clear, firm, and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.” (“Gaudete et Exsultate,” No. 101)
We need to judge with a well-formed conscience, and then we need to choose.
How do I act toward others with different opinions?
Our own vote for a candidate may be cast for what we consider “morally grave reasons,” not in support of the candidate’s position on any single issue. We need to be clear that our vote in that situation is not a mandate for anything contrary to the moral order, but in spite of it. It makes us even more responsible for working to change that position.
We need to accept that others, even other Catholics, will come to different conclusions. We should reflect, discuss, engage, discern and decide; and at the same time, we should respect the consciences and choices of other Catholics.
Bishop Malooly has asked all of us to pray the Litany of St. Thomas More as a novena, beginning on Monday the 26th, and continuing for the nine days ending on Election Day. He explains the reason for and history of the novena in a 2008 letter; the novena itself and other prayers itself are below:
The Litany of St. Thomas More, Martyr, and Patron Saint of Statesmen, Politicians and Lawyers
V. Lord, have mercy
R. Lord have mercy
V. Christ, have mercy
R. Christ have mercy
V. Lord, have mercy
R. Lord have mercy
V. Christ hear us
R. Christ, graciously hear us
V. St. Thomas More, Saint and Martyr,
R. Pray for us (Repeat after each invocation)
St. Thomas More, Patron of Statesmen, Politicians and Lawyers
St. Thomas More, Patron of Justices, Judges and Magistrates
St. Thomas More, Model of Integrity and Virtue in Public and Private Life
St. Thomas More, Servant of the Word of God and the Body and Blood of Christ
St. Thomas More, Model of Holiness in the Sacrament of Marriage
St. Thomas More, Teacher of his Children in the Catholic Faith
St. Thomas More, Defender of the Weak and the Poor
St. Thomas More, Promoter of Human Life and Dignity
V. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world
R. Spare us O Lord
V. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world
R. Graciously hear us O Lord
V. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world
R. Have mercy on us
Let us pray:
O Glorious St. Thomas More, Patron of Statesmen, Politicians, Judges and Lawyers, your life of prayer and penance and your zeal for justice, integrity and firm principle in public and family life led you to the path of martyrdom and sainthood. Intercede for our Statesmen, Politicians, Judges and Lawyers, that they may be courageous and effective in their defense and promotion of the sanctity of human life – the foundation of all other human rights. We ask this through Christ our Lord.
The above prayer was written by the Most Reverend Michael A. Saltarelli, D. D., Bishop of Wilmington.
Prayer Before An Election
Loving God, help the people of our nation to
make wise choices in the forthcoming
election. Enlighten us and those who will be
elected with the wisdom and fortitude to do
your will. Strengthen the gifts of your Spirit
so that we may work together for your glory
and the good of all citizens. We offer this
prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord.
An Election Novena Prayer to the Saints
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Heavenly Father, Nothing can overcome your greatness. But we are weak and need a deeper gift of hope as we face worldly governments. Help us remember that political power can never replace the mission of the Church to preach the Gospel to all nations. Lord, we give you permission to form our consciences according to the Gospel so that we may both vote and act for the Kingdom of God. As we wrestle with the complexity of political life, never let us forget the poor, the weak, the unborn, the refugee, the migrant, all those affected by war, those struggling financially and all those suffering from the failings of the political systems of this world. Give us courage to always be detached from our political loyalties and be first a faithful follower of Jesus, the true King. And when it comes time for us to contribute to the political realm, help us to cast our vote in a way that is pleasing to You. For these elections in our nations, O God, please bless us with the best rulers possible, in this fallen world, at all levels of government. Finally, just as You brought our salvation from the horrible death of Your Son, we pray that from the political campaigns of this world, You will bring about great good for Your people. Amen.
Day 1: St. Jude, Patron of impossible causes, join us in praying for this election and these intentions (state your intentions here).
Day 2: St. Frances Cabrini, you who tirelessly built the Kingdom of God in America, join us in praying for this election and these intentions (state your intentions here).
Day 3: St. Thomas More, martyred for your uncom‐ promising faith, join us in praying for this election and these intentions (state your intentions here).
Day 4: St. Jose Sanchez del Rio, martyred for your child‐like, yet fearless faith in Christ the King, join us in praying for this election and these intentions (state your intentions here).
Day 5: St. Kateri Tekakwitha, who fled to Canada in order to freely practice your faith, join us in praying for this election and these intentions (state your intentions here).
Day 6: St. Damien de Veuster of Molokai, selfless servant of the lepers of Hawaii, join us in praying for this election and these intentions (state your intentions here).
Day 7: St. John Neumann, Founder of the diocesan Catholic school system in America, join us in pray‐ ing for this election and these intentions (state your intentions here).
Day 8: St. Rita, Patroness of hopeless causes, join us in praying for this election and these intentions (state your intentions here).
Day 9: Mother Mary, Patroness of the Americas, join us in praying for this election and these inten‐ tions (state your intentions here).