According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are four principles that govern our Christian relationship to the social reality (at least in the USA). In a bulletin that was issued by them before the elections, the bishops said the following:
“In the words of Pope Francis, ‘progress in building a people in peace, justice and fraternity depends on four principles related to constant tensions present in every social reality. These derive from the pillars of the Church’s social doctrine … [They] include the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. … Rightly understood, this ethic does not treat all issues as morally equivalent; nor does it reduce Catholic teaching to one or two issues.”
Most people, including most Roman Catholics, know nothing of the four principles, though they will know some of the Roman Catholic positions associated with the principles. So, what do these principles mean? [All quotes are from the website of the USCCB.]
- Dignity of the human person — “The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. This belief is the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching. In our society, human life is under direct attack from abortion and euthanasia. The value of human life is being threatened by cloning, embryonic stem cell research, and the use of the death penalty. The intentional targeting of civilians in war or terrorist attacks is always wrong. Catholic teaching also calls on us to work to avoid war. Nations must protect the right to life by finding increasingly effective ways to prevent conflicts and resolve them by peaceful means. We believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.”
- The common good — “The right to life implies and is linked to other human rights—to the basic goods that every human person needs to live and thrive. All the life issues are connected, for erosion of respect for the life of any individual or group in society necessarily diminishes respect for all life. The moral imperative to respond to the needs of our neighbors—basic needs such as food, shelter, health care, education, and meaningful work—is universally binding on our consciences and may be legitimately fulfilled by a variety of means. Catholics must seek the best ways to respond to these needs. As Blessed Pope John XXIII taught, ‘[Each of us] has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and, finally, the necessary social services.'”
- “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. The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed. The second is the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity. 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, 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.”
- “It must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good.”
- “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may 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.”
- Subsidiarity — “The principle of subsidiarity recognizes that issues should be addressed at the appropriate level of society with the capacity to do so. The community charged with promoting human life and dignity should be willing and able to meet its obligations as we collectively work for the common good. We urge you to approach the budget process honoring these principles. … Severe cuts to non-defense discretionary spending, which includes many domestic and international poverty-reducing and refugee-assisting programs, would result in millions of people being put in harm’s way, denying access to life-saving and life-affirming services”
- Solidarity — “Our Conference supports the goal of reducing future unsustainable deficits, and believe our nation has an obligation to address their impact on the health of the economy. At the same time, a just framework for the federal budget cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons; it requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly. … Solidarity recognizes that each of us is connected, and we all have the responsibility to care for one another, particularly for those who are poor and vulnerable.”
Particularly when one looks at the statement I quoted on solidarity, one has to say that those Roman Catholics who view taxes used for healthcare benefits for the poor and vulnerable as being equivalent to robbery are clearly going against what the bishops have said. It is not pro-life to try to prevent the raising of taxes to provide “essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.” In fact, this is an anti-life opinion discarded by the bishops and not a pro-life opinion supported by them.
- “The moral measure of the federal budget is not which party wins or which powerful interests prevail, but rather how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless, exploited, poor, unborn or undocumented are treated. Their voices are too often missing in these debates, but they have the most compelling moral claim on our consciences and our common resources. The Catholic bishops of the United States stand ready to work with leaders of both parties for a budget that reduces future deficits, protects poor and vulnerable people, advances the common good, and promotes human life and dignity.”
Not all Christians will reach the same decision on which party to vote for in any given election. While Roman Catholics are told that they may not vote directly for anyone who supports an intrinsic evil because they support the same intrinsic evil, at the same time they are told that if there are other compelling moral reasons to vote for that person while opposing the intrinsic evil that candidate supports, then they may vote for that politician. That is true whether the politician supports the intrinsic evil of abortion or the intrinsic evil of, “how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless, exploited, poor, … or undocumented are treated.” We must be against abortion, but we cannot split abortion out from the rest of the list the bishops give to all faithful Christians and make that the only voting criteria. That is a violation of Roman Catholic doctrine.
One may still make their voting choice based primarily on opposition to abortion. BUT, according to the bishops, one may not make their voting choice based only on opposition to abortion without considering the other anti-life evils on the bishops’ list. As well, one cannot impute to other faithful Christians a moral lack if they have conscientiously considered the totality of pro-life issues and decided that they must vote the other way because of that totality. Neither may they imply–as all too many anti-abortion Catholics do–that those who vote a different way (based on their assessment of the totality of pro-life issues) are in danger of their eternal life, for it may be they who will be questioned by the Lord for their failure to seriously address the totality of pro-life issues. Rather, it is better for all Christians to avoid judging those who vote differently based on different assessments of all pro-life issues.
I do fully agree with the Roman Catholic bishops both that one cannot in any way support abortion and that one must consider the totality of what it is to be pro-life. In that sense, I am in full agreement with Fr. John Whiteford, a renowned Orthodox writer, who has powerfully argued that one cannot be both anti-abortion and pro-choice while claiming to be a truly moral Christian. But, as the Roman Catholic bishops point out in their many pages of exposition in various documents, one can be anti-abortion but yet vote for a generally pro-abortion politician if the vote is for reasons other than abortion, that is, if the promotion of pro-life issues is better carried out by the total stance of that (those) politician(s). If the jobless, the hungry, the homeless, the exploited, the poor, and the undocumented will be severely harmed by the election of an ostensibly anti-abortion politician, then there may be sufficient moral reason to vote for the person opposing that politician in spite of their support for an intrinsic evil. That politician may actually be the lesser of two evils.
Finally, it should be noted that in one of their documents, the Roman Catholic bishops do offer the possibility that there may be an election so bad that a Roman Catholic chooses to vote for neither alternative. They do not, however, encourage that as a frequent choice, but rather consider it a rare choice.