Conscience, Candidates and Discipleship in Voting – Part Three
During a recent gathering with women and men Religious, Cardinal Blaise Cupich was asked, in light of the coming elections, what resources were available to address the deep division within our nation as well as divisions in our Church. His immediate reply was to mention an address given by Bishop Robert W. McElroy at the University of San Diego on Feb. 6, 2020. In this talk, Bishop McElroy moves from Pope Francis’ “Evangelii Gaudium” to relevant issues of Catholic Social Teaching as he calls Catholic women and men, rooted in conscience and in faith, to action.
In preparing to vote, you are called to action. You are invited to ponder the message in the document, “Conscience, Candidates and Discipleship in Voting,” and then share the talk with three to five others. Given the length of the talk, it is appearing here in three parts. Part three follows:
Conscience and Prudence
For the disciple of Jesus Christ, voting is a sacred action. In the words of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, it touches “the crossroads where Christian life and conscience come into contact with the real world.” For this reason, it cannot be reduced to a logical set of propositions that yield a pre-determined result in the selection of candidates.
Some theologians have sought to find such a logic of deduction in the concept of intrinsic evil. Catholic theology holds that some actions, such as abortion or research on human embryos, are intrinsically evil; that is, they are always and everywhere wrong. Because of this, some Catholic leaders have asserted that candidates who seek laws opposing intrinsically evil actions automatically have a primary claim to political support in the Catholic conscience.
The problem with this approach is that while the criterion of intrinsic evil identifies specific human acts that can never be justified, this criterion is not a measure of the relative gravity of the evil in particular human or political actions. Telling a lie is intrinsically evil, while escalating a nuclear arms race is not. But it is wrongheaded to propose that telling a lie to constituents should count more in the calculus of faithful voting than a candidate’s plans to initiate a destabilizing nuclear weapons program. Similarly, contraception is intrinsically evil in Catholic moral theology, while actions which destroy the environment generally are not. But it is a far greater moral evil for our country to abandon the Paris Climate Accord than to provide contraceptives in federal health centers. What these examples point out is that Catholic social teaching cannot be reduced to a deductivist model when it comes to voting to safeguard the life and dignity of the human person.
How, then does the faith-filled voter choose candidates in a way that integrates the tenets of Catholic social teaching, recognizes the role that competence, character and capacity play in the real world of governing and preserves a stance of building unity within society?
The Church locates this pathway in the virtue of prudence. In the words of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, “prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it … It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience.” In Catholic social teaching, prudence is called “the charioteer of the virtues;” it brings into balance all of the virtues of the Christian moral life to provide a singularly incisive moral perspective for the disciple confronting ethically complex problems. It is at the heart of the workings of conscience.
Some Catholic commentators on voting have in recent years portrayed prudential judgment as having a deficient dignity and grasp of the truth. They say that there is a categorical claim to support candidates who legislatively oppose intrinsic evils, but only a secondary claim for candidates whose proposals rest on prudential judgment for their moral discernment.
To say this is to miss the central element of Catholic teaching about conscience and prudence. As the Catechism notes, “With the help (prudence), we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to be avoided.”
Prudential judgment is not a secondary or deficient mode of discernment in the Christian conscience. It is the primary mode.
This is certainly true in voting for candidates for public office. The constellation of substantial moral elements that are relevant to deciding which candidate is most likely to advance the common good during her time in office can only be morally comprehended through the virtue of prudence. There cannot be faith-filled Catholic voting without the virtue of prudence, exercised within the sanctity of well-formed conscience.
In the closing marks of his address to Congress in 2015, Pope Francis said a nation is great when it defends liberty as Abraham Lincoln did, when it seeks equality as Martin Luther King did, and when it strives for justice for the oppressed as Dorothy Day did. Let us pray that our nation moves toward such greatness in this election year, and that faith-filled prudent disciples are leading the way.
The entire talk may be accessed here.
Please share Bishop McElroy’s address with three to five others. Please invite them to share it with their friends and colleagues … just a simple, but effective, way of sharing the good news!