Catholics are less likely than other religious believers to deviate widely from national norms related to voting, public opinion, and political ideology. There are big political divides between Catholic bishops and their flocks on controversial issues. For instance, the Catechism of the Catholic Church condemns and forbids abortion. The first entry in the subject index says it all: “Abortion: condemnation in the early church; excommunication as penalty; inalienable right to life; protection of human life from the moment of conception.”Do go read.
Yet, in a June 2004 survey of Catholics likely to cast votes in the November 2004 national elections, about 60 percent of Catholics agreed that abortion should be legal under some or all circumstances, and roughly three-quarters of Catholics denied that Catholics have a religious obligation to vote against prochoice candidates. Asked whether Communion should be denied to Catholic politicians who support abortion’s legality under some or all circumstances, Catholics were more likely to disagree (78 percent) than the general public was (64 percent).
As prolife activist Kim Marshall has acknowledged, few elections actually offer Catholics a clear-cut choice between two otherwise comparable candidates, one prolife and the other prochoice. In “all cases,” she counsels, Catholics should decide how to vote by applying “the unequivocal teachings of sacred Scripture” and the Catechism.
Agreed, but sacred Scripture is “unequivocal,” and the Catechism is, too, on many politically important issues other than abortion. Take poverty. The church is as absolutely propoor as it is abundantly prolife. In Evangelium vitae, Pope John Paul II repeatedly calls Catholics to “the service of charity”....
The Catechism, too, is replete with moral injunctions to attack “sinful inequalities”: “There exist also sinful inequalities that affect millions of men and women. These are in open contradiction of the gospel....God blesses those who come to the aid of the poor and rebukes those who turn away from them.”
As a rule, however, politically conservative Catholics focus more on abortion, while politically liberal Catholics focus more on poverty. Likewise, politically conservative Catholics emphasize church teachings against same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and embryonic stem-cell research, while politically liberal Catholics invoke church teachings against the death penalty, racism, and environmental degradation.
But even if one faithfully tries to apply all relevant church teachings to given issues and vote accordingly, one still must decide which issues matter most. How much should poverty matter versus same-sex marriage? How much should environmental protection matter versus the death penalty? Which issue is more vital, embryonic stem-cell research or public education? What about housing, food and nutrition, medical assistance, veterans affairs, public transit, criminal justice, and energy? What about taxes and the economy? What about foreign and military policy?
The complications only deepen when we consider that two politicians who are equally faithful on a given issue may yet differ prudentially on how best to address it.