Single-Issue Voting Vs. The Common Good

Single-Issue Voting Vs. The Common Good August 20, 2020

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Catholicism is a universal faith. The Holy Spirit has been sent to us to teach the fullness of the truth (cf. Jn. 16:12-3). That means, among other things, it is holistic, seeking to integrate all truth together. It rejects attempt to separate various aspects of the truth, pitting them against each other. Likewise, it rejects pitting goods against the good. Catholicism rejects any attempt to elevate and promote a particular fact over and above all others, because it recognizes this is the path towards error, and when held and embraced too strongly, heresy. Truth does not contradict the truth, but rather, each aspect of the truth holds each other up. Reject or ignore some aspect of the church’s teaching and you risk dismantling the faith, replacing the truth with an idol.

Faith is not meant to be held as mere belief. Faith requires action. Action requires prudence. The Catholic faith promotes a great number of teachings, but recognizes, that when dealing with their implications in the world at large, we might have to make hard choices. When we do so, we are expected to know and recognize the implications of those choices, and act according to what our conscience dictates as a result. We might not be able to act perfectly in the world, but we should strive to act in the way which best indicates and follows the holistic, interdependent nature of the truth. That is, we must not act in such a way that we prop up one aspect of the truth and use it to ignore, or even reject, the full demands of the truth; we must strive not to pit truth against truth; rather we must find the way which best embraces the fullness of the truth and demonstrates the core of truth in what we do. This is especially true when dealing with our civic duties in a democratic form of government: we must not be single issue voters; instead, we should vote with our conscience, following what we think best represents the truth as a whole.

The Compendium of Social Doctrine, explains that the best way for Christians to act and vote is to act in charity and vote for those who best represent and support the common good. Christians can be involved with and participate in differing political parties, due to the fact that they must act out of prudence, but in doing so they must continue to promote the fullness of the good, and so be critically engaged even in and with those whom they support:

A choice must be made that is consistent with values, taking into account actual circumstances. In every case, whatever choice is made must be rooted in charity and tend towards the attainment of the common good. It is difficult for the concerns of the Christian faith to be adequately met in one sole political entity; to claim that one party or political coalition responds completely to the demands of faith or of Christian life would give rise to dangerous errors. Christians cannot find one party that fully corresponds to the ethical demands arising from faith and from membership in the Church. Their adherence to a political alliance will never be ideological but always critical; in this way the party and its political platform will be prompted to be ever more conscientious in attaining the true common good, including the spiritual end of the human person. [1]

The ontological relationship between truth and goodness should be reflected in the way we act. The holistic, interdependent nature of the various teachings of the faith are to be reflected in the holistic, interdependent nature of the various goods which we seek. The catholic nature of the truth is to be reflected in the way the good should be held in common, promoting what is good for all. Those who follow the Christian faith must employ the common good as a way to actualize the universal nature of the truth: to deny the common good is to deny the universal truth. To ignore or reject the promotion of the common good, by emphasizing some particular good, ends up absolutizing that particular good, turning it into a weapon against the common good. As with every such idol, the particular good is corrupted and ends up being employed for some evil end. When various commentators promote single-issue concerns for voting, they are attacking the common good and the catholic nature of the truth. This is why their arguments and ideologies must be resisted: the good they are interested in might indeed be important, but it cannot be and must not be pitted against the good itself.

Thus, in 2002, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, directed by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, made it clear that Catholics must look for and embrace the fullness of Catholic teaching, and not set up and follow only one aspect of Catholic Social teaching when making political decisions:

In this context, 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. Nor can a Catholic think of delegating his Christian responsibility to others; rather, the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives him this task, so that the truth about man and the world might be proclaimed and put into action. [2]

Christians must put the faith into action, recognizing the variety of ways they can do so. They must not limit themselves to one concern, to one issue, no matter how significant that issue is. To fulfil their moral obligations, Christians must be concerned about the common good and seek to promote it in and through their actions. Single issue voters violate the catholicity of the faith. They undermine the common good, which leads them to undermine the truth. The proper way to respond to them is to show how the rejection of the common good ends up dismantling the good. Their position no longer has any moral force because they have rejected the good in and of itself. Moral relativism easily follows, once the good has been rejected, and we see this in the way single issue voters end up excusing all kinds of evils, using all kinds of relativistic excuses to justify accepting such evils.

Christians, acting with prudence, following their conscience, can and will work with people who do not always hold all that the church teaches. Where they can be allies, they work together with people of good will, seeking the common good. Charity demands it. This is not to be understood as accepting all that their allies believe, but rather, it is the recognition that faith put into action requires us to work with people where they are at and to promote the common good together. When we share the recognition of the value of the common good together, we can then promote all that is good, showing how and why every particular good is connected with the common good. This is why Cardinal Ratzinger recognized (as the church has historically recognized) a distinction between supporting a political candidate because of the good which they promote versus supporting a candidate for the evils which they promote: when one does the second, one formally cooperates with the evil and are guilty of that evil, but if one does the first following sound reasons for what they do, they are not directly implicated in such evil and so it is permitted to cooperate with and vote for such candidates.

When voting, when acting out of prudence, the Compendium of Social Doctrine reminds us, just as the truth is holistic and transcends individualized teachings used to represent the truth, so the good is not a formal set of rules, but established through principles which we live out in prudence, and this good is what we must seek to establish:

An authentic democracy is not merely the result of a formal observation of a set of rules but is the fruit of a convinced acceptance of the values that inspire democratic procedures: the dignity of every human person, the respect of human rights, commitment to the common good as the purpose and guiding criterion for political life. If there is no general consensus on these values, the deepest meaning of democracy is lost and its stability is compromised. [3]

When the common good, when human rights, when respect for the human person is lost, then the good itself is lost. When we vote, we should seek the candidates which best act upon these principles, doing what can and should be done to protect and promote them, while rejecting those candidates who act contrary to them. The church might not tell us who to vote for, but it tells us how we are to make our judgment calls. It tells us to put the universal nature of the truth into practice by the promotion of the common good. These principles should serve as us as we form our conscience, and once the conscience is formed, then we can and should look with prudence to the candidates which are before us, and realistically decide who will best promote the fullness of the good and vote for them.

[1] Compendium of Social Doctrine. Vatican translation. #573.

[2] Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Doctrinal Note On Some Questions Regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life. Vatican translation.  (11-21-2002).¶4.

[3] Compendium of Social Doctrine. Vatican translation. #407.


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