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The imperfect candidate

Note: This column is the first of several columns that will run up through Election Day (Tuesday, Nov. 8). No single column on the theme of voting as a faithful Catholic can cover every important point that is required for voting with an informed conscience. The hope of these columns is to hit on some major themes Catholics should consider during an election cycle. I highly encourage you to read “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility” from the Catholic Bishops of the United States. This relatively short, but incisive document covers significant ground on the theme of voting as a faithful Catholic, and it is well worth your time.

Since time immemorial, it seems candidates for public office have been placed on a pedestal. Too often, on both sides of the political transaction, it is thought that the election of some aspiring politician will “fix all our problems.” Candidates on the campaign trail are often characterized—and even sometimes bill themselves—as having “the solution” to (insert the political problem of the day). Voters, on the other hand, are often looking for the silver bullet candidate who is going to fix (insert the political problem of the day).

In short, candidates can be viewed with a perfection that the rose-colored lenses of an election cycle can have us wearing.

But this vision isn’t quite the reality.

Unless Jesus Christ is on the ballot, every candidate we see on a ballot is an imperfect candidate. No candidate perfectly embodies or advocates for the basic building blocks necessary for a just society: the dignity of the human person; subsidiarity; the common good; and solidarity. Even candidates who faithfully adhere to the Church’s teachings on any number of issues will have areas where they fall short of the glory of God.

While there are plenty of races for public office where there is a clear contrast between who the right and wrong candidate is, there are also plenty of races where—as a voter—you are left wondering what to do when faced with multiple imperfect candidates.
Thankfully, the Church gives us some basic principles for these situations.

First, it is important to know that “[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.” To vote for a candidate who holds these positions, and to vote for them for these reasons, would make one guilty of “formal cooperation in grave evil” which is highly problematic in our pursuit of a virtuous and saintly life.

Second, there can be situations where a Catholic votes for a candidate who holds “unacceptable position[s]” on an intrinsic evil. However, this can only be justified where the Catholic “vote[s] for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.” Importantly, “morally grave reasons” does not include “advanc[ing] narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignor[ing] a fundamental moral evil.”

Third, when a Catholic is faced with a race where “all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act,” a Catholic 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.” A Catholic can even “decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate.”

Finally, it is critical to remember that “all issues do not carry the same moral weight.” There is a “moral obligation to oppose policies promoting intrinsically evil acts” and this demand “has a special claim on our consciences and our actions” when it comes to voting for candidates.

So, what does this practically mean?

As you prepare to vote this election cycle, you need to look hard at the candidates. Take off the rose-colored lenses that make us believe we are dealing with perfect candidates. Every candidate has some level of imperfections in their fundamental principles or in the way they will implement public policies. Assess every candidate based on your conscience informed by the Catholic faith. Figure out where the candidate stands on the issues, and especially figure out where they stand on the major issues that involve fundamental goods (safeguarding the needs of the poor) or intrinsic evils (such as abortion). Weigh each candidate against the other candidate, in light of their positions on these issues. In all of this, pray for guidance and wisdom from the Holy Spirit to make a choice that honors God’s plan for civil society.

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