By Dr. Brett Salkeld, Archdiocesan Theologian
If I manage to achieve my goal with this piece, I will have left many of my readers unsettled. I will be critiquing two prominent approaches to voting as a Catholic that are oversimplified and misleading. They do, however, have the advantage of being clear and simple. People like clear and simple things. Especially when faced with difficult choices and imperfect options. My goal is to make us uncomfortable with these too simple approaches. And people don’t like being made uncomfortable.
Political parties and lobby groups love these clear and simple approaches because they can use them to make the case that voting for this or that party is an uncomplicated question from the point of view of Catholic Social Teaching. Both sides of our contemporary political spectrum play this game. One approach is used to suggest Catholics must vote for left wing options and the other is used to suggest Catholics ought to vote for the right.
When Catholics accept these oversimplified approaches, we blunt the prophetic power of the gospel in the realm of politics and end up reading our faith in light if our political categories when it should be the other way around. We also end up imagining, to the delight of the parties, that any of our fellow Catholics who vote differently than we do are being unfaithful because we have been convinced to identify our vote with the way a Catholic should vote.
In this way, we manage to reproduce the divisions in our political culture within the Church itself. Have you ever wondered why, for instance, right-wing Catholics sound more like secular right-wingers and left-wing Catholics more like secular left-wingers than we sound like one another? That is a scandal! We often spend much more energy trying to convince our fellow Catholics to make the political compromises we felt we had to make in order to vote (and then sometimes fail to perceive them as compromises at all!) than we spend trying to convince the parties we support to more fully embody the gospel.
No wonder the parties love these approaches! They allow the parties to present themselves as “the Catholic option” to those Catholics already within their ranks without ever having to change their policy in the face of the demands of the gospel. Christian witness is domesticated, and politics goes on as usual.
To the approaches themselves.
Many readers will have heard of Cardinal Bernardin and his “seamless garment.” The basic idea is completely unobjectionable, even laudable. Catholic teaching on the dignity of human life is of a piece, and one cannot choose to emphasize one element of it while ignoring or downplaying others without destroying the integrity of the whole and compromising the prophetic witness of the gospel. (Pope St. John Paul II said as much in Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), listing a significant slate of life issues about which the Church is deeply concerned.) And so Catholics cannot be, as is often asserted, “single-issue voters.” Any discernment must take into account the full range of Catholic teaching.
The problem, of course, is that there is no political ideology in the contemporary west that comes close to encompassing Catholic Social Teaching on issues related to life and the dignity of the human person. There is no “seamless garment” vote to be had. Not that anyone ever supposed there was. The “seamless garment” was not designed to tell us which party to vote for, but to give us a context and a vision from which to work for better options.
But the left craftily seized on the idea that Catholics must not be “single-issue voters” in order to downplay the importance of abortion and justify voting for pro-abortion politicians because other policies supported by those politicians ostensibly favoured Catholic values on other important questions. It is this kind of logic that, when taken to its extreme, leads certain Catholics to make remarkable claims to the effect that voting for even pro-abortion extremists is a “pro-life” vote.
And so the broad Catholic moral vision, which should remind Catholics not to marginalize any life issue in their voting, came to be used to marginalize the pre-eminent life issue of our time. The “seamless garment” was supposed to increase the credibility of the Church’s witness by showing the coherence and beauty of the Catholic attitude towards human life. Instead it has been co-opted to compromise that witness. It has been used to salve many consciences into treating a vote for a pro-choice politician or party not as a devastating compromise that is sometimes necessary in a very complicated situation with no genuinely good options (more on this later in the series), but as a minor inconvenience about which there is not much to be done.
Keenly aware of this dynamic, many who are committed to fighting the evil of abortion reject the language of “seamless garment.” This is a shame because, properly understood and applied, it is one of the best tools available for understanding and living Catholic Social Teaching as citizens. Indeed, our pro-life witness on abortion is only enhanced in the eyes of our fellow citizens when it is accompanied by demonstrable concern for the lives of all vulnerable and marginalized people.
Which brings us to our second approach. If the problem on the left is a marginalizing of abortion (and now, among other things, assisted suicide), the problem on the right is an artificial isolation of those issues from the rest of Church teaching. Because abortion is such a serious attack on the lives and dignity of the most vulnerable, and because of the staggering scale on which it is practiced in contemporary culture (hard cases such as those involving threats to the life of the mother or sexual violence make up a tiny percentage of abortions), parties on the right have learned that all they need to do to reliably get the votes of many pro-life voters is be marginally more pro-life than the increasingly vociferous pro-choice left. This does not set the bar very high.
The approach here is that, since abortion is such an important issue, the single overriding concern for Catholic voters is where a party or candidate stands on this question. Its proponents are careful to avoid more detailed questions on matters such as what actual pro-life policy might be brought forward and how successful it might be in practice, or how the position on abortion is related to other questions essential to the Catholic voter. Instead, a Catholic voter is given a straightforward calculus that ignores all questions of policy or consistency. Because abortion is the most important human rights issue of our time (and I do not deny that it is), even a marginal difference in the stated position on it is considered enough to not only justify, but even demand the vote of any serious Catholic.
Notice how this approach functions in remarkably the same way as the “seamless garment” theory explored above works on the left. In either case, the Catholic voter is convinced that this is the only real “Catholic” option available. And in either case, the voter is encouraged to put more energy into convincing fellow Catholics that this vote is morally required of them than into challenging the party’s anemic pro-life platform.
It may seem, at this stage, that I am suggesting that a Catholic can vote for neither position. But, unless we choose to spoil our ballots or stay home, we must vote for one or the other. I am not saying we should not vote, but that we should vote with our eyes open and our noses held. We should not vote based on an uncritical acceptance of one of the two narratives critiqued above. When we do that, we hamper our witness and import the division in the world inside the walls of the Church.
But if these approaches are insufficient to inform our decision-making – if, in fact, they cripple our political impact – what does the Church suggest instead? It is to this question that we will turn in our next installment.
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