+McElroy on Faith & Voting

by Michael Sean Winters

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Bishop Robert McElroy’s recent article in America magazine deserves widespread attention and careful consideration. It is a significant contribution to the discussion about the relationship between our Catholic faith and our vocation as citizens, and a brilliant contribution as well.

+McElroy is trenchant in pointing to the difference between the vision of politics sketched by Pope Francis during his visit to the United States and the actual praxis of politics we have witnessed in the current campaign. “Catholic teaching proclaims that voting is inherently an act of discipleship for the believer,” he writes. “But American political life increasingly creates a distorted culture that frames voting choices in destructive categories that rob them of their spiritual character and content.”

Bishop McElroy goes on to identify one of the principal problems that has afflicted much commentary on the role of faith in politics, and confronts one of the tendencies in the bishops’ own document on the topic, “Faithful Citizenship” when he writes that “the central foundation for an ethic of discipleship in voting for the Catholic community in the United States today lies not in the embrace of any one issue or set of issues but rather in a process of spiritual and moral conversion about the very nature of politics itself.” Hopefully, this insight will further the much-needed burying of the unhelpful adjective “non-negotiable” when discussing issues of specific concern to the Catholic moral tradition.

After listing some of the ways our current political habits distort the vocation of citizenship for the Catholic, +McElroy recalls St. Pope John Paul II’s teaching on the centrality of solidarity in political life. “Most important, a spiritual political conversion requires the orientation of soul that flows from the principle of solidarity that St. John Paul II powerfully outlined as a fundamental element of Catholic social teaching,” he writes. “This orientation reminds us that in society we must always understand ourselves to be bound together in God’s grace and committed, in the words of ‘On Social Concerns,’ ‘to the good of one’s neighbor, with the readiness, in the Gospel sense, to lose oneself for the sake of the other rather than exploiting him.’” Alas, this desire to “lose oneself for the sake of the other” is not how one would characterize, say, Donald Trump’s approach to politics with its crass invocation of “winners” and “losers.”

Perhaps the most important, and controversial, contribution +McElroy makes is his critique of the concept of “intrinsic evil” in assessing the moral significance of voting. He writes:

a fatal shortcoming of the category of intrinsic evil as a foundation for prioritizing the major elements of the political common good lies in the fact that while the criterion of intrinsic evil identifies specific human acts that can never be justified, it is not a measure of the relative gravity of evil in human or political acts. Some intrinsically evil acts are less gravely evil than other intrinsically evil actions. Intrinsically evil action can also be less gravely evil than other actions that do not fall under the category of intrinsic evil. For example, telling any lie is intrinsically evil, while launching a major war is not. But it would be morally obtuse to propose that telling a minor lie to constituents should count more in the calculus of voting than a candidate’s policy to go to war. It is the gravity of evil or good present in electoral choices that is primarily determinative of their objective moral character and their contribution to or detraction from the common good. Moreover, because voting is a complex moral action involving mitigating circumstances, a vote for a candidate who supports intrinsic evils often does not involve illicit cooperation in those acts. For these reasons the category of intrinsic evil cannot provide a comprehensive moral roadmap for prioritizing the elements of the common good for voting.

He argues, somewhat persuasively, that this concept is misused by many, and that such misuse is a distortion of what the bishops have taught in “Faithful Citizenship.” I think it would be more accurate to say that at least some bishops intended the concept to be misused, but I understand why the gentle bishop of San Diego is less harsh on his confreres than I am. Those bishops wanted to highlight the life issues above all others and, specifically, to emphasize the abortion issue among the life issues.

Bishop McElroy does not dispute the significance of the life issues or of abortion. Quite the contrary. He concludes his essay by highlighting four life issue which, on account of their gravity at this moment in our nation’s political life, warrant special attention: abortion, poverty, the environment and assisted suicide. He rightly understands poverty as a life issue, and not merely because poverty is one of the most efficacious abortifacients. In his hands, these issues are shorn of their culture war value, even though he insists we must work to change our culture’s casual disregard for the human dignity. His case is compelling. If you doubt it, ask yourself this question: If you were a pastor and you wanted to make material available to your parishioners that would help them inform their consciences in advance of the election, would you select this article or the unwieldy mess that “Faithful Citizenship” has become?

Readers will recall that at last November’s USCCB meeting, Bishop McElroy delivered a heartfelt plea to scrap “Faithful Citizenship” and produce a new document. The Vice President of the conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo rudely insulted Bishop McElroy after his intervention was finished, and the body of bishops voted overwhelmingly to adopt the text. In this article, +McElroy opens up the possibility of what “Faithful Citizenship” might have been, a cogent, forceful, persuasive teaching document. Now, he has taken to the pages of America magazine to provide such a document. He has done a great service for the Church and for the country as well. 

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