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Election Day is approaching: what are we to do?

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley       October 2, 2016

In little more than a month, American citizens will be going to the polls to elect local, state and national leaders, and to weigh in on many questions that will help shape our society for years to come. The right to vote is a precious thing. It is a privilege that we never can take for granted. Even more than a privilege, however, voting is a moral responsibility for those who are eligible to vote.

Admittedly, like many other people, I am more than ready for the campaign season and Election Day to be behind us. It has been deeply disturbing. The quality of candidates that we voters have to choose from for certain offices is far less than we might have hoped and certainly far from consistent with many of the historic values and aspirations of this great nation. For Catholics who take seriously their public responsibilities and seek to integrate their deeply held religious beliefs with their civic duties, we are faced with a more difficult discernment than in any election in recent memory. At the top of each ticket, we are faced with deeply flawed candidates. (That shouldn’t come as a great surprise, however, since all of us are flawed and sinful human beings.) Some Catholics who I have spoken with are so disheartened by our choice of candidates for president that they are considering staying home on Election Day.

So, what are we to do? All of us ought to begin by praying for our nation and for the light and guidance of the Holy Spirit as voters prepare to cast their ballots. We ought to recall the teachings of our bishops and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which remind us that responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation.

Speaking of participation in political and public life the Catechism urges us, “It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This obligation is inherent in the dignity of the human person. … As far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1913-1915).

So again, what are we to do? Deep dissatisfaction with the candidates at the top of the ticket should not be used as justification to stay home on Election Day. There are many other important races and questions that we have an opportunity and moral obligation to weigh in on as we seek to advance the common good in our nation, state and local communities.

There are some issues that must be given first consideration because they are of fundamental importance, among them is the protection of human life and dignity. A Catholic cannot in good conscience, for example, vote to expand legal protection for abortion. Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Neb., made this point at our recent Red Mass by citing Saint Teresa of Calcutta who said, “Roe v. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships. It has aggravated the derogation of the father’s role in an increasingly fatherless society. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts – a child – as a competitor, an intrusion and an inconvenience. … Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his humanity. The right to life does not depend, and must not be declared to be contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent or a sovereign.”

As Election Day approaches, we have to do our homework. We have to look past the heated rhetoric and slogans to discern whether there is a candidate in each race who can advance the common good, protect life, and advance human dignity in its many manifestations. When there are such candidates, we should feel free to vote for them, in spite of party affiliations. In some races we may discover that there is not a candidate that we can in good conscience support and choose to abstain from voting in that particular race.

In choosing among flawed candidates, we ought never to fall into the trap of thinking we must choose the lesser of two evils. We may never choose evil. However, we can choose a candidate who with reasonable probability will be most likely do some good and limit the amount of harm done. This is true especially concerning those foundational issues such as protecting the right to life, strengthening the family and preserving conscience rights and religious liberty.

As a matter of conscience we have to carefully weigh and discern all of these matters in order to choose candidates or decide where we stand on issues in ways most likely to advance the common good of our nation. We may, in fact, make different prudential judgments on some issues and arrive at different conclusions. This is certainly true, for example, when considering to the best ways to promote racial equality, create jobs and economic opportunities, protect creation, or achieve educational or criminal justice reform.

There is much at stake on Nov. 8. I urge you to pray, to study the candidates and issues, and then to vote. May Mary under the title of her Immaculate Conception, Patroness of the United States, pray for us!