Contrary to what is proffered by a certain young man about my age and his colleagues over at a website (unsanctioned by any official Roman Catholic authorizing body) by the same name as this blog post, the Catholic vote is not constituted by a singular issue, nor is there — following my earlier post on this subject (“A Tale of Two Catholicisms: A Response to Molly Worthen“) — a single “Catholic” candidate for political office. The partisan quality of the discussion and debate centering on the moral responsibility, role, and stakes of participating in the representative democracy of the United States has reached an all-new high.

This is where Cathleen Kaveny’s excellent essay, “The Single-Issue Trap: What the Bishops’ Voting Guide Overlooks,” comes in. Focusing her comments on the USCCB’s 2007 and 2011 Catholic voter’s guides (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship) within the context of the USCCB’s previous guide of 1976 (Political Responsibility: Reflections on an Election Year), Kaveny keenly observes the shifts in emphasis, the implicit political manipulation, and the ostensible lacunae of the current document that serves as the only sanctioned text from the US bishops on assisting Catholics in the civil duty to vote.

The first point of contrast between the 1976 and later guides that Kaveny notes is the shift in the optimistic and ecumenical tone of the former document, which called all Christians to “join together in common witness and effective action to bring about Pope John [XXIII’s] vision of a well-ordered society based on truth, justice, charity, and freedom,” toward a more pessimistic and narrow vantage point of late. Kaveny writes:

By 2007 these optimistic assumptions had evaporated. The tone of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship is decidedly battle-weary, suggesting a lament for a nation mired in political crisis and trapped in a moral self-contradiction verging on hypocrisy. Whereas in 1976 the bishops addressed the challenge of political engagement, by 2007 the predominant concern is moral skepticism and relativism; the bishops worry more about the human capacity to recognize moral truth than about the motivation to act upon it. Accordingly, their text emphasizes the church’s capacity to teach the moral truth relevant to political society. “What faith teaches about the dignity of the human person and about the sacredness of every human life helps us see more clearly the same truths that also come to us through the gift of human reason.” As its title indicates, the guide is concerned about faithful citizenship—citizenship exercised in accordance with the truths recognized by the Catholic faith.

In summary of the text (which, if you haven’t read it in full, you really should), Kaveny rightly emphasizes the intention to remain objective on the part of the USCCB vis-á-vis particular political candidates. However, the noticeable shift in what Kaveny describes as “prioritization of the issues” seems to lead some readers to think that theres is always an implicit endorsement of a give candidate. Importantly, the document makes clear that:

“a Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism [and, NB, these are only two examples of the many forms of intrinsic evil about which the Church teaches and are contained throughout the document], if the voter’s intent is to support that position” (emphasis added).

Equally important, the bishops write:

“a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity” (emphasis added).

It is significant that there are very nuanced, if imperfect, presentations of guidance in forming one’s conscience to vote in a morally upstanding way. What often gets distilled as a “black-and-white” dichotomy — Candidate X is “pro-life,” and Candidate Y is “pro-choice,” therefore you “have to vote for Candidate X” — is, in fact, much more nuanced.

These nuances and complexities of the moral guidance of the bishops must be taken into consideration and, as it is clear within the text, the so-called “pro-life” position of a candidate does not exonerate that candidate from due consideration of other positions that person might hold concerning life issues, concerning systemic injustices, and the like. Similarly, there is a clear provision to permit Catholic voters to cast a ballot for someone who might hold a particular position seemingly in favor of an intrinsic evil, provided that (a) the voter is not casting his or her vote precisely in favor of that position and (b) there isn’t another candidate who espouses a position on an intrinsic evil, whether or not it is the same issue (i.e., abortion does not have to be the only “intrinsic evil” at stake).

Kaveny wisely points out that the wording of the USCCB 2007 and 2011 documents, in contradistinction to the 1976 text, can be misleading because of its particular phraseology in terms of ordering and emphasis in making these two points. However, a careful reader notes the twofold imperative (don’t let a claim to be against an intrinsic evil override critical examination of a given candidate’s other morally inadequate positions and that you can vote for a candidate who espouses a position in favor of an intrinsic evil provided that you’re not voting for that candidate in favor of that issue per se and that no other non-intrinsic-evil-espousing-candidate exists).

Another deficiency of the 2007 and 2011 documents, Kaveny writes, is the omission of other possibilities of real consequence in an age of pandering to various constituencies. “The bishops do not even raise, for example, the possibility that a particular candidate (or party) might fabricate a commitment to end abortion for strategic political reasons. Forming Consciences does not caution voters to evaluate the sincerity with which a candidate holds a particular position; rather, it seems simply to assume candidates will enact their platforms if elected to office.”

Kaveny offer four areas of consideration Catholic voters should weigh in making a decision about a candidate:

  1. Competence—does the candidate have the intellectual capacity, the experience, the temperament, and judgment to do the job?
  2. Character—does the candidate have a good set of moral values and the integrity to pursue them in situations of temptation and fear?
  3. Collaboration—can the candidate work well with other people, both political allies and opponents?
  4. Connections—what are the moral and practical ramifications of the candidate’s political and financial connections for the manner in which he or she will carry out the job? Politicians, after all, do not act alone; they operate within networks of political power, including party affiliations, lobbyists, and big corporate and individual donors.

She goes on to make some very important and compelling observations about the act of voting and the role of elected office as such.

The point of electing candidates to an office is to empower and enable them to accomplish a set of tasks in service of the common good. Various qualities go into being an effective political servant…

What are the virtues of a good public servant? Recent Catholic moral theology has witnessed a resurgence of interest in the role of virtue in the moral life; it would make sense to extend the analysis to the virtues necessary for political leadership, particularly in a pluralistic liberal democracy such as our own.

In that context we might ask, Does someone who does not support overturning Roe possess ipso facto a defective moral character that renders him or her unfit for office? In my view, the answer very much depends on the reasons underlying the position. Living in a pluralistic society requires citizens to develop a sense of which views fall within the category of “reasonable, but wrong.” So, for example, the character of a candidate who thinks that unborn life has no value whatsoever at any stage in pregnancy should be evaluated differently from one who thinks that American society is too divided over the issue to make fundamental alterations to U.S. constitutional law.

What is most important, echoing a claim I made two days ago here at, a claim confirmed by Kaveny who is both a professor of ethics and of law (she understands the judicial and political stakes far better than I), is that:

For nearly forty years, abortion has been a constitutionally protected practice, and its legal status is not immediately susceptible to any sort of significant change at the federal level. The difficulty of changing this reality via a constitutional amendment has led large segments of the prolife movement, including the U.S. bishops’ conference, to concentrate on achieving that same goal indirectly, by electing presidents who will over time remake the Supreme Court. It seems to me that the divisions in the country that make the direct strategy practically impossible also tell against the effectiveness of this indirect strategy.

Moreover, the indirect strategy has significant moral problems. Supporting a constitutional amendment directly targeted at undoing Roe conflicts with few, if any, of a voter’s other duties to promote the common good, and merits serious consideration. But the prolife movement’s indirect strategy of making abortion a litmus-test issue for voters, with the expectation that they will elect officials who will somehow overturn Roe, does raise red flags. The duty of a voter is to promote the common good by selecting the best candidate for a political office in light of the range of factors I have outlined. Given that most office-holders have multifaceted responsibilities, voters cannot consider only one issue—even a fundamental issue—in casting their ballots. Presidential elections are no exception.

In theory one can vote for all the self-proclaimed “pro-life” candidates that he or she wishes, for one’s whole life, and the effect could be exactly the same: nothing. A particularly egregious danger when candidates or entire political parties adopt such a “position” precisely to entice a constituency to vote for a candidate (or candidates) without any reasonable expectation that the elected officials that tout such a position can effect any actual change. This is exactly the reason why the US bishops make clear that you cannot overlook the other dimensions of a candidate because of a self-proclaimed status as “pro-life.”

What are we to do, then? What is the role of the voter in an election year such as this? Kaveny’s concluding paragraph summarizes the challenge and goal well:

Voters cannot blind themselves and focus single-mindedly on one issue in the abstract, even if the issue is abortion. They must select among candidates, not among issues—and they are morally required to do so in light of the concrete challenges and possibilities for the common good posed by a specific election at a specific time. This, and not a litmus test of issues, is what forming consciences for faithful citizenship is really all about.

You must select a candidate and not an issue. Human beings, finite and fallible human beings, are seeking to represent a collective citizenry and are not to be treated as metonymic or proxy representatives for “issues.”

Photo: Stock


  1. Hey Dan,

    Is it possible to add a “print” option to the “Share this:” menu at the bottom of each of your blog posts? I find myself wanting to use your blog in the classroom and although I can send students to the link for homework – sometimes we do in-class readings. I’d like to do that with Worthen’s NYT article, Kaveny’s piece from Commonweal and your two recent blog posts.

    Also looking forward to setting up some FaceTime with you and my students once they have finished reading “Dating God”.

    Peace & All Good,


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