Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, addressed questions about Catholics and political life — including voting according to Catholic values— ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Nov. 3. A version of Adkins’ responses was first published in the September issue of “The Big Question” series in The Central Minnesota Catholic, magazine of the Diocese of St. Cloud.
Q) What does the Church say about Catholics’ involvement in political life and voting? Shouldn’t the Church stay out of politics? Is there any scriptural basis for its involvement?
A) Pope Francis says that politics is one of the highest forms of charity because it serves the common good. Participating in the political process is an act of loving service or charity (“caritas”) because it is part of our responsibility to love our neighbor (Mk 12:30-31).
To love our neighbor means to work for his or her authentic good. Part of working for the good of our neighbors — whether they live near or far, and whether we know them personally or not — is enacting policies that protect human dignity and promote the common good.
In the Church’s social teaching, this responsibility is known as the “call to participation” in community. A community is literally a “sharing of gifts,” and if we do not participate, we deprive the community of our perspective and the gifts that we have been given to share. Certainly, we do not all have the same responsibility, as we have different gifts (1 Cor 12:12). So, even though you may not be the elected official who votes yay or nay to enact a law, you can use your gifts to advocate for good policies. We can do this by building relationships with our elected officials. Each of us cannot do everything, but we can all do something.
Relatedly, if we find that there are some who are excluded from political life, including voting, then we have a special responsibility to work for their inclusion (Mt 25). We must work to give a voice to those who have none, and prioritize the needs of the poor and vulnerable who often don’t have the resources or organization to bring an effective voice to the public policy conversation.
Voting is one small but important part of the call to participation. In a representative government, it is important to choose carefully those who make important decisions on behalf of those whom they represent and the broader political community. But we cannot reduce the call to participation in public life to voting and be content with checking that box.
Taking part in the political process is an activity of service where people come together to discuss how we ought to order our lives together. It should not be a power game. People who object to the Church offering its moral perspective on the issues of the day or the participation of religious people in public life often view politics through the prism of power. In this way, they do not want religious people imposing their views on others who do not share their faith.
Catholics, too, can fall into the trap of viewing politics solely through the lens of power, and not wanting the Church to undermine its ability to reach people with the Gospel by causing stumbling blocks for people. But the Church calls us to see politics through the lens of service and a community conversation about what serves the common good. Therefore, we cannot sit on the sidelines of these important matters.
When we engage in the political process in the right way with the right principles, our witness will be evangelical and bring people closer to Christ. The political arena is mission territory (Mt 28:20). That is certainly my experience after almost 10 years serving in this position.
Q) What principles/values should we take into account when casting our vote? Should Catholic social teaching be our guide?
A) We need to FORM our consciences with the right principles, and then INFORM our votes. Doing so will help TRANSFORM our legislatures.
The Church does not tell us how to vote in every election. Rather, it provides the principles for shaping our participation in community life. Formed in those principles, we go out and transform the world and restore all things in Christ.
Catholic social teaching is that toolbox of principles. It is not a set of prescriptions or ready-made answers. Instead, it is a mental model for well-formed Catholics to guide their actions. How those principles apply in addressing social problems or when voting is a question of prudence. Prudence is a virtue that allows us to do the right thing in the right way at the right time.
Sometimes, Catholics will differ in their prudential judgments, that is, the application of the principles of Catholic social teaching in politics and in elections. That is OK. The key, however, is for Catholics to be operating on the firm foundation of the right principles. To do so, we must form our conscience (conscience means “with knowledge”).
If we fail to form our conscience in the truth of the Church’s teachings, or malform our conscience with the opinions of TV news talking heads, we will not only fail to bring the Gospel into public life, we may do more harm than good.
Q) “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” identifies two temptations in public life that can distort the Church’s defense of human life and dignity: 1) a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity; and 2) the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity. How should Catholics navigate through these two temptations?
A) First, read “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” to be rooted in a consistent ethic of life that protects human life from womb to tomb and promotes human flourishing in between.
Not all issues are created equal. But the full spectrum of issues should be part of the voting calculus. An issue may not seem like it affects you or be your issue of preeminent concern, but it likely affects someone else and needs to be considered. That is called voting in solidarity with others.
Further, as Pope Francis reminds us in “Laudato Si’,” everything is connected. For example, if you are concerned about marriage and the well-being of the family, you should also be concerned about economic policies and social supports that help create the conditions for stable family life.
Second, avoid starting with a preferred voting outcome and then working backward to justify it. People can take some portion of the Church’s social teaching to justify almost any vote. But we should strive to think with the mind of the Church and let our actions and our votes be rooted in the right principles.
Q) What if you feel no candidate for a particular office fully embraces a commitment to the dignity of the human person? How do you decide for whom to cast your vote?
A) Again, voting is a question of prudence. Catholics can come to different conclusions about the wisdom of various choices. Because we operate in an electoral system dominated by two parties, with candidates chosen by a small group of very ideological activists, we are sometimes not given a choice between two good candidates, but instead we are picking the lesser of two evils. We ask ourselves, “Which candidate will do the least damage to the dignity of the human person and the common good?”
In some cases, a person in good conscience cannot vote for either of the major-party candidates. Voting for a third-party candidate or skipping a vote in a particular race are legitimate options. They are not “wasted votes” but actions taken out of principle and in good conscience.
Not voting altogether because one does not like the options at the top of the ballot seems imprudent. There are many other candidate races on a ballot that merit study and careful consideration. As we have been reminded during this pandemic, major decisions are made at the state and municipal levels, and we cannot ignore those candidates and issues out of disgust at what goes on in Washington.
That being said, some Catholics, such as Dorothy Day, rarely voted. Though one cannot ignore voting and public life, it may reach a point where the refusal to vote is its own form of witness. Voting is important, but it’s not a sacrament. Ultimately, it is a question of conscience. Like everything else we do, how we vote should reflect Gospel values and a commitment to seeking first a kingdom that is not of this world.
Q) What are some do’s and don’ts for Minnesota parishes when it comes to election season?
A) MCC offers a guide to permissible political activities during election season. It can be found at mncatholic.org/election.
Parishes are often afraid of overstepping permissible bounds and endangering the parish’s tax-exempt status, and therefore avoid any election-related programming. This is a mistake. Parishes have broad latitude to offer non-partisan educational material and events to inform voters.
A few key recommendations: Avoid endorsing candidates explicitly. Similarly, to avoid the appearance of a strongly implied endorsement, do not distribute voter guides from partisan organizations that are not approved by your bishop.
Q) What resources and tools does Minnesota Catholic Conference offer to assist Catholics in having a voice in public policy and advocacy after Election Day?
A) First, ahead of election day, we are equipping parishes to help Catholics get to know the candidates. This year, for the first time, we are encouraging parishes, with the support of our state’s bishops, to host parish town halls with their state legislative candidates. It is a great way to help inform parishioners about who the candidates are, and where they stand on issues important to Catholics across Minnesota and issues that matter to people in the pew at that particular parish.
We have created an extensive toolkit for parishes that wish to host a town hall. It can be found at mncatholic.org/townhall.
To stay informed year-round, join the Catholic Advocacy Network. Go to mncatholic.nationbuilder.com/join to register. By joining, you will receive regular updates on what is happening at the Minnesota Legislature, ways for you to bring your faith into the public arena, and action alerts that allow you to send a message to your legislators on issues impacting life, dignity and the common good.
Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, public policy voice of Minnesota Catholics.