Christians and Political Responsibility
This year's federal elections in both Canada and the United States confront voters with an unusual number of difficult moral questions. While the usual political issues—taxation, funding for health care and social programs, the national debt—are certainly prominent, the elections also feature a number of issues—same-sex marriage, stem-cell research, the war in Iraq—that speak to citizens' deepest moral and religious convictions.
How are Christian voters, in particular, supposed to answer these kinds of questions in the political sphere? This is especially difficult given the constraints of the party system in both Canada and the United States, which usually leaves voters having to choose between a series of imperfect choices, finding no candidate or party who perfectly reflects their moral beliefs or policy preferences.
The Catholic bishops in both countries, both individually and collectively, have attempted to give guidance to voters. In most cases, these reflections are equally relevant to Christians of all denominations or those from other religious traditions, so it is probably worth taking a look at some of these statements in our own deliberations before we go to the polls.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), in its letter on the eve of our federal election, echoes the Vatican document and comes up with a similar list of issues, in a similar order of precedence, although it is perhaps less clear regarding the absolute nature of the obligations regarding life and family. Its voters' guide contains a list of 13 questions ranging from the candidates' positions on the preservation of life from conception to natural death, to reducing the spread of space-based weapons, to increasing development assistance to 0.7 per cent of GDP.
Compared to pastoral letters from the CCCB in previous elections, the new document contains stronger language on life and family issues and makes it clear that these are to be given serious consideration. However, it does not avoid the temptation of earlier episcopal statements, which have treated a wide range of issues as a checklist or grab bag, with the nod apparently to be given to the politician or party who agreed with the bishops on the largest number of issues without distinguishing between the fundamental and the peripheral.
Some individual bishops on both sides of the border have perhaps provided more clarity on this point. Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary, in a recent interview on CBC's Sunday Morning, made it clear that "there are some issues that admit of no exception as far as Catholics are concerned," such as "abortion, physician assisted suicide, homicide, the destruction of human embryos, artificial fertilization, stem-cell research, and cloning." Yet he made it clear that other issues—even life issues—"admit of differing degrees of application and argumentation, for example, the whole question of a just war and the current war in Iraq. . . . That's one of those life issues that we can debate back and forth, but there are some norms and criteria by which we seek to evaluate our actions." Notably, bishop Henry, like Pope John Paul II, was a strong critic of the Iraq war, but he sees this issue in quite a different category from questions such as abortion and euthanasia.
Similarly, archbishop John Myers of Newark, New York addressed this question in a recent pastoral letter:
The Church's social teaching is a diverse and rich tradition of moral truths and biblical insights applied to the political, economic, and cultural aspects of our society. All Catholics should form and inform their conscience in accordance with these teachings. But reasonable Catholics can (and do) disagree about how to apply these teachings in various situations. For example, our preferential option for the poor is a fundamental aspect of this teaching. But, there are legitimate disagreements about the best way or ways truly to help the poor in our society. No Catholic can legitimately say, "I do not care about the poor." If he or she did so this person would not be objectively in communion with Christ and His Church. But, both those who propose welfare increases and those who propose tax cuts to stimulate the economy may in all sincerity believe that their way is the best method really to help the poor. . . . But with abortion (and for example slavery, racism, euthanasia and trafficking in human persons) there can be no legitimate diversity of opinion. The direct killing of the innocent is always a grave injustice.
The statements of bishops Henry and Myers seem more in line with a 2002 document from the Vatican entitled "The Participation of Catholics in Political Life," which made it clear that, while there may be a "variety of strategies available for accomplishing or guaranteeing the same fundamental value," this "should not be confused, however, with an ambiguous pluralism in the choice of moral principles or essential values."
While these recent comments and statements from various bishops and the Vatican are binding only on the consciences of Catholics, Catholic social teaching is addressed to all people of good will, particularly to fellow Christians who share a commitment to gospel values. Christian voters in both Canada and the United States have a responsibility to evaluate the parties and the candidates across a broad spectrum of issues. And there certainly will be disagreements in good faith as to the best way of achieving mutually agreed ends, such as economic development or peace and security.
But Christians should also ask themselves whether there are some moral issues—particularly questions regarding the definition of human life and the nature of the family—that must not be compromised and thus would not allow us to vote for candidates who would violate these principles, even if their position on many other issues is more compatible with our own. These are questions that Christians from all confessional traditions will have to answer as we prepare to choose between imperfect political options.