By J. Kevin Appleby
The US presidential election is underway today. Once you brush away all the smoke, the fire is this: whoever wins the Catholic vote, likely wins the White House. Since 1972, every presidential popular vote winner has won the Catholic vote, and, except for Al Gore, has won the presidency.
The problem is neither candidate in 2016 comes close to the ideal Catholic candidate, one that seeks to protect the most vulnerable of society—the unborn, the poor, immigrants—or completely address issues that impact them. In fact, both candidates have dismissed Catholics in one form or another.
Catholics who are mindful of church teaching on a wide range of social issues are facing a tough choice. Which candidate best reflects the Catholic ethos of serving your neighbor and protecting the most vulnerable in society? Does one candidate’s position on one issue outweigh the positive positions he or she has on another?
The U.S. Catholic bishop’s election document, Faithful Citizenship, gives some guidance, but not enough. It simply goes through all of the policy issues of importance to the bishops, but does not lead a Catholic voter to a conclusion. Issues relating to pro-life and marriage are emphasized over such issues as poverty and immigration, but the document does not account for how the candidates may present, condition, or prioritize them. It also presumes that the candidates running for office are qualified for it.
For example, the Republican candidate has indicated he would appoint conservative Supreme Court justices and support pro-life positions, but he has also called for the deportation of all undocumented immigrants, a ban on immigrants with a certain religious affiliation, and the construction of a border wall. He also has alienated women and minorities.
Moreover, there are deep concerns that he is ill-equipped to lead the nation as president in a responsible way. Should a Catholic vote for a candidate who is prone to tweeting insults at world leaders at 3 in the morning? What about the fear that the Republican candidate could instigate a war, with his finger on the nuclear button?
As for the Democratic candidate, there is no doubt that her Administration would pursue an abortion-on-demand policy, including federal government funding of abortions under most, if not all, circumstances. The idea of the bishops negotiating a religious freedom compromise with the Democratic nominee on limiting health-care coverage for contraception is almost laughable. At some point, they may long for the days of Oval Office meetings with Obama on the subject.
While the Democratic nominee clearly has more experience on foreign affairs and other matters of government, and would advance immigration reform and paid family leave, can a Catholic who is sensitive to the church’s pro-life teaching in good conscience vote for her?
After the election, I can imagine priests giving absolution to thoughtful Catholics around the country who confess: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I voted for presidential candidate X.” At least they would be able to say they did it only once.
Although important, the real question for Catholics in this election is not about the difficult choice both candidates present, but why there are not better candidates—ones that reflect Catholic values—at the top of each party’s ticket. If Catholics can be such a decisive vote, why can they not influence who runs for and is competitive for the highest office in the land?
There are many reasons. First, Catholics themselves, including both religious and lay leaders, are divided, and both parties know it and take advantage of it. The Obama Administration was artful in how it reached out to Catholic leaders who supported their positions—the debate on health-care comes to mind—and in dismissing Catholics, including the bishops, who disagreed with them on pro-life issues. Other Administrations of both parties have played to specific Catholic leaders to push certain policy goals.
Second, the majority of Catholic voters are American voters. In other words, they vote their pocketbook and they look at the division of the issues through a political party, not faith-based, lens. Despite centuries of Catholic teaching promoting the common good, many Catholic voters leave the notion at the voting booth curtain.
Third, both Republican and Democratic Catholic candidates find it less politically palatable to agree with church teaching on most issues, at least publicly. There is a scarcity of pro-life Democrats and social justice Republicans around anymore.
Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan, led a caucus of Democrats who attempted to remove abortion from the health-care bill known as the Affordable Care Act, only to lose his re-election bid. John Boehner, who made efforts to pass immigration reform, could not survive as Speaker of the House. Gone are the days of Governor Robert Casey, Sr., of Pennsylvania, a Democrat with pro-life values, who bravely challenged the Democratic establishment, only to be brushed aside for a speaking role at the 1992 Democratic convention—the one which nominated the current Democratic candidate’s husband, Bill Clinton.
Instead of electing more candidates like Stupak and Boehner, such candidates are becoming anachronistic. This might be a result of the polarization in Washington or the “litmus” tests candidates must pass in order to win party support, but it is also because Catholic voters do not support them in sufficient numbers.
So, as Catholics enter the voting booth today, they will be faced with presidential candidates who vehemently oppose church teaching on one or more vital issues. Some may not vote or may write in a candidate. One Catholic bishop mentioned that he is inclined not to vote, along with some of his brother bishops.
If even Catholic leaders are not inclined to vote, it is a sad state of affairs for Catholic influence on the political life of the nation. Steps must be taken to reverse this trend.
First, Catholic leaders across the country, both religious and lay, need to come together to discuss the problem. How can they recruit candidates that truly reflect Catholic teaching? Instead of fighting over which Catholic issues are most important, perhaps these leaders could discuss how Catholic issues can be more prominent in the national debate.
Second, Catholic leaders, including bishops, should do what they can to support those candidates, Catholic or otherwise, who do attempt to live by church teaching. Other religious groups, such as evangelicals, are adept at voting their values and promoting candidates that reflect those values.
Catholic lay leaders with influence and, yes, money, should support candidates and elected officials who support Catholic values. The goal in this effort is to encourage candidates who support church teaching to run for office, and, when they do, politically support them—in every sense of the word.
Third, the hardest step, is to change the mindset of Catholics when they vote. To be sure, Catholics, especially those who attend Mass regularly, are sensitive to church teaching on societal issues and are familiar with the idea of promoting the common good. For example, Catholics consistently poll high in support of immigration reform and anti-poverty programs, not to mention that the majority of church-going Catholics describe themselves as pro-life.
But in the end, most Catholics, like others, choose their leaders based on other issues, such as likability, leadership qualities, and how their policies may impact their personal lives, either economically or socially. Conforming to all the principles of church teaching in their voting choices, especially when the candidates before them do not meet the Catholic criteria, remains lower on their list.
2016 is an unusual election year for Catholic voters and presents a thorny moral dilemma. To not vote should not be an option, as it would be tantamount to giving up on our democracy, at least for one election cycle. As the saying goes, if you do not vote, you cannot complain.
What is a Catholic voter to do on November 8? Hold his or her nose and vote. On November 9, however, Catholics of all stripes must start working to change the system, and the views of their new president, to make them more responsive to Catholic concerns and teaching. It is the only way.
The writer is a Catholic voter who lives in Alexandria, Virginia.