There are roughly 77 million people in the USA who identify themselves as Catholics. The much vaunted Catholic Vote is very sought after with politicians trying to use the words of our bishops as implicit endorsements. This is a twisting of our bishops teaching, since as Cardinal George said in response to the public scandal of a zealously political priest in his archdiocese, The Catholic Church does not endorse political candidates.
Every four years for the past thirty, our bishops have issued a teaching document to assist Catholic voters as they approach the general elections. In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, this years United States Council of Catholic Bishops teaching document, the bishops are very clear on two points: (1) Catholics must consider a wide range of issues when voting, and (2) life issues have precedence over all other issues.
Faithful Citizenship makes the case that no other issues have the same weight as life issues do. This is not to say that other issues, say economic justice or national security policy, are not important but it does mean that some issues have greater moral weight than others:
Human life is sacred. The dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. Direct attacks on innocent persons are never morally acceptable, at any stage or in any condition. In our society, human life is especially under direct attack from abortion. Other direct threats to the sanctity of human life include euthanasia, human cloning, and the destruction of human embryos for research (#44, emphasis mine).
There are some things we must never do, as individuals or as a society, because they are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor. Such actions are so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons. These are called intrinsically evil actions. They must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned. A prime example is the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia. In our nation, abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 5). It is a mistake with grave moral consequences to treat the destruction of innocent human life merely as a matter of individual choice. A legal system that violates the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is fundamentally flawed (#22, emphasis mine).
Each level of government makes decisions on our behalf, and those decisions, whether they be about the defense of human life or social programs to help the poor must start with the basic proposition that human life is sacred from the moment God formed you in your mothers womb. While safeguarding the rights and dignity of the poor is of vital importance, those issues do not rise to the level of preserving human life in its most vulnerable forms (children in the womb, for example).
Some people are quick to point out that the bishops teach that Catholics are not single issue voters (#42), and, while true, that doesnt mean that Catholics may ignore the hierarchy of issues and fail to prioritize them accordingly. While some use the bishops entreaty not to vote on a single issue only as an escape clause to vote for a pro-abortion candidate whom they like for other reasons, true social justice demands that the most basic right must take priority over all others. Furthermore, while Catholics shouldnt vote for a candidate based on a single issue, Catholics may use a single issue to disqualify a candidate from receiving their vote. Yet a candidates position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support (#42).
You see, if a person doesnt have the God-given right to live, then all other rights are meaningless. It is impossible to establish authentic social justice when 1 in 4 children are murdered in the womb. Universal healthcare is useless if hospitals become abortion mills and push contraceptives. Opposition to any war rings hollow when millions of our own citizens are killed because they are inconvenient or the wrong sex.
We must, therefore, distinguish between important issues, like care for the poor and immigration policy, with foundational issues, like abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic experimentation. If we allow ourselves to elect judges, executives, and legislators who have demonstrated their hostility to the sanctity of life over and over, then we condemn future generations to the tyranny of dehumanization.
Disregard for the poor is a travesty, disregard for human life is an abomination.
The choices we face this November are difficult, there is no Catholic Party, USA, so we must navigate the issues and the candidates carefully. If we cant choose the perfect candidates, then at least we should choose those who will least harm the weakest among us.