In this life, everything—including politics—is a messy mixture of good and evil, virtue and sin, truth and falsehood. Voters will always have to choose between imperfect candidates.
Feeling as if one option is just as bad as the other must not become an occasion to lose interest in the process but rather an opportunity to focus even more effort on learning the positions of each candidate. There are always differences that can be found between them. You can be sure there are things they have said and done to highlight these differences; one of them, therefore, will always be closer to our values and viewpoints than the other.
In evaluating each candidate, we look also at the differences between the parties that they represent. Each party is a universe of philosophies, ideologies, causes, and positions. Each fields an army of people who surround and advise the candidate, many of whom will be rewarded with positions of influence if that candidate is elected.
For instance, in the case of the presidential race, we have to ask ourselves what kind of people a candidate would nominate to serve on the Supreme Court and other federal courts. In what direction would he or she seek to take the country on the most fundamental issues of life, religious freedom, marriage, and family? Remember, it is not just that the candidate shapes the office; the office also shapes the candidate—and so does the party he or she represents. What kind of people would he or she appoint as Surgeon General, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and to other powerful positions?
We have to be patient with ourselves and with the process, and carefully choose the person and party that most closely reflect our values, starting with the most important issues. As the US Bishops stated again at the end of last year in their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” our discernment in voting does have a starting point:
Decisions about political life are complex and require the exercise of a well-formed conscience aided by prudence. This exercise of conscience begins with outright opposition to laws and other policies that violate human life or weaken its protection. Those who knowingly, willingly, and directly support public policies or legislation that undermine fundamental moral principles cooperate with evil (n. 31).
Participation in the political process is a virtue. The Bishops have written, “We encourage all citizens, particularly Catholics, to embrace their citizenship not merely as a duty and privilege, but as an opportunity meaningfully to participate in building the culture of life. Every voice matters in the public forum. Every vote counts” (Living the Gospel of Life, n. 34). Their instruction reflects the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, both of which point to voting as a moral obligation.
Even if we conclude that whichever candidate wins most likely will do damage to the country, the following analogy may help us see why voting is important. Imagine that you are at the controls of a runaway train and you cannot stop it. But also imagine that you can change the track the train is on. At the end of one track is a large number of people the runaway train will kill, at the end of the other track, a small number of people.
What do you do?
Obviously, you do not want anyone to be killed. But you cannot stop the train. In this case, you would move the train to the track where it is going to do the least damage. You are not choosing to kill anyone—the death and destruction are beyond your intentions and beyond your ability to stop. But you are able to decrease the damage. By changing tracks, you are not choosing evil; you are choosing to limit evil, and that choice is a good.
Yes, the guidance here is simple: It is the difference between certainty and doubt. Very often elections present us with the choice between a candidate we know we don’t want and an alternative about whom we are not sure.
But you don’t have to be certain about how every choice or action of your candidate is going to turn out. If he or she leans in the right direction, if there is a probability or even a possibility that he or she will do the right thing and make the right choices, choosing that person is better than choosing someone who is certain to make the wrong choices. When faced with the choice between a certain evil and a possible good, you choose the possible good.
We have to remember, too, that our vote is not meant to make us feel good. It is meant to influence society in the right direction by helping elect people to public office who will help to make that happen. I recently heard someone say that she would rather vote for someone she likes who loses than for someone she doesn’t like who wins. But voting is about advancing the common good, not our own preferences. It’s about doing our best to make life in this nation better for our children and grandchildren, not about making ourselves feel good.
Neither is voting an opinion poll on what we think about the candidate. It is a transfer of power. And it is a gamble. God does not always give us clear, predictable choices. He expects us to use good judgment. And good judgment helps us to avoid evils that are certain, and increase the possibilities for good.
The bottom line is that we should not skip an election; we should vote. Sometimes we may think that we are doing wrong by voting for either candidate. But we have to consider the fact that we exert influence whether we like it or not. Skipping a vote influences the election, because it takes a vote away from the better of the two candidates. Some feel tainted by voting; but don’t think for a moment that not voting keeps you pure! Voting isn’t about choosing evil; it’s about reducing evil, and the choice to reduce evil is a good.
So don’t sit out the election. Go and vote, and help put the train on the best available track!
Fr. Frank Pavone is the National Director of Priests for Life. To hear a homily by him on this topic, visit www.priestsforlife.org/PleaseVote. And to learn more about what you can do in this election to help others vote responsibly, visit www.PoliticalResponsibility.com.
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For more on Catholics and voting see Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput’s recent column: