During his speech at the Democratic Convention, President Obama mentioned Donald Trump by name and was met with a chorus of jeers. The President’s response: “Don’t boo. Vote.”
This is a profound challenge to Catholics this election cycle who, informed by the expansive moral vision of the church, have two candidates to boo and nobody for whom to cheer. As Jana Bennett pointed out yesterday, Faithful Citizenship does leave open the possibility of not voting when “all the candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act.” It ought to be noted though that Faithful Citizenship calls this decision an “extraordinary step.” In other words, the decision not to vote, though legitimate, ought not to be considered a foregone conclusion.
Catholics who do choose to vote this election cycle will have a serious challenge of figuring out which candidate is “less likely to advance a morally flawed position [and] advance the common good.” It is not at all clear which candidate this is. What is clear is that in the past, Catholics have been able to hold up the Republican candidate as, at the very least opposed to abortion. While I agree with Jana that the concept of non-negotiables is not helpful (nor is it magisterial), it has provided a useful heuristic for Catholics who care deeply about the evils of abortion as the most important issue in a given election year.
This is no longer the case. There is no longer a clear “pro-life” candidate, though Trump will certainly court that constituency. Nor is it clear which “non-negotiables,” if you still want to use that language, even matter this election cycle. I don’t really see the two candidates debating abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, stem cell research, and human cloning. These are not the issues that really matter this time around. In short, the conversation about who to vote for (or who to vote against if that language helps you feel better) will look different in 2016 than it did four or eight years ago.
But honestly, for many Catholics, it wasn’t all that clear who to vote for four and eight and twelve years ago either. This election might be different in degree but isn’t necessarily all that different in kind. We live in a country where both parties have aligned themselves with positions that are egregious to a Catholic moral vision. There is no such thing as a Catholic vote. There hasn’t been for a long time, and it isn’t because some Catholics haven’t been voting their conscience. It is because conscience formation is a complicated thing and may yield different results in different Catholics. This has long been the case, and this election will be no different.
As Catholics read and debate Faithful Citizenship in the upcoming months, they ought to do so in a spirit of fraternity, charity, and above all, mercy, recognizing that any decision to vote will involve a certain dirtying of hands and no small amount of courage. People who choose to vote deserve to be listened to, not jeered at and especially not accused of being un-Catholic as they have in previous years. There are legitimate reasons for Catholics to vote Trump. There are legitimate reasons for Catholics to vote Clinton. Catholics in good conscience may end up doing either.
Catholics certainly have things to boo this election cycle. But other Catholic voters who, in good faith, are trying to exercise their democratic duty, are not one of them.