September 30, 2020 // Perspective

The Church’s guidance for the Catholic voter

There is much to appreciate about working in the Catholic press, but every four years can become an occasion to think about a career change.

Every four years, not coincidentally, is election time, and it tends, unfortunately, to be an occasion for startlingly rude and histrionic behavior among some of our fellow pew sitters. Phone calls, letters and social media radiate with outrage and accusations. Groups claiming to be Catholic speak with absolute certainty about who a Catholic is allowed to vote for, railing against anyone, from pope to pastor, who they judge to be insufficiently in agreement with their infallible pronouncements.

This year is predicted to be worse than usual, as many a weary editor will tell you. Already we are hearing from organizations declaring who real Catholics cannot vote for. Not unexpectedly, they don’t agree.

Meanwhile, some readers of Catholic media parse every adjective and adverb with forensic obsessiveness, seeking clues to a reporter’s secret political agenda and quick to pounce on any perceived clue.

Several years ago, a Catholic newspaper ran a cover photo of that year’s candidate at the Republican convention, and letter writers condemned the endorsement of the Republican that they thought it signified. Two weeks later, the same paper ran a cover photo of that year’s candidate at the Democratic convention, and another crop of letter writers condemned the endorsement of the Democrat that they thought that signified.

In truth, they were the major news events of those weeks, and they were given equal treatment, but that didn’t stop readers from presuming bad intent.

Perhaps most frustrating for everyone are the phone calls from readers asking who the Church wants them to vote for. They can be forgiven for wishing it were that easy.

The U.S. bishops, however, are teachers, not dictators. They have gone out of their way to look at the principles that should guide the Catholic voter as she or he considers the issues at stake. Critical to the entire endeavor is a “well-formed conscience,” and that takes some work.

To aid in this effort, the bishops publish every four years a document called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” It lays out the bishops’ agenda: forming Catholics who can analyze the choices they will face in the election booth from the point of view of Christian teaching. (The text can be downloaded as a free PDF from, or it can be purchased from

“Faithful Citizenship” argues that “the work of justice requires that the mind and the heart of Catholics be educated and formed to know and practice the whole faith.”

It stresses four principles of Catholic social teaching that undergird everything from the protection of the unborn and all other innocent life to the treatment of the poor and the migrant: “The dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity.” The document goes on to talk about each of these principles. It then suggests how to apply these principles to some of the major issues of our day.

The goal of the bishops is not “to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote.” What they do want Catholics to do is to knowledgeably assess the issues and candidates from the perspective of their faith.

Thou shalt not make purely partisan decisions in which faith is an afterthought, but thou shalt vote. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls voting “morally obligatory” (No. 2240).

No political party perfectly aligns with the priorities and teachings of the Church, which is why this democratic exercise demands an educated conscience, prudence and humility. “Faithful Citizenship” is a great place to start.

Greg Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at [email protected].

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