As I prepare this column on Election Day, the tally for the presidency of our country probably will not be known for several days. I was surprised that several parishioners and friends said that they were so disgusted with the choice of candidates this time that they weren’t going to vote at all. That’s their choice, even though I don’t agree with their conclusion. Perhaps they feel that’s the best way to go. It’s a temptation any can give in to as a result of the acrimony and bitterness of the campaign season. I am not saying that it may be best not to vote at all, or that it would best to skip voting for president; I am saying that voters may legitimately conclude in conscience that they cannot vote for either candidate of the two major political parties. There’s a big difference between saying that something is permissible and saying that it is the best thing to do. There is also a big difference between saying it’s legitimate not to vote for either of the two main candidates and saying that one should not vote at all. The U.S. Bishops and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, say that “participation in political life is a moral obligation” and, “As far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life.” In such cases that voters who conclude in conscience that they cannot vote for either of the two main candidates for president, they can write in the name of a candidate of their choice. In any case, voters can skip voting for a particular office, but should still vote for other offices on the ballot.
In some of my previous columns, I have addressed the importance of taking into account the issue of abortion in voting for candidates on election day. Some might question why that issue should be so important in our election decisions. Some say that “it’s just another issue like any of the others.” In that regard, I would like to go back to the time of Abraham Lincoln and the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, which were a series of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Illinois, and the incumbent Senator, Stephen Douglas, the Democrat candidate. Although Douglas won re-election to the Senate that year, the debates set the stage for the more hotly contested presidential election two years later in which Lincoln emerged victorious.
Looking back at those debates, what is noteworthy is that the main issue discussed in all seven debates was slavery. Modern observers of political debates would have a hard time imagining candidates being so focused on one issue. If a candidate tried to concentrate such attention on a particular issue today, he or she would be accused of being a “single-issue” candidate. Yet, in the mid-19th century, the nation as a whole was so preoccupied with the question of slavery, that a candidate who didn’t speak primarily about this topic would be seen as ignoring the most pressing issue of the day while wasting time on trivialities.
For Lincoln, slavery was a moral issue that was dividing the nation. In his famous “House Divided Speech,” which Lincoln gave upon accepting the nomination as the Republican Party candidate for the U.S. Senate, Springfield’s most famous citizen quoted the Bible in saying, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Fundamental to his argument was his conviction that slavery must be dealt with as a moral wrong. It violated the Declaration of Independence assertion that “all men are created equal.” The “real issue” in his contest with Douglas, Lincoln insisted, was the issue of right and wrong, and he charged that his opponent was trying to uphold a wrong.
I mention the Lincoln-Douglas debates because they highlight how far political discourse has strayed from addressing the defining moral issue of the time. In Lincoln’s time, the defining moral issue was slavery; in our time, the defining moral issue is abortion. Yet most of our politicians, the media and apparently most citizens would rather not talk about abortion, either pro or con, and so waste their time instead on petty distractions.
The Catholic Bishops of America teach that Catholics are not single-issue voters; yet “if a candidate’s position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support.”
There are some very devoted pro-life Democrats and some “pro-choice” Republicans, so voters must look at individual candidates’ positions and not just their party affiliations. People who vote for pro-abortion candidates cooperate in evil. Whether such cooperation in evil is morally culpable as sinful depends on a variety of factors. Catholics who are unsure of moral implications of their election choices, especially with regard to abortion—the defining moral issue of our time—should discuss these matters with a priest in the Sacrament of Penance in order to form their consciences properly as faithful citizens, or to be absolved of their sins, as the case may be.
Abortion is the defining moral issue of our time because our country’s approach to this issue will define our nation for years to come. If we are committed to the proposition that “all men are created equal,” then it is within our power to steer our nation away from the “culture of death” and instead be defined as a nation committed to the “culture of life.”