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A Catholic Vote or a Conscience Vote

There have been a variety messages coming from bishops, catholic lay groups, and organizations regarding the involvement of the Church in politics for the coming May 13 elections.

While organizations like PPCRV and Simbahan Lingkod have continued to work for non-partisan voters’ education, some coalitions of Catholic lay groups have taken a more partisan approach. The Catholic Vote Philippines1 urges voters to vote against candidates who supported the passage of the RH Bill. The White Vote Movement, spearheaded by the Catholic group El Shaddai, has endorsed several pro-life (anti-RH Bill) candidates.2

Members of the local hierarchy have likewise sent mixed messages on partisan politics. The archdiocese of Bacolod directly endorsed and denounced candidates through its “Team Buhay” and “Team Patay” posters. Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu, on the other hand, disavowed any partisan activity by prohibiting clergy in his archdiocese from using the pulpit to campaign against Pro-RH Bill legislators.3 Bishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan urged church leaders not to endorse candidates because it would compromise the Church spiritual mission.4

The issue of Catholic voting raises a number of questions related to Catholic participation in political activity and the role of the Church in a democratic society. To gain some clarity and understanding, a good place to begin is the Church’s treasury of Catholic social teachings and statements of bishops’ conferences in past elections. For the sake of simplicity, specific questions will be posed, followed by relevant passages from church documents.

1) What does the Church teach about an organized Catholic vote?

There is generally no such thing as a ‘Catholic vote’ or ‘the Bishops’ candidates’. This is simply a myth. The Bishops do not endorse any particular candidate or party but leave to the laity to vote according to their enlightened and formed consciences in accordance with the Gospel. (CBCP Catechism on Church and Politics 1998)

While it appears that the CBCP may not engage in direct campaigning for or against a candidate or a party, the question arises whether lay groups can organize their own Catholic vote through bloc voting. The 2007 CBCP Pastoral Letter “Freedom to Choose Candidates”5 provides an answer.

The Bishops in the CBCP, while respecting what the leaders of El Shaddai and other groups have been doing for years, still maintain the freedom of Catholic members to choose their candidates. We expect them to discern, discuss and personally decide whom to vote. To dictate on them whom to vote is as bad as buying their votes.

In the end, we cannot be genuinely sure whether the candidates who have been dictated on the voters will really serve them. All the more if the voters are taken with a “buy and sell attitude.” Proof of this is the past experience of elections.

The CBCP does not want the candidates to be indebted to the bishops; instead we want the candidates to make a genuine covenant with the electorate: that if elected they will serve the people and not themselves. This is what the PPCRV is trying to do.

We can trust “the wisdom of the people,” if only their judgment will not be violated or adulterated by “guns, goons and gold,” if only the process of election according to the rule will be respected and not manipulated by self-interest. If the wisdom of the people were allowed freely to function, they will get the leaders they want or they get the leaders they deserve.

As we said in our pastoral letter, we exhort our people not only to pray but also to be vigilant. Let the different associations and groups come together to study and examine the candidates and their platform of government. They may even come to an agreement among themselves whom to vote; but each one must personally come to his/her decision. They will not vote according to personality or winnability but in view of the candidates’ agenda of government.

On the one hand, there is no Catholic vote in the Philippines, because all Catholics are free to vote any candidate of any political party. On the other hand, because Catholics are almost everywhere, many of the candidates who win, win by catholic votes; but this is no reason to brag about, because the candidates win or lose by his own virtue or lack of it, and the electors vote according to their respective persuasion and conviction.

The CBCP Statement encourages lay discernment of candidates and even allows for lay organizations to come to an agreement about whom to vote for but each voter is obliged to vote according to his or her conscience and not simply out of obedience or duty to one’s organization. These groups should not sanction any member who votes differently from the majority.

A distinction needs to be made between the statements of an individual bishop and official statements of the CBCP. An individual bishop can exhort and preach on matters of faith and morals according to his pastoral judgment. He may even give his personal opinion on particular candidates. However, only official public statements of the CBCP, usually signed by the president of the conference, can be considered as representing the official position of the bishops for the Church in the Philippines. This distinction is most important when processing news reports from the media.

2) Can a political party claim to be the official party of the Catholic Church?

The magisterium warns against any attempt to promote any political party as the party that represents the Catholic Church. It would be inappropriate for any political party to seek endorsement from Church leaders.

To claim that one party or political coalition responds completely to the demands of faith or of Christian life would give rise to dangerous errors. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church #573)

3) What is the proper role of the Church in politics?

Pope Benedict XVI emphasized in Deus Caritas Est that “the formation of just structures is not directly the duty of the Church, but belongs to the world of politics, the sphere of the autonomous use of reason. The Church has an indirect duty here, in that she is called to contribute to the purification of reason and to the reawakening of those moral forces without which just structures are neither established nor prove effective in the long run.”6 A concrete exercise of this indirect duty is the formation of conscience of citizens to help them in their choice of candidates.

The Church’s primary role as a formator of conscience in politics is affirmed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions. Instead, it intends — as is its proper function — to instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good.(Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life [November 24, 2002], #571.)

4) Can the Church oblige Catholics to vote for a particular position on a national issue?

The CBCP provided for an extraordinary exception when the local Church can order the lay faithful to vote for one concrete political option:

This happens when a political option is clearly the only one demanded by the Gospel. An example is when a presidential candidate is clearly bent to destroy the Church and its mission of salvation and has all the resources to win, while hiding his malevolent intentions behind political promises. In this case the Church may authoritatively demand the faithful, even under pain of sin, to vote against this particular candidate. But such situations are understandably very rare (CBCP Catechism on Church and Politics 1998).

The CBCP intended this exception to be used only on rare and grave occasions such as when the survival of the Church and its mission would be at stake. The exception can apply to serious threats to the church such as attempts to curtail religious freedom, take over church institutions, or discriminate against Catholics. It is debatable that such an exception would be applicable to a bishop’s desire to punish a legislator who voted for the RH Bill.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church warns against using the Church’s dominant position in society to politically impose Catholic norms on the general population and create a situation of discrimination for minority religions.

Because of its historical and cultural ties to a nation, a religious community might be given special recognition on the part of the State. Such recognition must in no way create discrimination within the civil or social order for other religious groups (Compendium #169).

Those responsible for government are required to interpret the common good of their country not only according to the guidelines of the majority but also according to the effective good of all the members of the community, including the minority. (Compendium #422)

The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines cautioned pastors and lay leaders who engage in public policy debates to be respectful of the right to religious freedom of non-Catholics as well as the freedom of conscience of dissenting Catholics.

The public defense of gospel values, however, especially when carried into the arena of public policy formulation, whether through the advocacy of lay leaders or the moral suasion by pastors, is not without limit. It needs emphasizing, that, although pastors have the liberty to participate in policy debate and formulation, that liberty must not be exercised to the detriment of the religious freedom of non-communicants, or even of dissenting communicants. This is a clear implication of Vatican II’s Dignitatis humanae. This is not just a matter of prudence; it is a matter of justice (PCP II 358).

5) How should Catholics form their conscience in preparation for voting?

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the United States has formulated guidelines for political participation which can be helpful in our Philippines context. The following are some relevant quotes:7

The Virtue of Prudence

The Church also encourages Catholics to develop the virtue of prudence, which enables us “to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no.1806). Prudence shapes and informs our ability to deliberate over available alternatives, to determine what is most fitting to a specific context, and to act. Prudence must be accompanied by courage which calls us to act. As Catholics seek to advance the common good, we must carefully discern which public policies are morally sound. A good end does not justify an immoral means. At times Catholics may choose different ways to respond to social problems, but we cannot differ on our obligation to protect human life and dignity and help build through moral means a more just and peaceful world.

Doing Good Avoiding Evil

As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet a candidate’s 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.

Making Moral Choices

When Church leaders make judgments about how to apply Catholic teaching to specific policies, this may not carry the same binding authority as universal moral principles but cannot be dismissed as one political opinion among others. These moral applications should inform the consciences and guide the actions of Catholics.

Catholic Social Teaching in the Public Square

A consistent ethic of life should guide all Catholic engagement in political life. This Catholic ethic neither treats all issues as morally equivalent nor reduces Catholic teaching to one or two issues. It anchors the Catholic commitment to defend human life and other human rights, from conception until natural death, in the fundamental obligation to respect the dignity of every human being as a child of God. Catholic voters should use Catholic teaching to examine candidates’ positions on issues and should consider candidates’ integrity, philosophy, and performance. It is important for all citizens “to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest” (USCCB, Living the Gospel of Life, no. 33).

6) Can a Catholic vote according to their conscience contrary to official church teaching?

PCP II defends the right of Catholics to follow their conscience even if in doing so they would choose to act in a manner contrary to the teaching of the magisterium:

There may even be some Catholic believers who in all honesty do not see the truth the way the Church‘s magisterium discerns, interprets, and teaches it. In such a situation, the Church must clearly and firmly teach what it believes is the truth and require its members to form their consciences accordingly. Yet the church must also, with all charity and justice, hold on to its doctrine on religious freedom — that the human person is bound to follow his or her conscience faithfully, and must not be forced to act contrary to it (PCP II 362-363).

In summary, Church teachings and episcopal pronouncements have made a distinction between an organized Catholic vote and voting according to one’s conscience. Official Church teaching rejects the former as contrary to the role of the Church as a non-partisan formator of conscience in the political arena. The Catholic voter should strive to form and exercise their conscience with prudence, courage, and a careful consideration of all issues involving human life, human dignity and the common good. Respect for the conscience of the Catholic voter, even if the person votes contrary to the teachings of the Church, remains a basic principle of Catholic social teaching.

Notes

1 http://www.catholicvote.ph/
2 Philippine Daily Inquirer 14 April, 2013:http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/390891/el-shaddai-group-backs-6-senatorial-bets-who-voted-against-rh-bill
3 Philippine Daily Inquirer, 20 December 2012: http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/327355/palma-pulpit-cant-be-used-against-pro-rh-lawmakers
4 Philippine Daily Inquirer, 13 April 2013: http://www.inquirer.net/philippine-election-2013/articles/390437
5 Angel Lagdameo, Freedom to Choose Candidates,” available in http://abplagdameo.blogspot.com/2007/03/freedom-to-choose-candidates.html (Accessed 9 January 2013)
6 Benedict VXI, Deus Caritas Est, 29.
USCCB, The Challenge of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, available in http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship/upload/Forming-Consciences-Faithful-Citizenship-bulletin-insert.pdf (accessed 9 January 2013)