Witness

Only two choices for president?

It’s a new year, and with it comes a new opportunity to look at how we engage in our electoral processes. For the last few months, I’ve been looking at where we agree as a nation. Regarding elections, there is one thing so many of us seem to agree on but which is dead wrong, namely that voting for president of the United States is a binary choice.

After the 2012 election, I was with some Catholics who kept referring to the two choices we had for president. When I said that there were actually more than two choices, one of the persons in attendance scoffed and said that a vote for anyone other than the two candidates from the two major parties was a “wasted vote.”

This is of course factually wrong. There are several parties in the United States which represent various forms of political philosophy. Also, no vote is wasted in the technical sense. But this incident got me thinking about what we Catholics believe about voting. It also made me realize that this attitude is morally dangerous. Let me explain.

According to the social doctrine of the church, voting is a way we participate in advancing the common good. For these reasons and more, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that voting is “morally obligatory” (no. 2240). As a moral obligation, then, we ought to take it seriously. We should educate ourselves on the major issues of the day, not just globally and nationally, but also in our state, city and neighborhood. We should ask questions, probe a candidate’s position, look at the party platform, and weigh the claims of candidates and parties against prudential insights. The U.S. bishops have a document that helps us do this called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”

Where we go off the rails is when we consider all of the above and then posit that the only purpose of voting is winning, or worse, that we do not fulfill our moral obligation unless we vote for someone who can win. That attitude is morally dangerous because it will lead to compromises that, in the world of politics, will result in Catholics defending the indefensible.

As an example, Blessed Franz Jägerstätter was a farmer in St. Radegund, Austria, and was the only man in his village to vote against the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938. His friends, his pastor and the cardinal archbishop of Vienna argued that Austrians faced a binary choice: either the Nazis or the Communists. The lesser of the two evils were the Nazis – so argued Cardinal Theodor Innitzer – and so Catholics should vote for the Anschluss and thus the Nazi regime. Franz rejected that formulation and resisted being conscripted into the Nazi war machine. For this he lost his life.

Our choices today are not that stark. But that is not my point. Neither is my point that Catholics cannot vote for candidates in either of the two major political parties. Rather, the point is first that we should be wary of those who present us with binary formulations in politics. Second, we ought not be fooled into thinking that political success is synonymous with faithfully executing our moral obligation to vote. Third, when a Catholic is true to his or her own well-formed conscience, we ought to support them, not mock them as having wasted their vote.

In the coming year, I will pray that Blessed Franz Jägerstätter intercedes for us and our consciences as we prepare to advance a Catholic vision for the common good in what is sure to be a difficult election. I hope you will join me.

Deacon Omar Gutiérrez is director of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Contact him at ofgutierrez@archomaha.org.