The mission of Christ entrusted to the Church is of a supernatural order. It is not primarily political, economic or social. From this mission, however, derive teachings for all aspects of human life. This is why the Church rightly claims “the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls” (CCC 2032).
The Church does not impose on the whole of society that which she requires of Catholics themselves – attending Mass on Sundays, regular participation in the Sacraments, and so on.
The Church proposes the principles of natural law, which are universal; without them no society can be just. “The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties” (CCC 1956).
Thus, the Church does not tell people which candidate must receive the votes of faithful Catholics, but she does teach the moral criteria with which to vote with a right conscience.
Citizens who take their right to vote seriously will reflect on a variety of issues and choose candidates according to those candidates’ positions on the issues they consider more important. The Church agrees that not all social problems have the same moral weight. The Church teaches that “the first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental – the condition of all the others. Hence it must be protected above all others” (Declaration on Procured Abortion, 11).
Therefore, the first criterion for practicing proper prudence when voting, according to the Church’s teaching, is the defense of innocent human life from direct attacks. Presently, the most frequent of these attacks are perpetrated against human persons who are not yet born via abortions, abortifacient contraceptives, and destructive embryo manipulation (in vitro fertilization, stem cell research and cloning). And at the end of life, we also see growing threats to those who are elderly and disabled, in the form of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. All of these are intrinsically evil, and should not be permitted in any case.
The next criterion is the defense of marriage between a man and a woman, on which the family, the basic unit of society, is based (see CCC 2201 and 2207). Today, the most frequent and direct attacks against marriage come in the form of demands for partner benefits and same sex unions. Both types of unions are also intrinsically evil (see CCC 2400 and 2537).
The third criterion for correct voting is the defense of freedom of religion and of conscience. The exercise of this right is indispensable for defending life and marriage in the public square. Regarding this critical issue, Pope Benedict XVI stated:
Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion. Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience. Here once more we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society (Address to the Bishops of the United States of America on their “Ad Limina” visit, 19 January 2012).
Once a candidate’s position on these three issues has been considered: the defense of innocent human life from euthanasia and abortion in all its forms, the defense of marriage between a man and a woman, and the defense of freedom of religion and of conscience, then one may consider that candidate’s position on other important issues, with respect to which there can be different legitimate solutions: war, social justice, education, immigration, and the like (see again the Letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – Pope Benedict XVI – to Theodore Cardinal McCarrick of the USA, 2004).
In sum, the Catholic Church does not tell people for whom they must vote, but she does have the duty and the right to educate Catholics and the general public on the moral criteria that must guide the act of voting. In the present historical circumstances, the essential moral criteria are the defense of innocent human life, the defense of marriage, and the defense of religious liberty and of conscience.