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Bishop McElroy: Speaks on Conscience, Candidates and Discipleship in Voting

San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy speaks Feb. 6, 2020San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy makes a point during his talk at USD, titled "Conscience, Candidates and Discipleship in Voting.

The Bishop of San Diego, Robert W. McElroy, spoke on the University of San Diego campus Thursday afternoon. His topic? “Conscience, Candidates and Discipleship in Voting,” which began with him trying to set the record straight.

The Catholic Church does not endorse particular candidates. “We can’t do that as Catholics, that’s not our role, it’s not what we do. In this country, the Church does not endorse particular candidates. That has been our tradition and it remains our tradition.”

Sponsored by USD’s Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture, Bishop McElroy’s speech centered “precisely about the Church not telling people what candidate to vote for … it’s your conscience and in the end, you make the decision. In our faith that’s what you are called to do. You are the citizen. You are the voter. You are the believer. And in your heart and soul, in your conscience, you are called to make the Gospel manifest in the world in which we live.”

But his admission also served as an opportunity to speak with Catholics prior to filling out their election ballots for the California primary March 3 and the first Tuesday in November.

He began with Pope Francis’ words in Evangelli Gaudium that point powerfully to the vocation of faith-filled citizenship: “An authentic faith … always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it. … If indeed ‘the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics’ the Church ‘cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.”

The votes of Catholic men and women, rooted in conscience and in faith that the Church enters into the just ordering of society and the state. It’s primarily in voting for specific candidates for office that believers as citizens have the greatest opportunity to learn the earth better than we found it, Bishop McElroy said.

While much more focus is placed on individual policy issues and their moral implications in Catholic social teaching, comparatively little has been centered in Catholic moral theology to the moral nature and structure of voting for specific candidates. McElroy states that if the primary role of citizens were to vote on specific issues, this could be sufficient. But voting for specific candidates is a tougher task. It begs a question, “Where does Catholic theology begin in assisting believers to carry out their role of ennobling the world?”

Pope Francis proposes that “Our political lives must be seen as an essential element of our personal call to holiness. This means our political actions must reflect and flow from our Catholic faith. Pope Francis, however, demands more. He proposes that we can only fulfill our vocation as faithful citizens if we come to see in the very toxicity of our political culture at the current moment a call for deeper conversion to Jesus Christ.

The principles of Catholic social teaching as it is applied to the core political issues of American society today provide a strong source of guidance in weighing the policy proposals of competing candidates. The comprehensiveness of Catholic social teaching points toward an understanding of justice, life and peace that refuses to be confined to narrow boxes or relegated to partisan categories. At the same time, this very comprehensiveness makes the prioritization of Catholic teachings difficult for voters.

Entering the 2020 election season, Bishop McElroy pointed out 10 salient goals that emerge from the Gospel and the long tradition of Catholic faith: “The promotion of a culture and legal structures that protect the life of unborn children; The reversal of the climate change that threatens the future of humanity and particularly devastates the poor and the marginalized; Policies that safeguard the rights of immigrants and refugees in a moment of great intolerance; Laws that protect the aged, the ill, and the disabled from the lure and the scourge of euthanasia and assisted suicide; Vigorous opposition to racism in  every form, both through cultural transformation and legal structures; The provision of work and the protection of workers’ rights across America; Systematic efforts to fight poverty and egregious inequalities of wealth; Policies that promote marriage and family, which are so essential for society; Substantial movement toward universal nuclear disarmament; and the protection of religious liberty.”

That Bishop McElroy named 10 items was notable because it suggested and reminded faithful voters that they should not be single-issue voters. Abortion and climate change are two such issues that Bishop McElroy noted as prime examples of single issues that have the most fervent traction.

“Against the backdrop of these two monumental threats to human life, how can one evaluate the competing claims that either abortion or climate change should be uniquely preeminent in Catholic social teaching regarding the formation of Americans as citizens and believers?”

Bishop McElroy noted four points of consideration: "There is no mandate in universal Catholic social teaching that gives a categorical priority to either of these issues as uniquely  determinative of the common goal; The death toll from abortion is more immediate, but the long-term death toll from unchecked climate change is larger and threatens the very future of humanity; Both abortion and the environment are core life issues in Catholic teaching; The designation of either of these issues as the preeminent question in Catholic social teaching at this time in the U.S. will inevitably be hijacked by partisan forces to propose that Catholics have an overriding duty to vote for candidates that espouse that position. Recent electoral history shows this to be a certainty."

And, Bishop McElroy, brought to the forefront a third compelling issue that should affect the next election cycle — “the culture of exclusion that has grown so dramatically in our nation during the last three years.” This “growing culture of exclusion does not emerge as a specific policy question in our contemporary national politics; rather it seeps into all of the most salient questions of life and dignity that our society faces and corrodes each one in turn."

He adds, “it’s clear that the faith-filled voter who seeks to be guide by Catholic social teaching is confronted by compelling moral claims that cut across the partisan and cultural divides of our nation. The pathway from these cross-cutting moral claims to decision on particular candidates is not a direct and singular one in Catholic teaching, rooted in one issue. For this reason, the drive to label a single issue preeminent distorts the call to authentic discipleship in voting rather than advancing it.”

Turning the conversation to voting for individuals, Bishop McElroy stated that in today’s America, “a faith-filled voter is called to approach voting from a stance of bridge-building and healing for our nation. Such a voter is also called to integrate into his/her voting decisions the major salient elements of Catholic teaching that touch upon the political issues of our day, understanding that these teachings vary in priority and claim, but are united in their orientation to the common good.”

But, he continues, “voting for candidates ultimately involves choosing a candidate for public office, not a stance, nor a specific teaching of the Church. Faithful voting involves careful consideration of the specific ability of a particular candidate to actually advance the common good. In making this assessment, opportunity, competence and character all come into play.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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