Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

How would the Pope decide to vote?

March 11, 2012

The season of voter primaries is upon us in Chicago and elsewhere. Voting is a moral act, so considering how to vote requires moral deliberation. What are the principles and the issues that help a person of faith decide how to vote? Can the Pope be of help? Since the Pope is sovereign, the question of how to vote doesn’t apply to him personally. But the Holy Father’s Lenten Message for 2012 gives us the framework for shaping our thoughts and honing the considerations we should have in coming to a morally responsible decision on how to vote.

Pope Benedict begins his letter (see by stating, “the Lenten season offers us once again an opportunity to reflect upon the very heart of Christian life: charity.” Our Holy Father wrote his first encyclical letter on charity, because God is love. Because God is love, his love for us is infinite; and God tells us to love others because he loves them. In this year’s Lenten Message, Pope Benedict reminds us of words from the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Let us be concerned for each other, to stir a response in love and good works.”

The Catholic vision of life is communitarian. Responding to Jesus’ love for us, we come to love all those Jesus cares for. We cannot be isolated or remain indifferent to the fate of our brothers and sisters. Catholics make political choices, therefore, in the light of the common good, which is different from the sum total of everyone’s personal interests. Loving others means working for what is good for them physically, morally and spiritually. Working for the common good requires that we be attentive to the needs of others, not overlooking the poor and those who can easily be forgotten in a self-centered vision of life.

Generosity of spirit marks the lives of most Catholics I know here and elsewhere. We see it reflected in contributions to special collections when people elsewhere are visited by calamity. We see it in the ongoing support of the Archdiocese’s mission to the poor, in Catholic Charities, in the Annual Catholic Appeal, in the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, in the support of Catholic institutions. Lately I’ve heard a few people complain that the church is concerned only about “pelvic issues” and not about the poor. I remind them that one out of three people in the city of Chicago is a client of Catholic Charities, that the church is the largest private provider of educational and health services in the country, that every bishop spends considerable time and effort raising money to help the poor. It is true, however, that the church’s voice today is more easily heard in advocating for the poor than in defending the true nature of marriage or the right to life of the unborn. It takes more courage to speak for moral values that many now, unfortunately, interpret as threats to their personal freedom. Where there are fewer allies, one sometimes has to speak more insistently.

Beyond this personal generosity that supports the works of the church, we recognize the need for governments to provide a strong enough “safety net” for those who are unable, for various reasons, to take adequate care of themselves and their families. In America, we use various tax breaks along with positive welfare programs to help the needy. The details and extent of this care may vary, but the principle that we can use the government to help the poor is clear in Catholic social teaching. The principle presupposes, of course, that the state is limited in its reach and that government itself is not a source of oppression.

Our neighbor’s spiritual good should also be of concern to us. Reaching out to sinners is one of the spiritual works of mercy and includes fraternal correction, where necessary. Correction is not done in a spirit of accusation but out of concern for our neighbor and the society in which we all share. As the Pope writes: “We must not remain silent before evil. I am thinking of all those Christians who, out of human regard or purely personal convenience, adapt to the prevailing mentality, rather than warning their brothers and sisters against ways of thinking and acting that are contrary to the truth and that do not follow the path of goodness.” Fraternal correction is part of a communitarian vision of life. If correction is mutual and is accompanied by encouragement, a community of humility and charity will form. The greatest common good is holiness, and we will grow in it together, by the grace of God.

Political activity is always marked by ambiguity and, especially nowadays, by manipulation and rancor and polarization. But we cannot just step away and avoid the work of forming moral judgments about our public life. The basic moral imperative is love founded on truth. Genuine concern for others will rescue them from error as well as from starvation. Making of political activity a form of love in action is the great challenge in coming to a moral decision on how to vote.

A few months ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reissued the document called “Faithful Citizenship.” It elaborates the moral principles to be used in deciding how to vote. Unfortunately, people are often impatient with principles and they look for quick answers. Even more unfortunately, some Catholics are more devoted to their political party, no matter what it is, than to the church, more moved by particular interests than by the common good or the faith itself. The document won’t be of much use to them, but everyone else should look for it on the USCCB website at

Besides presenting moral principles, the recently reissued document lists in an introductory note some key moral issues that ought to be considered if one wants to be faithful to the common good today. Abortion and threats to other vulnerable people remain the basic concern for those who desire a society based on universal love. Preserving a legal system that respects the nature of marriage as a union of one man and one woman for the sake of family is also key today. Love for everyone mandates a reexamination of our flawed immigration system. The widespread use of violence to make one’s way in the world, including the use of torture by government, destroys the ability to love our neighbor.

In a communitarian vision, not only individuals have rights; so do families and institutions, including religious institutions. Pope Benedict XVI, speaking to a group of American bishops last January, found it necessary for the first time in American history to speak about threats to religious liberty in the United States. He said: “At the heart of every culture, whether perceived or not, is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing … The church has a critical role to play in countering cultural currents which, on the basis of an extreme individualism, seek to promote notions of freedom detached from moral truth. It is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural sphere.” The Pope then told the bishops to maintain contact with Catholics involved in political life. They are also loved by God and should be loved by the rest of us! Concern for religious freedom is integral to concern for all our brothers and sisters. It becomes now a key issue in making one’s determination on how to vote. We cannot play off one liberty against another or we will lose them all.

Besides the principles and the issues, it seems to me there is another determining factor in coming to a decision on how to vote: a candidate’s character. In the long run, a public official’s personal trustworthiness will preserve the honesty necessary for confidence in our political system and our way of life.

Moral principles, moral issues and personal character are not easily synthesized in a single choice. Bring your determination about how to vote to prayer. It’s hard to make a decision in the presence of a God whose life is love while remaining mired in anything less than genuine concern for all our brothers and sisters and for the common good of society. God bless you.