The 2016 Vote: What is an Informed Catholic to Do?


Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had their first televised debate

While national elections always generate much interest and have their share of controversies, this election cycle can be classified as one “for the record books.” Originally seventeen Republican candidates have now withered away to one, Donald Trump. The primary campaign has been filled with many personal attacks, insults, and highly negative advertising, which all continue today. Many have viewed the whole process as sophomoric. On the Democratic side, four candidates have now been reduced to two. But even this is remarkable when one considers that the “established” and almost assumed nominee from the outset—former Secretary of State and New York Senator, Hillary Clinton—is presently being investigated by the FBI for her use of a private e-mail server when handling sensitive government materials. She had been challenged by an almost unknown 74-year-old Vermont senator, Bernie Sanders, who is an avowed “Democratic Socialist.” But he has stepped down to support Clinton’s run.

What is going on, and what are Catholic voters to think when they go to the polls on November 8, 2016? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in their 2015 document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” can give Catholic voters some helpful guidelines.

The Bishops’ tract, which is an update from its original document of 2007, is comprised of three sections and an introduction. The Bishops recognize that over the last nine years, many changes have come to the American political landscape that raise questions in the minds of Catholics. While the issues of abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and excessive use of material goods remain as ongoing concerns, “Forming Consciences” notes that issues such as the re-definition of marriage, global terrorism, and an even more broken immigration system now exist as frontline issues and, thus, complicate the political picture even further.

Part I: Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: The US Bishops’ Reflection on Catholic Teaching and Political Life
The first and, from the perspective of the voter, most formative section of the bishops’ 2015 document, begins by outlining the right and rationale for Catholics to participate in public life. The bishops call the faithful “to participate in public life in a manner consistent with the mission of our Lord.”1 They state that the Church has a responsibility to form the consciences of voters based on four basic principles of Catholic social teaching:
(1)Dignity of the human person, (2) The common good, (3) Subsidiarity, and (4) Solidarity. Such a formative process will allow one to better evaluate policies, platforms, and the promises of individual parties and candidates.2 Importantly, the bishops directly state that their intent is not to dictate for whom people should vote but rather: “Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth.”3

A brief review of American Catholic history demonstrates that the Church has always been highly involved in aiding the development of conscience by addressing public issues that affect the Church and its faithful. During the pre-Civil War years, the hierarchy weighed in on the question of slavery, with advocates on both sides of the question, dependent largely on the physical geography of a particular bishop’s see. The conflict between Church and State in the ongoing battle between public and parochial education, initiated originally in the 1840s with Bishop John Hughes’ battle with the Public School Society of New York, has had numerous manifestations, including the attempt to federalize the education system (1918-1925), the infamous Oregon school case (1922-1925), and several significant Supreme Court decisions. Even today, the bishops continue to advocate for the right of parents to educate their children as they see fit. The National Catholic Welfare Conference (the pre-Vatican II name of the present USCCB) fought numerous battles over immigration, distribution of birth control propaganda, and Communism, to name only a few. More recently the bishops published significant pastoral letters presenting the Catholic view on war and peace (“The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, 1983) and the Economy (“Economic Justice for All,” 1986). 4 Thus, the voice of the American Catholic hierarchy in aiding the formation of conscience with respect to the present political scene simply continues a long tradition of the Church’s involvement with significant questions of the day. Thus, seeing the Church’s participation as a means to teach moral truths in support of the mission of Jesus, the bishops conclude, “The Church’s obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society is a requirement of our faith.”5

After a discussion on the formation of conscience, the bishops ask how the Church can help Catholics in addressing contemporary political and social questions. First, it is suggested that the faithful must continue to inform their conscience through the knowledge of Scripture, and the teachings of the Church. Failure to properly form one’s conscience can easily lead to erroneous judgments. Next, “Forming Consciences” clearly states that there, indeed, are intrinsic evils with abortion, euthanasia, cloning, genocide, and direct targeting of non-combatants specifically mentioned.6 The bishops warn the faithful that there are ethical distinctions between different issues involving human life and dignity, and to dismiss this reality is a grave error. The bishops then reference the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which has stated, “A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program, or an individual law, that will contradict the fundamental contents of faith and morals.”7

“Forming Consciences” next addresses the central question of confusion that plagues the contemporary American Catholic voter. One may rightly ask, can I vote for an individual who supports a policy that is intrinsically evil? The bishops first address the question by speaking to the conscience of the voter: “Those who knowingly, willingly, and directly support public policies or legislation that undermine fundamental moral principles cooperate with evil.”8 Satisfying this initial assumption, the bishops conclude, “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsic evil act … if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such a case, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation with grave evil.”9 These guidelines are obviously insufficient, however, as even a cursory review of the candidates, on both sides of the political aisle, reveals that no candidate can pass the litmus test of avoiding intrinsic evil on all fronts. Thus, the obvious question remains, “For whom can I vote when no one meets the criteria stated by the bishops?” Fortunately, the document does provide an answer:

There may be a time when a Catholic rejects a candidate’s position on an issue involving intrinsic evil, but may reasonably decide to vote for a candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests, or partisan preferences, or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.10

“Forming Consciences” provides additional guidance if all candidates hold the same position of intrinsic evil on a particular issue, stating: (1) a voter could take the extraordinary step of not voting, or (2) after deliberation, pursue the candidate who is least likely to follow a flawed policy.11

After addressing the central concern of the typical Catholic voter, the bishops tackle how four basic principles of Catholic social teaching should be integrated into the public political forum. Speaking of the dignity of the human person, the bishops reject all activity which in any way jeopardizes God’s greatest creation, repeating earlier abolitions against abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and cloning, and adding in vitro fertilization, torture, unjust war, and indiscriminate use of drones, to the list of intrinsic evils. Subsidiarity, the second principle, is highlighted by addressing respect for the family. The third principle, promotion of the common good, must be advanced through the protection of human rights for all, including the promotion of workers’ rights, care for the environment, and the precept that the economy should serve all people.12 Lastly, solidarity must be upheld by welcoming strangers, especially immigrants, and support for a policy that advocates a preferential option for the poor. The bishops conclude: “A basic moral test for any society is how it treats those who are most vulnerable.”13

Part II: Applying Catholic Teaching to Major Issues: A Summary of Policy Positions of the USCCB
As a tool of education in “Forming Consciences,” the bishops next present a summary of their teachings on thirteen specific issues. As in all areas of the document, the bishops first address the issue of human life, again reiterating their total support for the preservation of life, and specifically addressing torture, and the targeting of non-combatants, as acts that are always immoral. The bishops clearly state that marriage must be defended, and recognized, and protected as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman.14 The bishops support religious liberty noting that such “protections are now in doubt.”15 The bishops continue their long-standing support for the preferential option for the poor; they promote affordable and accessible healthcare as “an essential safeguard of human life, and a fundamental human right.”16 The bishops suggest that comprehensive immigration reform is needed, including a path to fair and legal citizenship, a work program, and a just refugee policy.17 The document reiterates the long-standing belief that parents have the right to educate their children as they choose, and that discrimination of all natures—race, religion, sex, ethnicity or age—must be removed. Referencing Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato si, the bishops state: “Care for creation is a moral issue.”18 Lastly, the bishops call upon the United States to take the lead in solidarity by making overtures toward the alleviation of global poverty, promoting religious liberty and human rights, and supporting beneficial United Nations programs. Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is specifically mentioned.19

Part III: Goals for Political Life: Challenges for Citizens, Candidates and Public Officials
The last section of “Forming Consciences,” challenges Catholics to evaluate candidates based on their response to ten specific goals. The bishops reiterate their earlier challenge that a voter’s decision on candidates should not be based on party, ideology, or one’s capacity to perform a duty, but, “rather we {the bishops} focus on what protects or threatens the dignity of every human life.”20 Consistent with the whole thrust and content of “Forming Consciences,” the bishops’ goals center around the human person, protecting the weakest in our midst, maintaining the fundamental understanding of marriage, achieving comprehensive immigration reform, and helping families and children to overcome poverty. Additionally, the bishops call for proper healthcare that respects human life and religious freedom, oppose policies of prejudice against immigrants, encourage families, economic structures, and governments to work collectively to overcome poverty and pursue the common good for all, and to join any united effort to pursue peace and protect human rights.21

Concluding Remarks
As American Catholics, we have both the privilege and responsibility to participate in the public political forum, a duty which has been ably carried out throughout the nation’s history. This year’s national elections present for the American Catholic some significant challenges in choosing candidates who can simultaneously hold positions that foster the common good for the American populace, and are consistent with Roman Catholic teaching. While the bishops make it abundantly clear that their role is not to advocate for one party or candidate over another, they are equally straightforward in providing definite and helpful guidelines which can help an individual make the best choice possible. The issues that confront our nation and the world are indeed serious; thus our engagement of the electoral process must be equally sober. Let us, with the help of the bishops, meet this challenge.

  1. “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” USCCB, 2015, Section §1.
  2. Ibid., §4 and 5.
  3. Ibid., §7.
  4. A brief review of a few more illustrative cases is instructive: In Cochran v. Board of Education (1930) the Court declared that a Louisiana law that allowed the government to supply textbooks to students to parochial schools was constitutional as the statute benefited the child and did not violate the precepts of the First Amendment and favor one religion over another. In Everson v. Board of Education (1947) the Court upheld a New Jersey law that provided government transportation of students to and from parochial schools, again citing child benefit. In McCollum v. Board of Education (1948) the Court invalidated an Illinois statute that allowed religious training of students on public school grounds during time students were not in class (for example lunch time), declaring the law a violation of the First Amendment. However, in Zorach v. Clause (1952) the Court upheld a New York statute that allowed religious education to be offered off public school grounds during student free time, again citing child benefit. Academic resources abound that describe the action of individual bishops and/or the NCWC in various issues that impacted the Church. A brief summary of the work of John Hughes in New York is found in Timothy Walch, Parish School: American Catholic Parochial Education from Colonial Times to the Present (Arlington, Virginia: The National Catholic Education Association, 2003), 41-43. The involvement of the NCWC in many critical issues is detailed in Douglas Slawson, The Foundation and First Decade of the National Catholic Welfare Council (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1992).
  5. “Forming Consciences,” §11, §9.
  6. Ibid., §17 and §20.
  7. Ibidi., §28, §29, and §30.
  8. Ibid., §31.
  9. Ibid., §34.
  10. Ibid., §34.
  11. Ibid., §36.
  12. Ibid., §44-51.
  13. Ibid., §53.
  14. Ibid., §56, §68 and §70.
  15. Ibid., §72.
  16. Ibid., §75 and §80.
  17. Ibid., §81.
  18. Ibid., §82, §85, and §86.
  19. Ibid., §90
  20. Ibid., §91.
  21. Ibid., §92.
Fr. Richard Gribble, CSC About Fr. Richard Gribble, CSC

Fr. Richard Gribble, CSC, is a Holy Cross priest, presently serving as a professor of religious studies at Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts. He has written extensively on American Catholic history.


  1. Avatar CATHERINE MASAK says:

    The good Bishops are good at confusing the Catholic citizens wioth their double speak, and range of issues.
    As a Catholic I rely on the Ten Commandments and common sense as tools along with prayer.
    You Bishops are useless phonies. Jesus said in similar words, Let your yes be yes and no be no. In other words be clear . Too bad the Bishops do not follow KISS or keep it simple stupid.

  2. Avatar Denis jackson says:

    It’s too long this !

    Who will make the best pres ? Clinton or trump ?

  3. Fr. Richard Gribble, CSC, provides a good summary of the Bishops’ guidelines. Implicit too often in many of the statements of the American bishops is that society’s obligations should generally be addressed by government. Thus, if society has an obligation to the poor, it should have a government poverty program. If medical care is a good thing, then government should provide it. But, in fact, government programs are often the most expensive (i.e. burdensome on society) and least effective. For example, the “War on Poverty” began 50 years ago, but the plight of the inner cities is, if anything, far worse. Our new government medical program is making care less affordable and less available than it was before, while forcing religious people to violate their consciences. Often society can best discharge its obligations by private, voluntary approaches, but those who advocate such approaches are vilified as uninterested in the poor, the sick, etc.

  4. There are a number of issues that are moral absolutes. Pope St. John Paul II told us these are to be defended with “maximum determination.” Then we have this moral ambivalence telling us when both candidates fail on one or more of the moral absolutes, we can vote for the lesser of two evils. This is a blatant violation of the principle of contradiction. The only source for this that I’m aware of is a false and sloppy reading of Evangelium Vitae # 73. It gives the pro-life elected official moral permission to vote for the best yet albeit imperfect legislation. Nowhere is this permission given to the voting public, and furthermore, this elected official in his own personal voting must adhere to the strict guidance relating to the moral absolutes. Pope St. JP II also told us that “if you vote for such a candidate, you would be an accomplice in advancing the moral evil, for example, of abortion. So I ask myself, if I vote for the lesser of two evils, by my voting, how many babies can I enable to be aborted and still call myself pro-life? We may never “do evil that good may come.” (Rom: 3-8) To do so, is to fall prey to the error of consequentialism which seeks to justify an evil act by the supposedly greater good its consequences will entail. Supposedly, such a candidate will give us pro-life judges – an opinion that in itself violates the principle, nemo dat quod non habet. God wants us to be faithful, to respect and adhere to the natural law, not only for the good of my own soul, but also to give Him the honor and glory He deserves. God, in His divinity, has an unlimited number of ways to cure this evil of abortion, not just by my voting. It is our job to be faithful and trust the results to Him.
    Ed Hummel

    • You must NOT “vote for the lesser of two evils”! The Church is clear on this: “One may not do evil so that good may result from it.” (Catechism 1756) And as you point out, Romans 3:8 – “And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.”

      To vote for the lesser of two evils is to say “yes” to evil. No, we must say “no” to evil. And since no candidate is perfect, we must vote with prudence, in such a way as to maximize the good and minimize the evil that may reasonably be expected to follow as a consequence of our vote. Such a vote is a decision for good, not for evil.

      • Voting like this is just ducking your head in the sand. Voting for a platform that promotes life is a vote for the babies and a vote for your own salvation,

      • In response to Ray –
        My response to the article was on one narrow point: “the lesser of two evils” is not a valid Catholic standard. I did not expand my response to include the issue you brought in, and I’m sorry now that I did not. The closer the election gets to us, the more concerned I am that some Catholics are falling into an irrational and false equivalence perspective. ALL PRO-LIFE concerns are NOT equivalent! The immigration issue is NOT of equivalent or comparable weight to the abortion issue! The first of all human rights is the right to life for the innocent – and the unborn are the most innocent of all.

        It is painful (a gross understatement) to see “pro-Hillary” bumper-stickers on cars in our parish parking lot during Sunday Masses. How can they think this way? How can they be proud to support a woman who defends even partial-birth abortion! And more relevant – how can our clergy, priests and deacons, preach on the issue of voting on conscience and NOT speak about the moral weight of the many issues at hand?

        So thank you Ray for filling in, with something much more important, what my very limited post addressed. Catholics were crucial to Mr. Obama’s two terms – I had hoped we had learned something since then.

  5. Avatar Woldeyohannes says:

    Why is it the primary focus of Catholic clergy/bishops more on the unborn child? Isn’t it equally or more pressing to address the arms race, war, economic issues leading people to do abortion, etc. As Church leaders, why don’t we hear them talk more about the death penalty than abortion? The God of life is concerned not only for the unborn child but also for the one at death row regardless of his/her sinfulness or holiness. Why don’t you talk loudly about the dehumanizing global economic system? The pro-life Bush (former US president) was pro-life only for the unborn child but a war monger to invade Iraq with a consequence we are still reaping ISIS and other terrorist groups. Yet our Catholic bishops were in favor of Bush and demonizing Kerry for his support of same sex marriage. What is worse – giving people the freedom to sin (by allowing them to have same sex marriage – or to rob people of their life by waging war? Which is grave sin – giving consent to same sex marriage or giving consent to kill Iraqis on the pretext of chemical/biological weapons? Which one has grave and severe negative consequences now for the US as well as for the world?????
    Eminences and dear US bishops please answer these questions biblically, theologically and ethically then we can form our conscience accordingly.

    • You ask why the primary focus seems to be abortion, rather than issues such as the arms race, war, economic issues, etc. The answer is that abortion is what Catholic theology calls an “intrinsic evil.” That means that by its very definition it is always and everywhere a violation of God’s law, in and of itself.
      The other issues you bring up are not necessarily “intrinsic evils.” A war can sometimes — begrudgingly — be engaged in. The death penalty is sometimes allowed by Catholic moral teaching; putting a criminal to death is not in itself always a violation of God’s law. And economic policies are not intrinsic evils or goods. Rather, the concept of justice is part of God’s law, but HOW to achieve that justice can be legitimately debated.
      Abortion, however, is never open to debate. That is why there is indeed a hierarchy of which issues are more important than others.
      Check out some reliable Catholic websites that discuss the non-negotiable issues of abortion, so-called “gay marriage,” euthanasia, etc. and why they should be at the forefront.

  6. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    “The bishops reiterate their earlier challenge that a voter’s decision on candidates should not be based on party, ideology, or one’s capacity to perform a duty…”. Faced with one who is not qualified to be responsible for the choice of using weapons that could initiate the destruction of the world, why would one not use ‘capacity to perform duty” in making a decision about candidates? Is it possible that initiating an act that could destroy the world is intrinsically evil?

    • Avatar Dave Jamieson says:

      You’re correct, Clinton is not morally qualified for the office as the probability that she and the Democrat Party would continue to aggressively support and expand every facet of the Culture of Death is 100%.

  7. My reasoning is that people who are pro – abortion have a defect in their moral reasoning which will be made manifest in their other moral decisions. In other words, for me,to put it more bluntly, any one who doesn’t understand that destroying a human life in the womb is wrong can not be trusted in a leadership position and will not get my vote. Reasonable and logical and thoughtful and civil opinions to the contrary are always looked forward to.