Do you realize that according to the Church you have a moral obligation to vote? The Church doesn't just encourage you to vote, or recommend voting; the Church states that participation in political life is a moral obligation. No matter how you might look at the current state of politics, our obligation is to participate in public life and to do so for the common good.
There is no doubt that, as Catholics, it is impossible for us to be comfortable and to feel perfectly at home with one political party or another. There is no doubt that Catholics would have a hard time finding a party or a candidate that embraces the full breadth of commitment to human life and dignity that the Church has. And there is no doubt that regardless of that, we are still called to be fully engaged in the political process - at the very least, to vote in every election.
The fact that parties and candidates do not (and probably never will) match up with what the Church teaches on each issue creates a challenge for us, does not absolve us from making choices for each office in each election. And in order to approach the voting booth the right way, we have an obligation to form our consciences.
We often hear about "forming our consciences" on moral issues, and that means understanding the principles of social justice that the Church teaches. One way to do that is by investigating the teachings of the Church - especially by reading Scripture, but also by looking into the "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church," and relevant portions of the Catechism.
Or, an especially good resource is "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" by the U.S. bishops. It's online and free at the USCCB website.
One message that comes through is that respect for the dignity of each and every human person is a core principle of Catholic moral and social teaching. There is nothing more basic than that tenet of our faith.
A second standard that we must use for our judgments is our focus on the common good, not our own personal advancement. I remember having a conversation with one of my parents' neighbors a few years ago, and as our chat turned to politics, he stated his voting principle: "If it helps me, I'm for it; if it doesn't, I'm against it." Putting ourselves ahead of the common good does nothing for our obligation to make the world a better place.
Another approach is to investigate what the Church teaches on individual issues in order to understand the principles that are being used to support or oppose the issue. An excellent resource for this is the New York state bishops' website.
For example, looking at the "Issues" section of their site on criminal justice, you will see that the bishops have supported alternatives for mentally ill or addicted inmates, reducing the use of "solitary confinement," increasing the early release for elderly or sick inmates, and providing programs for helping incarcerated individuals re-enter their communities.
This may sound like a lot of effort, and it is. But our responsibility is to be well-informed about both Church teaching and the issues in order to be a responsible, faithful citizen. It is just what is required of us.
Participation in the decisions that direct the future of our cities, our state and our country is both a great privilege and a moral obligation. The choices we make must come from a well-informed and well-formed Catholic conscience. It is one way we build up the kingdom of God.
Deacon Don Weigel is the associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Buffalo and an instructor at Christ the King Seminary. He may be reached via email.