Catholics should stick to principles in the upcoming election

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Catholics election
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Principles, the Catholic historian John Lukacs used to say, are like a cannon mounted on a rotating platform: They allow you to defend the truth against an assault from any direction. That wisdom is particularly pertinent in an election year and rarely more important than in this particular presidential election year. Two years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022), which overturned the federal right to an abortion established in Roe v. Wade (1973) nearly 50 years earlier, American Catholics are faced with a disturbing choice: a nominally Catholic president running for reelection on a radical pro-abortion platform against a former president who has all but disavowed the greatest accomplishment of his four years in office, the shift in the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court that led to the Dobbs decision.

A shift in attitudes on abortion

This confusing situation may have something to do with a recent Pew Research survey that shows a shift in attitudes toward legalized abortion among Catholics in the United States. Sixty-one percent of self-identified Catholics told Pew that they believe that abortion should be legal in all cases (22%) or most cases (39%), a marked increase from 2020, when 56% of Catholics agreed that abortion should be legal. While the percentage of Catholics who identify as Democrats and support legal abortion increased by 1% (well within the survey’s margin of error), from 77% to 78%, the percentage of Republican Catholics who support legal abortion in all or most cases increased eight points, from 36% in 2020 to 44% in 2024.

Needless to say, the teaching of the Catholic Church on life — the set of principles that should provide the vantage point from which we defend the truth, not only in theological and moral discussions but in political ones — has not changed in the past four years. But the position of both the Democratic and Republican candidates for president has, with President Biden fully embracing abortion post-Dobbs and making the reversal of Dobbs through administrative action one of the pillars of his presidency and his current presidential campaign, and former President Trump trying to avoid any discussion of abortion and, when he can’t avoid it, indicating that it should remain a state matter while frequently criticizing state initiatives to outlaw abortion.

American Catholics are faced with a disturbing choice: a nominally Catholic president running for reelection on a radical pro-abortion platform against a former president who has all but disavowed the greatest accomplishment of his four years in office.

For decades, many Catholics and other supporters of the pro-life cause felt that they had no choice but to vote Republican, even though, from the George H.W. Bush administration on, it became clear that the Republican Party valued the cause of life more as a campaign issue than as a principle, a state of affairs that was confirmed by Republican appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court not only upholding Roe but in some cases using its arguments as the basis for undermining other moral principles (e.g., the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman). To his credit, former President Trump broke that pattern decisively with his appointments to the Supreme Court, which led to the decision in Dobbs.

And yet, two years after Dobbs, here we are. What is a faithful Catholic to do?

The two-party system

The first thing is to remember that no matter how important electoral politics may seem, the truths of our Catholic faith, including the Church’s moral teaching, are more important. A good reminder of this reality can be found in Kenneth Craycraft’s “Citizens Yet Strangers: Living Authentically Catholic in a Divided America” (OSV, 2024). Craycraft does not quote John Lukacs, but he shows how the cannon of principle can and must work if we are to remain true to the core of our Catholic faith. Current political contests must never sway where we stand on the question of life (including not only abortion but euthanasia and IVF) and on other moral questions, such as the institutionalization of the transgender ideology and associated medical interventions decried so frequently by Pope Francis.

We Americans have often prided ourselves on the relative stability of the two-party system, to the extent that many of us think (wrongly) that it is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. But the dominance of the Democratic and Republican parties has unfortunately led many to believe that we have no option but to vote for one of two suboptimal candidates. The Pew Research survey found that self-identified Catholics make up 20% of U.S. adults, down from 24% in 2007 but essentially the same percentage as in 2014. In the kind of parliamentary system common in Europe (and in nearly all former European colonies except the United States), 20 would be enough to build a party on Catholic principles and to defend the truths of Catholic teaching against the assaults of parties of the left and right.

Alas, we have no such option here. But that does not mean that the only thing we can do is to abandon our principles to vote for whomever we regard as the lesser of two evils. In fact, that — abandoning timeless Church teaching so that we may make our peace with a politician du jour — is the one thing that we cannot do. 

Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board

The Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board consists of Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, Gretchen R. Crowe, Matthew Kirby, Scott P. Richert and York Young.