How Can a Catholic Vote for Joe Biden?

It’s easy. The same way a Catholic can vote for anybody else. The way the Church tells us to vote.

2020 brings us the twelfth presidential election since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. There are eleven reasons to believe that this twelfth election will not stop abortions. Yet, still Catholic voters are told they must not vote for Joe Biden (who is Catholic) and instead must vote for Donald Trump because of abortion. This has been going on for five decades, and this approach only has poisoned our politics while corroding the unity of the church.

The U.S. Catholic bishops last year emphasized again that abortion is the “pre-eminent priority” in this election year. The bishops actually voted against including a quotation from Pope Francis in their Faithful Citizenship voters’ guide for this year. The quotation they rejected saw Francis calling on us to defend the unborn but goes on to add, “Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable.” Catholic social teaching encompasses a broad range of vital issues affecting everyone. Yet, again, our politics is reduced only to abortion.

For as much as the Catholic Church teaches that abortion is the taking of a human life, it also is true that reducing political behavior to just one issue this way is totally, completely against what the Church teaches about politics. This is not how Catholics are meant to make political decisions. It never has been. If Catholics want to find a different way to approach voting, remembering that is the right place to begin.

Read all the way back to St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), and you will find one consistent teaching: politics is about prudence. For Catholics, prudence has a particular meaning. It means using both knowledge and experience to make good judgments. Now, here is where it gets interesting.

If you ever check the weather forecast before you leave the house, you understand what prudence is. All political decision-making is about predicting what will happen after our decision is made. The one who guesses correctly about the future the most often is the one who has prudence. There is a reason why we trust the weather forecaster. She or he has devoted a lifetime to gaining the knowledge and experience to make better guesses than we make. The same is true about physicians, lawyers, plumbers, and every other expert.

As citizens and voters, we are supposed to be doing the hard work to make good judgments so that we will get the good outcomes we want (whether or not we are Catholic). In politics, just voting for a candidate who says he will stop abortions does not really do any good. Abortions actually have to stop for there to be some good. Equally important, other bad things should not result from how we vote.

When we think about it this way — the way that the Catholic Church teaches us to think about politics — we need to conclude that naming any one issue, even abortion, as a pre-eminent priority is imprudent. Telling Catholics they need to vote for or against a candidate only because of abortion is asking them not to use their prudence. It tells them not to use their own judgment at all.

A good Catholic can vote for any Republican or Democrat that they want to vote for and still be a “good Catholic.” It is not the candidate or the party that makes a good Catholic voter. It is the prudent reason you have for your vote.

Is there a prudent reason to believe that voting for Donald Trump will achieve more good than harm? Is there a prudent reason to believe that voting for Joe Biden will achieve more harm than good? Those are the questions that matter, the ones that should guide Catholic voters this year and in every election.

Steven P. Millies is professor of public theology and director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

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Steven P. Millies

Steven P. Millies is professor of public theology and director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.