The Elections and the Parish
Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director, Priests for Life
“We encourage all citizens, particularly Catholics, to embrace their citizenship not merely as a duty and privilege, but as an opportunity meaningfully to participate in building the culture of life. Every voice matters in the public forum. Every vote counts. Every act of responsible citizenship is an exercise of significant individual power” (United States Catholic Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n.34).
America and her pulpits
America's worldview was shaped by her pastors. They preached sermons on very specific and practical aspects of life, including fires, earthquakes, and solar eclipses. "Occasional" sermons were sermons preached on significant occasions, and "Annual sermons" were preached each year at a given time. The largest collection of annual sermons were the "election sermons," which were preached every year for three centuries starting with the first in Virginia in 1634. The war for Independence did not simply take place on battlefields. It was engaged in the pulpits, where the very heart and soul of the people were stirred with a commitment to defend that liberty which only God can give. Indeed, the same is true of America's efforts to rid herself of slavery and of segregation. And today, the same can be said of abortion.
Many of our citizens, and not a few of our preachers, are convinced today that “religion and politics don’t mix.” But the Church teaches otherwise, and in an election year, it’s helpful both to look again at that aspect of her teaching, and to take practical steps on the parish level to help people live their faith even in the voting booth.
Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on the Eucharist reminds us that this central mystery of our faith has a foot in both worlds, and calls us to be, at the same time, citizens of heaven and citizens of earth. "Certainly the Christian vision leads to the expectation of "new heavens" and "a new earth" (Rev 21:1), but this increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today. I wish to reaffirm this forcefully at the beginning of the new millennium, so that Christians will feel more obliged than ever not to neglect their duties as citizens in this world" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n.20).
But if we are awaiting the world to come, why do we have to improve this one?
The reason is beautifully explained in Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), n. 39. While we are not to confuse earthly progress with the growth of God's Kingdom, we are also not to see them as disconnected. Through our cooperation with God's grace, we are able to bring about some good in this world. We can work for a more just society, for racial reconciliation, for better working conditions, and for the defense of unborn children. We can elect public officials who respect life and work for peace with justice.
The full flowering of God's Kingdom is not in an endless increase of these fruits of our labor; it is, rather, in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. At every Mass we say, "we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior." Yet when He does come, the good we have worked for on earth will not disappear. Rather, it will be taken up and purified by Christ,, and made into a lasting element of the world to come.
The prayers of each Mass help us avoid the two extremes of thinking we build heaven on earth, or just sit back and wait for heaven to replace earth. At the offertory we pray, "Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made, it will become for us the Bread of life." In other words, we don't make the Body of Christ, but we do make the bread. We don't sit back and wait for the Body of Christ to be dropped on the altar from the sky. Rather, we present to God the work of human hands, and then his Spirit transforms it.
Similarly, we work to renew the earth, and his Spirit transforms the fruits of our work at the end of time. In short, we are called to exercise Eucharistic citizenship!
Talking points on Political Responsibility and Elections
The first thing we are saying to our people, therefore, about elections is that to participate in them is an aspect of our Christian vocation in the world. Neither politics, nor any party, platform, or candidate, is our salvation. Yet an aspect of our response to the only Savior, Jesus Christ, is in fact to be politically active and to shape our political choices according to his teachings. The Church does not write the laws, but the Church gives witness to the God to whose truth those laws must conform. The Church does not set up the voting booths, but the Church forms disciples in the conviction that when they enter those voting booths, they do not cease to be Christians.
Evaluation of the Issues
That point leads to a second key element of our teaching on elections, namely, that we have a responsibility to know what the moral duties of government are, so that we can evaluate whether political parties and candidates can meet those duties.
The Church has always taught that it is the dignity of the human person, and the protection and promotion of that dignity, that is the chief responsibility of government and the standard by which it is to be evaluated. That basic principle gives rise to a wide variety of issues, which the Church articulates in many of her documents, including the series of “Faithful Citizenship” documents issued every four years by the United States Catholic bishops.
Applying these principles to the situation of our current culture, the Church asserts that it is clear that the attacks on the right to life itself constitute the most urgent moral issue. Life itself, after all, is the most fundamental right and the condition for all the others.
Among the many documents in which this theme is articulated by the bishops is the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities (2001 Revision, A Campaign in Support of Life), which begins with a section on the “consistent ethic of life.” The bishops write, "Among important issues involving the dignity of human life with which the Church is concerned, abortion necessarily plays a central role. Abortion, the direct killing of an innocent human being, is always gravely immoral (The Gospel of Life, no. 57); its victims are the most vulnerable and defenseless members of the human family. It is imperative that those who are called to serve the least among us give urgent attention and priority to this issue of justice. This focus and the Church's commitment to a consistent ethic of life complement one another. A consistent ethic of life, which explains the Church's teaching at the level of moral principle—far from diminishing concern for abortion and euthanasia or equating all issues touching on the dignity of human life—recognizes instead the distinctive character of each issue while giving each its proper place within a coherent moral vision."
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin played the key role in articulating this “consistent ethic” in our day. He too pointed out that there is a hierarchy among the issues. "The fundamental human right is to life—from the moment of conception until death. It is the source of all other rights, including the right to health care" (Foster McGaw Triennial Conference, Loyola University of Chicago, May 8, 1985).
Evaluation of the Parties and Candidates
The parish priest likewise informs his congregation of the need to evaluate the political parties, platforms, and candidates in the light of the teaching of the Church. This does not mean that there is a “Catholic position” on every issue or detail of public policy. It does mean, however, that a voter should be able to distinguish when a particular position of a party, platform, or candidate does in fact contradict the moral law, or either contributes to or takes away from the common good. In Living the Gospel of Life, the bishops stated, “[W]e urge our fellow citizens to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest” (34).
What can the Church do?
If church teaching, then, calls for political involvement, understanding of the issues, and the responsibility to evaluate parties, platforms, and candidates according to those issues, then a number of practical activities suggest themselves.
Parishes, first of all, can carry out voter registration drives, providing in Church the means that people need to take to exercise their right to vote. The parish can conduct “get out the vote” drives, reminding the parishioners to get to the polls, providing transportation if necessary, and reminding the homebound to use absentee ballots. Parishes can inform their congregation of the voting records of public officials as well as of the positions of parties and candidates by distributing voter guides.
In regard to these activities, however, and even in regard to preaching and teaching, many priests have legal concerns. Where does the IRS draw the line about what churches can and cannot say or do regarding elections?
Priests for Life has published extensively on this topic, and in depth material can be found at
www.PoliticalResponsibility.org. In a nutshell, the fundamental distinction we find in the law is between issue advocacy and candidate advocacy. The Church can always speak vigorously on issues, even when those issues are being debated by political candidates. The Church, on the other hand, can neither endorse nor donate to political candidates.
Activities, like the ones mentioned above, must always be non-partisan when carried out or funded by the church. (Note that this pertains only to the church as an entity, not to her individual members, who, of course, because of their citizenship and First Amendment rights, can be as political and partisan as they want.)
When a parish, for instance, conducts a voter registration or get out the vote drive, the drive has to be open to all people, not just to those of one party or to supporters of one candidate. Similarly, when informing parishioners of candidates’ positions on the issues, the parish cannot use a voter guide that marks one or another candidate or position as the better one. Information on the candidates needs to be just that – information, not advocacy.
When it comes to fundamental moral issues, of course, the Church can – and indeed must -- identify what the right position is. The key to keeping it non-partisan is simply that this communication is kept separate from the communication about the specific candidates. In other words, the priest can say, “We have to elect candidates who will protect the unborn.” The priest can also inform the congregation that Candidate X is in favor of protecting the unborn. But to say these things in the same homily or the same handout is tantamount to saying, “We have to elect Candidate X,” which is an endorsement and therefore not permitted.
Unfortunately, the Church has been fed for decades with legal advice which is far more restrictive of the Church’s freedom than the IRS (or the FEC) has ever been. And this is wrong. Not only are the IRS/FEC restrictions on the Church minimal, but the enforcement policy is even looser. No Church has ever lost its tax exemption by teaching about abortion, or the primacy of the right to life, or the duty of public officials and voters to advance the Culture of Life by voting. No Church has ever lost its tax exemption for doing what it exists to do, namely, convey the teachings of the Church. No Church has ever lost its tax exemption for distributing voter guides.
Despite all this, various Church officials will go into all kinds of contortions to protect their assets from legal problems that they think will arise if the Church says that the right to life is primary among all the issues. Of course, the problem here is that this kind of legal advice, if it were accurate, would prove too much. Statements of the US Bishops themselves, like "Living the Gospel of Life" (1998), would constitute illegal activity under such an erroneous framework. The best way to describe the current problem with some attorneys is the bumpersticker that says "I Brake for Hallucinations."
The solution to all of this is for all of us, clergy and laity alike, to bear faithful witness to the teachings of the Church, no matter what the political implications may be. We know our message is non-partisan when no matter what candidate is running, no matter what position he or she takes and no matter what the platform of the respective parties might be, our message is always the same. If parties or candidates suddenly swapped their positions on the major issues, we would not have to change one word of our message. And whether our message helps or hurts a candidate or party, we convey it anyway, because it’s the teaching of the Church. That’s the meaning of non-partisan.
In this election season, the James Madison Center for Free Speech (www.jamesmadisoncenter.org) and the Alliance Defense Fund (www.alliancedefensefund.org) will respond free of charge to inquiries by churches, pastors, and priests on permissible political activities.
Other concrete activities
The single easiest way to be sure that one’s election-related teaching, preaching, bulletin inserts and parish website material both reflects Church teaching and is within proper legal boundaries is to quote Living the Gospel of Life, the US bishops’ document on the political responsibility of American Catholics. Priests for Life provides a study guide as well as bulletin inserts based on that document.
Likewise, parishes should promote prayer for our nation during the election season. Priests for Life conducts a prayer campaign during election season, that voters may exercise their duty responsibly and that candidates may be guided by wisdom. The prayer for this campaign can be found at
The parish website is an excellent avenue for providing up to date information on the voting process, polling places, and Church teaching about the elections. Links can also be made to www.PoliticalResponsibility.org and other non-partisan voter education sites.
Summing it up in 10 Easy Steps
These ten easy steps can guide our people to having a clear conscience in regard to how they vote on Election Day.
First, make sure you actually vote. Election Day is Tuesday, November 2, 2010. The Catechism tells us that voting is a moral obligation (n. 2240). Take advantage of early voting if your state allows it, and if you’re going to be out of state or are homebound, use an absentee ballot! Bring your voting decisions to prayer.
2. Know the candidates.
Be sure you know where the candidates stand on the issues.
3. Reject the Disqualified.
If a candidate came forward and said, “I support terrorism,” you wouldn’t say, “I disagree with you on terrorism, but what’s your health care plan?” Similarly, those who permit the destruction of innocent life by abortion disqualify themselves from consideration.
4. Distinguish Policy from Principle
Most disagreements between candidates and political platforms do not have to do with principle (“Is there a ‘Right to Crime?’”), but rather with policy (“How do we reduce crime?”). But the dispute over whether there is a right to life does deal with principle, and is therefore more fundamental.
5. Weigh other issues properly.
Not all issues have equal weight. The Catholic Church teaches that war and capital punishment, for example, may at times be morally justified, but abortion and euthanasia never are.
6. Keep your loyalty focused on Jesus.
Your loyalty to Jesus Christ must be stronger than your loyalty to any political party.
7. Remember, the Party Matters.
Elections do not only put individual candidates into power; they put political parties into power. Consider what the parties stand for, and how the outcome of the election affects the balance of power.
8. Distinguish “choosing evil” from “limiting evil.”
If two opposing candidates both support abortion, then ask: Which of the two candidates will do less harm to unborn children? This is not "choosing the lesser of two evils," but rather choosing to limit an evil, and the choice to limit an evil is a good.
9. Support the candidate with more than your vote!
Additional activities include donating to the campaign, volunteering for the campaign, handing out literature for the candidate, making phone calls and visits on the candidate’s behalf, sending emails, using yard signs and bumper stickers, and praying for the candidate.
Elections are not contests between two candidates. They are contests between two teams. The bigger and more active team will bring in the most votes.
10. Mobilize as many other voters as possible!
Each of us has one vote, but each of us can mobilize hundreds, even thousands of votes. Focus on mobilizing those who agree with you rather than convincing those who don’t. If you can take the day off on Election Day, do so. Spend the day contacting people by phone and email, reminding them to vote, and helping them get to the polls.
Having done all this, we can rejoice in a clear conscience, and trust the Lord to bring about the victory for a Culture of Life!
About the Author and Priests for Life
Fr. Frank Pavone is an internationally known pro-life activist, speaker, and author. A priest of the Amarillo diocese, he has led the Priests for Life movement since 1993, and appears regularly in the religious and secular media. He has served at the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family. Norma McCorvey, the “Jane Roe” of the Supreme Court’s abortion decision Roe vs. Wade, called Fr. Pavone “the catalyst that brought me into the Catholic Church.” In 2001, the National Right to Life Committee gave Fr. Pavone its distinguished "Proudly Pro-life" award. He also serves as the Pastoral Director of Rachel’s Vineyard, the world’s largest post-abortion healing ministry, and of the Silent No More Awareness Campaign, both of which are ministries of Priests for Life.
Priests for Life is the world’s largest Catholic organization dedicated exclusively to ending abortion and euthanasia. It consists of clergy and laity, is international in scope, and is recognized as an Association under Canon Law. See www.priestsforlife.org for more details.
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