The Hierarchy of Values in Voting

In several of my recent blog posts, I discussed some of the standards that our Bishops have recommended for helping Catholics make their voting decisions.  I noted that it is all too common for us to be faced with difficult choices involving candidates whose positions are not all in line with the teachings of the Church, particularly about the core issues of life, marriage and family, and religious liberty.

I’ve been discussing this problem a lot with my colleague, Alexis Carra.  She has a very valuable point of view, so I asked her to summarize it, and offer me a chance to respond:

“Like you mention in your post, it’s becoming more common to be presented with candidates who are in line with the Church when it comes to economic and social justice issues, but supportive of abortion. This poses a particular challenge for Catholic voters — Does a candidate’s favorable stance on economic and social issues outweigh his unfavorable stance on abortion? Or does a candidate’s favorable stance on abortion outweigh all of his other unfavorable stances? The guidance from the Catholic bishops seems to suggest that abortion outweighs all other issues. In other words, one could only vote for a candidate who supports abortion for a proportionately serious reason. Considering that abortion is a very grave evil, this means that one could only vote for a candidate who supports abortion if one has a very grave reason.

“For some Catholics, this is a little off-putting. Why should a candidate’s favorable stance on abortion outweigh all of his other unfavorable stances? Why should abortion matter the most? Aren’t there other issues that are just as important? Or wouldn’t a combination of other favorable stances balance an unfavorable stance on abortion? Unfortunately, however, I find that these legitimate concerns have not been well-addressed, especially since they are difficult to address. Often times, I’m asked to discuss this issue, so I have included a portion of my response below. But really, I want to know your response.

“In short, I think these concerns can be best addressed by looking at the nature of the human person and reflecting on what enables a person to flourish. First and foremost, the person needs to be offered a chance at life — not killed in womb. If the person is not alive, then none of this really matters. Next, the person needs to be taken care of within a stable structure — everyone knows what happens to abandoned babies who are not taken in. Then, in order for the person to truly develop, the person needs to live within a society free from oppression, in which education, health-care, employment opportunities, etc. are also available.

“When asked to be as simple and pragmatic as possible, I think a reflection on the nature of the human person and on human development allows us to derive rough categories of importance. First, issues related to life. Second, issues related to stability, family structure, and sexuality. Third, issues related to greater flourishing. The reason why abortion typically outweighs all other issues is that is abortion cuts at the heart of life — it goes against the most basic category. If people are not even offered a chance to live, the most fundamental aspect of existence, then there can be no further debate on any other topic.

“What do you think?”

I think she’s on to something very important.  With all the fuss and furor that take place around elections, it’s hard to keep track of which issues are more important, and why — we tend to hear only about issues that the candidates have chosen to emphasize, in order to advance their electoral strategies.  Fortunately, our Catholic faith helps us to maintain a clearer view of the hierarchy of values.  There can be no real question that the right to life is the fundamental, original predicate for all other rights, needs, and desires — without life, none of those things can even be coherently discussed.  Likewise, the absolute equality of value of all human lives is also a foundation for any healthy society.  An attack on these foundational rights must be considered the most serious of social evils, and it is the highest social duty to defend them against such attacks.  So we as voters have the duty to make the protection of life our highest priority.

From that basis, I think that we can then discern the rest of the hierarchy of values. For any human being, life alone is insufficient for genuine flourishing and development.  Basic physical needs must also be attended to —  health, safety, shelter, nourishment, etc.  Human beings also cannot exist in isolation, so the health of relationships must also be taken care of.  The primary relationship is the family, which means that the promotion and protection of marriage must be a high priority, since that is the best environment for the health and development of both adults and children. As a person extends their relationships beyond the family, and particularly as they begin to develop as an independent person, other needs must also be addressed — education, employment, opportunities for cultural and leisure activities, etc.

As we move further down the hierarchy, the overall health of society is also a concern, since each person is part of the organic whole of the political community in which they live.  So this involves issues like the election of people of good moral character, the proper and prudent functioning of government, accountability of public officials, economic development, immigration, etc..  Since no nation exists in a vacuum, and we must consider the welfare of our fellow human beings around the world, we then look to issues of international relations, peace, etc.

As a voter, then, each of these matters has weight, but I have to consider them within this hierarchy of importance when making my decisions.

But there’s another important part of the hierarchy of values.  Alexis is absolutley right that we have to consider the nature of the human person, which means that we also have to consider the person’s spiritual needs as well.  Society has an obligation to create conditions where humans can develop spiritually, and to remove any unreasonable obstacles to that development. This is why the freedoms of religion, expression, and association are so important.  Society also has a duty to remove and remedy conditions that harm people’s spiritual health — the structures of sin that do so much damage, but encouraging and facilitating sinful behavior, like corruption in politics, the drug trade, the sex industry, etc.  As for the very great importance of spiritual health, we have it on good authority — “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28).  The spiritual health of each individual, and society as a whole, should thus be placed alongside the right to life itself as a foundational value, and must be treated accordingly as voters.

This is, of course, not an easy way to make voting decisions.  It is much easier to vote for the loudest candidate who speaks colorfully with great theatrical skill.  But as Catholics, we have to do better.  We need to educate ourselves about the teachings of the Church, we have to pay close attention to the hierarchy of values, and we have to pray for guidance.

The stakes are high when we make voting decisions.  God clearly takes an interest in the health of societies, and has never been shy about passing judgment on them.

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