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‘Doing nothing is not an option’ - The complicated landscape of the European ‘Catholic vote’

Last weekend, voters across the continent headed to the polls to elect their representatives in the European Parliament.

The election saw an overall shift to the right.

Credit: stvnbln / Shutterstock.


The center-right European People’s Party (EPP) gained 13 seats, for a total of 189 MEPs, over a quarter of the total Parliament.

Nationalist and populist right parties now have 131 seats between their two coalitions, ECR and ID - an increase of 13 seats. 

Meanwhile, the center-left coalition (S&D) lost four seats, for a new total of 135, and the liberal Renew Europe (RE) lost 23 seats and now hold 79 seats in Parliament.

But although the numbers may give the appearance of a big right-win victory in Europe, the reality is that most parties in the EPP are hesitant to work with the ECR or ID.

In-fighting among right-wing parties means that the shift may not be as radical as it may seem.

The election highlighted the complicated reality of voting as a Catholic in Europe. 

Oftentimes, only parties labeled as far-right share the positions of the Church on contentious issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and LGBT issues. Meanwhile, these parties often seem to be on the antipodes of the Church’s positions on migration, race relations, and the environment.

Additionally, each of the 27 member states has disparate realities, with vastly different political landscapes.

Some countries have historically Catholic parties - such as the Austrian ÖVP - that have drifted away from Catholic teaching over the years. Other parties - such as Vox in Spain or Chega in Portugal - make disputed claims their populist-right policies would protect the Catholic tradition of their country.

Some European nations have tiny Catholic minorities, such as the Nordic states. In others, like the Netherlands and Belgium, Catholics make up a sizable portion of the population, but no party seems to clearly adhere to Catholic social teaching.

Catholics in Spain might appreciate that Vox is a pro-life party, but might find its strong positions on immigration hard to support. Dutch Catholics might be attracted to the economic policies of the CDA, but may consider its positions on euthanasia and abortion too soft.

How do Catholics in Europe navigate the political landscape?

The Pillar spoke with several Catholic bishops, politicians and academics in Europe about how they view voting and the political future of the continent.

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‘The motor of politics must be the human person’

In a March statement, the Commission of the Episcopal Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) urged Catholics to vote in this year’s elections.

“Many of the founding fathers of the European Union were committed Catholics who maintained a strong belief in the dignity of every human being and the importance of community. We believe that this project, which started more than 70 years ago, must be supported and carried forward,” the statement said.

The statement recognized that “the European Union is not perfect and that many of its policy and legal proposals are not in line with Christian values and with the expectations of many of its people.”

However, it continued, “we believe that we are called to contribute and improve it with the tools democracy offers us.”

“It is not our ‘job’ to advise on voting for specific parties, but as bishops we do call attention to ethical issues and Catholic social teaching,” clarified Bishop Jan Hendriks of Amsterdam.

Bishop Nuno Brás of Funchal, Portugal, pointed to Dignitas infinita, the 2024 declaration from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, as a type of compass to measure the political programs of European parties.

“Matters that refer directly to human dignity (especially in the aspects mentioned in the recent declaration on human dignity) are some of the main criteria (if not THE main criteria) to choose following our Christian conscience,” he told The Pillar.

“We, as Christians cannot stop having human life and dignity as our cause: from conception to its natural end, but also its defense as social dignity and other aspects that affect human dignity.”

He also noted “the importance of the construction of Europe,” saying that “it does not make sense to vote for parties that want to destroy the European institutions.”

Other bishops mentioned more specific policies they consider important for Catholics.

Bishop Raimo Goyarrola of Helsinki stressed that while economics is important, “the motor of politics must be the human person.”

“The common good affects us all, regardless of our age, skin, or political ideology. Thus, seeing politics as a service to the common good will help us see we are not mere individuals, we are born within a family,” he said. 

“So we need politics that favor the family and promote subsidiarity so intermediate institutions can help build communities and the common good. If the state intervenes in everything it doesn’t serve the common good, it serves itself.”

Hendriks also emphasized the importance of family policy, saying, “To me, an important theme also seems the creation of a good living environment for families with children and respect for human beings as they are created.”

“We must consider seriously, for example, that the creation of human embryos for scientific research is considered desirable by some political parties in our country. Restraint in matters of sex change treatments and operations should be considered,” he added. And further, I would think that currently, the commitment to peace and the promotion of peace negotiations are very important.”

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Voting in conscience

Voting guidance documents from the Catholic bishops tend to emphasize the role of the “Christian conscience” when selecting a candidate.

In 2002, a doctrinal note released by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith  stated that “a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.” 

“The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine,” it says.

How these principles play out in practice can be tricky, particularly when every candidate in a given election opposes Catholic social teaching in one way or another.

“[T]he programs of the parties in the elections are widely different from each other, even when they’re members of the same European political family. None of them correspond fully to what a Christian might desire for the construction of Europe, but we see ourselves more in some [parties] than [in] others,” said Bishop Brás.

“Today in Europe, there might be no party that supports the social teaching of the Church in its program,” Bishop Goyarrola told The Pillar.  “Each one of us has to [evaluate] which is the ‘lesser evil’ to vote, which is very sad.”

“I think that it is not wrong to vote for the ‘less evil’ option in hand while you try to build an alternative,” said Juan A. Soto, a third-sector advisor and lecturer. “Otherwise, we will end up being ruled by the ‘worse’ and that would be because we were irresponsible.”

Not all political issues have the same weight, said Goyarrola.

“The Church respects the political opinion of Catholics, but as a good mother and teacher tells us that the Gospel is non-negotiable,” he said.

“There are some minimum criteria, such as the right to life from conception to natural death that are untouchable. Thus, we cannot support a party that in these four years wants to legislate against human life. We must look for options that favor human life and marriage.”

The bishop added that it is not only a matter of what parties don’t support but also of the proposals they bring to the table.

“We should support policies that motivate people to have children and young couples to get married,” he said.

Gudrun Kugler, one of the few practicing Catholic MPs in Austria, told The Pillar that in her view, there are two questions Catholics should ask in evaluating options at the ballot box.

“First, which topics are more important than others? Namely, which are closer to the human person? For example, abortion or some generic social justice issue?” she said.

“And the second question you need to ask yourself is which issues are determined by the Church more clearly and less ambiguously (for example, euthanasia vs. global peace)?” 

For Hungarian political philosopher Tamás Nyirkos, there are specific principles of political philosophy that should guide Catholic voting.

“If there's anything that contemporary Catholics can learn from their predecessors, it is that they should only support policies that respect natural law and the common good, and never those that overtly contradict them in the name of democracy, public opinion, or the will of the majority,” Nyirkos told The Pillar.

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Jumping into the arena

What about running for office, when doing so requires that one join a party that opposes Catholic social teaching in some way?

The Vatican’s 2002 doctrinal note talks about the laity’s role to infuse “the temporal order with Christian values.” And John Paul II says in Christifideles laici that “the lay faithful are never to relinquish their participation in ‘public life’.”

But in some historically Catholic European countries, Catholics and Catholic parties are becoming a rarity. 

Should Catholics refrain from partaking in politics in such a “tainted” environment?

Not so, said Bishop Hendriks. 

“Standing aside and doing nothing is not an option,” he said.

“Of course, if a Catholic politician has to accept positions contrary to Catholic faith and morals, he should withdraw from supporting this party,” he noted. “But in some cases, it is not just black or white. You cannot but try to work the good from a concrete reality.”

Bishop Brás agreed.

“There are limits,” he said. “A party that has clearly un-Christian policies as a banner impedes a Christian, not only from voting but also from participating as a politician. But, as Pope Francis remembers, the political participation of Christians is one of the most excellent forms of charity.”

Hungarian political philosopher Tamás Nyirkos warned that Catholics must be cautious when political authority is severed from natural law.

“Saint Thomas Aquinas - among others - warned that democracy itself could turn into something that was only 'numerically different' from the tyranny of one person or that of an oligarchy. This is also why Pope Leo XIII said in his encyclical Libertas praestantissimum that if in 'public affairs, authority is severed from the true and natural principle', and 'the law determining what it is right to do and avoid doing is at the mercy of a majority', then this is 'a road leading straight to tyranny’,” he commented.

Still, argued Soto, Catholics should not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

“In Spain, I think Catholics should vote for Vox, but the party is not perfect. There is a lot of human misery,” he said. “There are still many good Catholics in the Partido Popular who understand that if you want to return to power and change things, you must change the party from within. And I think this is also a good way to do things.”

Soto stressed that Christians should not run away from the public square. 

“We have to participate. We have to be there. There is no such thing as a ‘Benedict option’,” he said. 

“It is a matter of personal responsibility. We cannot flee from politics, because it is always ‘corrupt’ or ‘morally bankrupt’,” he added. “In my humble opinion, it will always be like this.”

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