This is a guest post by Kathy Lilla Cox, Research Associate at the University of San Diego in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Previous posts in the series include: the introductory post, post on racism, post on primacy of conscience, post on environmental justice, and the most recent post on labor justice and family ethics. Check back often between now and November 3 for additional reflections from CMT bloggers on conscience at the polls.

St Benedict hands his Rule to St Maurus (British Library, Additional MS 16979, f. 21v)

As November nears echoes of Catholic unhappiness (for various and different reasons) during 2016 with both major party Presidential candidates reverberates.  Catholics once again are discerning their vote, which if we have a party affiliation, requires more than automatically voting for the party’s nominee.  The USCCB writes in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (FCFC) that “It is important for all 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” (citing, Living the Gospel of Life, no. 33), pg.25).”   Choosing political leaders includes looking at candidates approach to various issues of concern to Catholic (see other posts in this series) and “should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue (FCFC, no. 37, emphasis added).”   My focus in this post is on leadership qualities and virtues to consider when evaluating candidates for public office.

The USCCB argue that Catholic leaders need to be growing in virtues, “especially courage, justice, temperance, and prudence (FCFC, no. 39).”  These virtues help them with their responsibility for the common good and “the strong public promotion of the dignity of every human person as made in the image of God in accord with the teachings of the Church (FCFC, no. 39). 

Working toward the common good includes working for justice and healing of the suffering, and wounds caused by injustice.  This work and the desire of Catholics including Catholic leaders “to imitate Christ’s love and compassion should challenge us to serve as models of civil dialogue, especially in a context where discourse is eroding at all levels of society. Where we live, work, and worship, we strive to understand before seeking to be understood, to treat with respect those with whom we disagree, to dismantle stereotypes, and to build productive conversation in place of vitriol (FCFC, pg. 7).”

Elsewhere the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church state as necessary for those in politics the virtues of patience, modesty, moderation, charity, and efforts to share (no. 410).  These virtues help politicians and leaders as part of their political representation with their “commitment to share fully in the destiny of the people and to seek solutions to social problems.” The virtues aid and support them in viewing their authority responsibly as putting “power into practice as service (italics in original), a service to others which works toward the common good rather than personal prestige or advantages (no. 410 and 412). 

This concern for the qualities and virtues of communal leaders is ancient.   The sixth century Rule of St. Benedict (RB) which describes the leadership qualities of the Abbot or Prioress provides additional considerations for Catholics as we evaluate candidates for public office.  Chapter 2 in the RB says the Abbot or Prioress qualities should include teaching and leading “both by words and example.”  They “should avoid all favoritism.” They should have the ability to work with a variety of people with their different personalities.  They need to remember that they are responsible for the working of and results coming from the monastery.

We find in Chapter 64 which describes the election of an Abbot or Prioress, more character traits and virtues to consider for a community leader.  When electing an Abbot or Prioress, the community must look for a person who is “chaste, temperate, and merciful,” and who models “goodness of life and wisdom in teaching.”   The person considered for Abbot or Prioress must not be “excitable, anxious, extreme, obstinate, jealous or oversuspicious.”  They “must show forethought and consideration in [their] orders” and “whether the task he [or she] assigns concerns God or the world, he [or she] should be discerning and moderate.”  They must also be aware that their role is in service of the community, not for him or herself.  

The Abbott or Prioress create room for others to use their expertise for the common good and functioning of the community.  Specific jobs require specific skills and the various members of the community should receive jobs that utilize their skills.  The Abbot or Prioress is supposed to consult other members when big decisions need to be made, even as they are ultimately responsible for final actions and decisions. They do not blame others. 

While the RB guides Benedictine communities, I argue that the characteristics outlined for a Abbot or Prioress also matter for secular leaders charged with leading and guiding people in our common life.  Recognizing that our political leaders are not always Catholic, we can still consider what we expect as good leadership qualities for Catholics and apply that criteria to other candidates.  Therefore, we can judge candidates on how they demonstrate a commitment to justice, prudence, courage, temperance, love, and compassion.  We can assess their willingness to dismantle stereotypes.  We can compare their capacity for civil dialogue, to build productive conversation with a goal of understanding and problem solving.  We can determine if they promote and engage in insulting, contemptuous, or scornful speech.  We can look for evidence of mercy, wisdom, obstinance or jealousy. 

            As we seek insights into the character, virtue, and leadership qualities when looking at candidates for public offices utilizing the sources above, we might consider any of the following questions.  Is the candidate focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak, the vulnerable, and marginalized?  Do they demonstrate a track record and willingness to work with others for the civic good rather than partisan politics?  Will they help us live with hope, engagement, and from our best selves, rather than from fear, hatred, and our worse selves?   Since no candidate will match the breadth of Catholic commitments, beliefs, and values, how big is the gap between what they profess, advocate for, and how they live or govern?  Since elected officials have responsibility for all people not just their supporters, do candidates show a capacity to engage with, think and care about constituents who might (or did) not vote for them?  Does the candidate have the personal qualities that helps them collaborate with other branches of government and draw upon various experts needed to make good, sound policy decisions?   

            Answering these or other questions about character, virtue, demeanor, and working style can help us evaluate the tone and leadership approach our potential leaders (whether President, Senator, Representative, Governor, etc.) will bring into their office.  The people we elect shape the atmosphere for public interactions, how we listen, respond, disagree, and come to decisions for addressing so many concerns facing the country right now.  May we discern well.


  1. The non-partisan League of Women Voters education fund website provides links to your states voting requirements, voting dates, issues on the ballots and more.
  2. USCCB Prayer for discernment before an election and Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship
  3. Theologian and priest James Keenan’s piece on “Preaching on the Election?  Mercy is where we start; the common good is what we aim for” (National Catholic Reporter, Sept 9, 2020) 
  4. Patrick Carolan’s opinion piece “Character Counts for Catholic Voters” (National Catholic Reporter, September 23, 2020).