How Should a Catholic Vote After All?

August 12, 2017

We should be chary of trying to enlist God on behalf of our partisan politics. This used to be common sense. But nowadays not everyone is restrained by such reticence. In recent years it has become common to hear the assertion that Catholics are bound to vote for the most anti-abortion candidate available between the two major parties. I don’t say the most pro-life candidate available, because similar claims aren’t generally made about other forms of illegitimate killing.

Now that approach would make the voting decision for a Catholic a simple one if, in fact, it was a position with magisterial support. But it is not. And the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in its Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, reflects a more nuanced viewpoint when it says this:

“Two temptations in public life can distort the Church’s defense of human life and dignity:

“The first is a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity. The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.

“The second is the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity. The current and projected extent of environmental degradation has become a moral crisis especially because it poses a risk to humanity in the future and threatens the lives of poor and vulnerable human persons here and now. Racism and other unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, pornography, redefining civil marriage, compromising religious liberty, or an unjust immigration policy are all serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act. These are not optional concerns which can be dismissed. Catholics are urged to seriously consider Church teaching on these issues. Although choices about how best to respond to these and other compelling threats to human life and dignity are matters for principled debate and decision, this does not make them optional concerns or permit Catholics to dismiss or ignore Church teaching on these important issues. Clearly not every Catholic can be actively involved on each of these concerns, but we need to support one another as our community of faith defends human life and dignity wherever it is threatened. We are not factions, but one family of faith fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ.” (Secs. 27-29) [1]

While abortion is a grave and important social issue, it is not the only one Catholics are to consider. Indeed, it is not the only way in which human life can be unjustly taken. This is not to say that a Catholic is ever justified in supporting legalized abortion. Certainly no Catholic politician should ever do so. But the subject at hand is voting, and the question is whether the ordinary Catholic citizen is morally obligated to always vote for the candidate who is most opposed to legal abortion, or, at least, is in favor of its legality under the most restricted circumstances.

On the one hand we have to consider that abortion is truly a ghastly practice. While there are certainly actions that are as bad as abortion, it is difficult to conceive of anything worse. Infanticide, even under the rubric of a euphemism, is simply horrible. On the other hand, we should be cautious about demanding that people vote against the interests of their own families, especially if those people are poor, have disabled children, or are otherwise vulnerable. It is common nowadays to see that very demand being made, and that not generally by those who will suffer the consequences. It is a tall order to insist that a person vote for the candidate that favors the most restriction on abortion, when casting such a ballot could result in that person’s family losing its health insurance.

Here it will be objected that there is no comparison between someone losing his health insurance and an act of infanticide. That’s true, of course, unless someone losing his health insurance results in his death, which is a distinct possibility. In the United States, it seems that casting a ballot is often making a decision on who we should kill.

But there is an underlying premise to these considerations, and that is the assumption that voters are responsible for whatever actions are taken by the candidates they vote for. So, if one votes for a pro-abortion candidate, he is responsible for not taking action to save the lives of infants to be killed. Now if that is the proper way to look at the question, then the United States bishops wasted some ink putting together Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. A message on a three by five card telling us to vote for the most pro-life (as to abortion) candidate would have sufficed. Of course, that isn’t what they did. So with the recognition that the Catholic bishops know something about Catholic teaching, I am compelled to surmise that there is something wrong with the premise.

The truth is, if we are really responsible for the actions of the politicians we vote for, we are in an impossible quandary. That is because the Catechism tells us that one “may not do evil so that good may result from it.” (CCC, Sec. 1756) [2] But from a Catholic perspective, just about every American politician intends some evil nowadays. There are those who want legalized abortion, of course. Even worse, there are those who want government funding of it.

But there are American politicians who promote other kinds of evil. There are those who advocate pre-emptive war, even though the Just War Doctrine requires that war should only be resorted to as a defensive measure. (CCC, Secs. 2308-2309) [3] Many politicians oppose labor unions, even though the “Magisterium recognizes the fundamental role played by labour unions, whose existence is connected with the right to form associations or unions to defend the vital interests of workers employed in the various professions,” and that such “organizations, while pursuing their specific purpose with regard to the common good, are a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensable element of social life.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Sec. 305) [4] Many American politicians want to gut the social safety net, even though the Church teaches that concern “for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment, and social assistance.” (CCC, Sec. 2288) [5]

If we are implicated in the evil actions of politicians we vote for, then this is true for attacks on labor unions and the social safety net every bit as much as abortion. It is true for unjust wars the same as abortion. And it will not avail us to claim that these are lesser evils than abortion, because we may not do evil so that good may result from it. We may not cut a child’s food stamps with the intention of ending abortion.

What we are left with, then, if we are going to hold to the notion that we implicate ourselves in the evil acts of politicians we vote for, is that in most cases we shouldn’t vote at all. But there is a problem with that. The Catechism tells us that submission “to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory…to exercise the right to vote….” (CCC, Sec. 2240) [6] We can look for third party candidates, but these usually advocate some evil, and, in the American electoral system, a third party vote is really a protest vote, and tantamount to no vote at all. So it seems that the Church is commanding us to do something that will nearly always implicate us in evil.

But that can’t be a sensible interpretation of Catholic teaching, and it isn’t. The doctrine that we are implicated in the evil actions of the candidates we vote for must be a false doctrine, because God would not command us to do evil, nor would he order us into a situation where we had no choice but to commit evil.

There are criteria we should use in casting our ballots, however, and they are the same criteria we should use whenever we engage in actions with moral implications.

“The morality of human acts depends on:

“- the object chosen;

“- the end in view or the intention;

“- the circumstances of the action.

“The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the ‘sources,’ or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts.” (CCC, Sec. 1750) [7]

Now the “object chosen is a good toward which the will deliberately directs itself. It is the matter of a human act. The object chosen morally specifies the act of the will, insofar as reason recognizes and judges it to be or not to be in conformity with the true good. Objective norms of morality express the rational order of good and evil, attested to by conscience.” (CCC, Sec. 1751) In the act of voting, we are selecting candidates with the idea that they will do or not do certain things. As Catholics the act of voting must be directed toward something morally good. If we vote for a candidate because he will publicly fund abortion or bust up labor unions, we are not doing that. On the other hand, if we vote for a candidate because he will work to end abortion or support the right of workers to organize, we are directing our vote toward something objectively good.

Of course, intention is “an element essential to the moral evaluation of an action.” (CCC, Sec. 1752) For our actions to be moral ones we must not only do good, we must want to do good. If we vote for a pro-life candidate because we are hoping to reduce or end abortion, or if we vote for a pro-labor candidate because we want workers to be paid living wages, then our vote is a moral one. But if we vote for a pro-life candidate because he will make the exploitation of labor easier, or for a pro-labor candidate because he will support abortion with public funds, our vote is immoral.

At the same time, a “good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means.” (CCC, Sec. 1753) So voting for a pro-abortion candidate with the idea that abortion will improve the lot of children who are born, or voting for an anti-labor candidate in the hope that paying workers whatever employers deem appropriate will decrease unemployment, would be an immoral vote.

The circumstances surrounding our vote might mitigate whatever evil we are committing, but they can never provide exoneration. “Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil.” (CCC, Sec. 1754) But, of course, we seek to do good, rather than engage in actions that require mitigation.

Thus it appears that what is required of us as Catholics in casting our vote is that we intend some good that is, in fact, good. Candidates who are completely in line with Catholic social teaching are hard to come by. As individual voters our power is limited. All we can expect of ourselves, and all we should expect of other Catholics, is the intention to accomplish objective goods.

Unfortunately, political partisanship has overtaken the Body of Christ in the United States. Catholics are actually dividing along party lines. Let the foregoing be a sufficient indication that this particular brand of judgmentalism has no proper place among us. It should stop. Now.


Jack Quirk