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A reader asks about the act of voting

12/07/2011 Comments (117)

A reader asks, very reasonably: “So, Mr. Shea, what is the solution? I want to vote prudently with my conscience as my guide. Yet still make my vote worthwhile, which at this time of the political season, it is. What now?”

I think the answer lies in thinking differently about what the act of voting is and what it does.  Tom Kreitzberg has wisely said that “The act of voting is the stone in the stone soup of political responsibility for Catholic citizens of democratic countries.”  I think this is basically true.  The real action in deciding what happens to the fate of a nation occurs not at the ballot box, but with political involvement (or lack thereof) by the citizenry at much lower grassroots (and non-political) levels of culture and family life.  That’s not to say voting is meaningless.  Far from it.  It is intensely meaningful.  But *what* it means is not primarily about how my puny vote will affect the outcome of an election involving millions of other people.  It is, rather, how my puny vote will change me.

Whenever I venture to say that I will not support a candidate who supports grave and intrinsic evil which, according to the Church, is worthy of the everlasting fires of hell, I can generally be assured that a certain percentage of people will feel as though I am sitting in judgment of their vote and telling them heaven and hell depends on whether they agree with my vote.  Let me therefore repeat that I neither say, imply, nor believe any such thing. I have no window for peering into other people’s souls and knowing why they do what they do. I agree completely with Cdl. Ratzinger, who wrote in 2004:

“A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”

Given that I agree with Cdl. Ratzinger completely and have repeatedly stated so, the question is: why would some folk assume I believe that “It’s my way or the highway” when voting for a candidate who advocates grave and intrinsic evil?  To answer that, I must note several paradoxical things about this letter.

First, it is typically quoted in order to buttress the reply, “It’s okay for me to vote for a conservative who advocates grave and intrinsic evil if I do so for proportionate reasons” That is absolutely true and I have never denied it. However, do please note that while it is applicable to situations involving a vote for a conservative candidate, that’s not what the letter actually has in view. What it has in view is, in fact, those people who vote for a candidate like Obama (who advocates the grave and intrinsic evil of abortion) for what they view as “proportionate reasons.” Essentially, Cdl. Ratzinger is saying that it is possible for somebody to vote for Obama (or whoever) if they are voting for him, not out of support for abortion and/or euthanasia, but for some other reason they, in conscience, think outweighs abortion or euthanasia or, perhaps, because they even think that other policies by such a politician will effectively reduce the need for abortion or euthanasia.  (I myself have trouble imagining such a rationale but it remains a fact that Cdl. Ratzinger is, at the end of the day, saying that just because somebody votes for a pro-abort/euthanasia pol does not mean they are, ipso facto, supporting abortion and euthanasia.)

Which leads to our second point. Namely, again and again I run into readers who confidently declare things like “Voting for Obama is a sin.” Full stop. Period. In other words, large numbers of conservative Catholics who appeal to Cdl. Ratzinger’s letter as a justification for their proportional reason for supporting a righty candidate who advocates grave and intrinsic evil flatly deny what Cdl. Ratzinger says when he addresses the question for which he wrote the letter: namely, that it is conceivable that somebody might actually vote for a lefty candidate without incurring sin—even a lefty candidate who supports abortion and euthanasia. In short, while Cdl. Ratzinger’s letter is actually intended to say, “Don’t support abortion and euthanasia, but don’t sit in judgment of others who may vote for a pro-abort/pro-euthanasia candidate since they might have what they feel to be proportional reasons,” it is instead routinely pressed into the cause of saying, “Proportional reasons for me, but not for thee.” This really is a species of judgmentalism since it claims to possess knowledge of the souls of millions of Catholic Obama voters we cannot possibly have.

Which brings me to my third point: namely, that while I agree completely with Cdl. Ratzinger’s letter, I also note that it in no way binds me to vote for any candidate who advocates grave and intrinsic evil, whether righty or lefty. It merely tells me that I cannot sit in judgment of somebody else who does so since I do not know their reasoning and therefore cannot say they are disobeying their conscience or the Church as they vote for somebody I would never vote for. That goes not only for those who vote for GOP candidates I cannot support, but for Obama voters, as well. Quite simply, following Cdl. Ratzinger’s guidance, I believe that unless somebody tells me “I voted for candidate X because I hope the grave and intrinsic evils he advocates remain the law of the land!” I have no way of knowing why they vote for him or what proportional reasons they have in mind when they support the guy. In other words, I extend to all voters, lefty and righty, the courtesy and charity Cdl. Ratzinger says they should be extended.

However, any conservative Catholic who categorically declares, “Every Catholic who voted for Obama sinned and is not fit to be called Catholic” is not merely ignoring Cdl. Ratzinger’s letter, he is directly contradicting it. It is not surprising, then, that in their refusal to extend charity to somebody who voted for Obama, such folk should naturally assume that I don’t extend it to them. Consequently, I am constantly informed by readers that I think they are going to hell or should be barred from the Eucharist because they don’t vote as I do. I believe the psychological term for this is “projection.”

Nonetheless, I do not make any such claim at all, for exactly the reasons Cdl. Ratzinger lays out in his letter. I will make very clear that I will never support a candidate who advocates grave evil. I will make clear why I will not. I will argue with other people’s attempts to persuade me that I should. But I don’t sit in judgment of people who, per Cdl. Ratzinger, vote for such candidates since I don’t know what proportional reasons they think they have that allow them to act in good conscience. I merely ask that they likewise don’t sit in judgment of me. I request that if I don’t vote like they do, folk would restrain themselves from dogmatically declaring that I “secretly support” Obama or abortion or euthanasia. I don’t. if I did, I would tell you since, as should be fairly obvious by now, I’m not shy about expressing my opinion. If I thought there was a proportional reason for voting for him or any pro-abort/euthanasia pol, I would tell you what that reason was. However, the fact is I don’t think there is such a reason, so I won’t be voting for Obama. So please: instead of “reading between the lines” about my secret love of abortion and euthanasia, just read the lines.

Which brings me to my reader’s question.  Note that the focus, like the focus of most such discussion, is on how to vote “prudently” (very wise) and how to vote so as to make it “worthwhile” (an interesting choice of word).  I’m all for prudent and worthwhile voting.  What I think needs much more consideration is what these terms mean for our lives as citizens.  These days almost nobody votes for a candidate.  We usually conceive of voting as voting against somebody.  So, for instance, people on both sides of the aisle fret that a vote for Candidate C is “really” a vote for hated Candidate A (if you are in the B party) or B (if you are in the A Party).  That’s why, when I repeatedly say I will not be voting for Obama, I am repeatedly told I am a liberal—a zealously pro-life, anti-gay “marriage”, anti-euthanasia, Magisterium-believin’, contraception-rejectin’, Pope Benedict enthusiastic, just war believin’, capitalism-practicin’ liberal—who “secretly” supports Obama. My vote for Candidate C, who does not support grave evil (assuming he is on the ballot in my state) is not “against” Obama enough, so it must really be “for” him.  In such a paradigm, the whole focus in on how one vote out of 50 million is impacting the election, not about how it is impacting the persons doing the act of voting.  Consequently, what people mean about making their vote worthwhile is “How can I vote to maximize my impact on the election so that the political system does the least damage and elects the least terrible candidate?  How can I vote against Candidate A most effectively, since nobody is really voting *for* anybody.”

I am coming to believe we need to see the act of voting in a very different way and it has everything to do with how I vote the way I vote.  Here’s the real reason I don’t vote for any candidate who asks me to support grave intrinsic evil as policy: I regard my vote in a gigantic national election the way Jesus regarded the widow’s mite. The tiny copper coins the widow put in the Temple treasury did not affect the economic life of Israel anymore than a grain of sand creates a desert or a raindrop an ocean. Had she not put in the two copper coins, the Temple treasury would have hummed along just fine. But had she given the two copper coins to a pagan cult or fortune teller and not to God, it would have made a huge difference to her. She would have missed the chance to do right by God with the little she had and become a saint.

In the same way, the great overlooked issue in elections is that the way we vote (particularly in vast national elections) has infinitely more impact on ourselves than it does on the fate of the nation. Suppose the widow had taken her tiny copper coin and given it, not to God, but to a fortune teller. Somebody might say, “Well, it’s only only two worthless little coins, so no harm done.” But Jesus wouldn’t.  It was all she had to live on, and if she gave it, not to God but to an idol, magician, fraud or quack, it would have done her soul grave harm, just as her actual gift to God, tiny as it was, did her soul great good. If I say, “I know this person means to do grave and intrinsic evil worthy of the fires of hell, but I will take my tiny copper coin of a vote and help that evil be done as far as it lies within my power to do it” I think I’m robbing God of the only thing I have to give him: my puny penny of cooperation with him. My vote will not affect the outcome of the election. But it will affect me and change me either into somebody who does or does not say yes to grave and intrinsic evil. Make that choice enough—and in enough souls—and the destiny of a nation is determined. I think the experiment of subsuming my conscience to the demands of elites who do not care about God or man (judging from their bipartisan advocacy of grave evils worthy of hellfire) has helped get us, over time, to the pass in which we now find ourselves: stuck with a political system that routinely holds us hostage and tries to compel us to assent to grave evil in the interest of the perpetually-out-of-reach “greater good”.  I think my willingness to cooperate with advocates of grave evil has also helped to create a religious culture in which, astonishingly, not a few Catholics routinely tell me that desiring to avoid hell and attain heaven is contemptible perfectionism and not bare minimum human decency. I think the only way back from this is for me to resist the call to support things the Church says are hellworthy for the sake of political success and to seek rather, to tame the tool of politics to the limits God places on human acts: among them, rejection of grave intrinsic evil.  That, I believe, is a truly prudent and worthwhile use of my vote. 

I repeat: I make no judgment about how others vote, per Cdl. Ratzinger’s letter. Though I myself cannot see a proportional reason for supporting candidates who endorse grave intrinsic evils, I can certainly imagine that others can, as Cdl. Ratzinger charitably does. I simply request that others not keep making the foolish charge that voting in accord with the bare minimum standard of human decency that seeks to avoid the fires of hell is “perfectionism” or, sillier still, a secret love of the grave evils of abortion and euthanasia. 

So: in brief, my answer to my reader is “Think different about voting.”  For my part, that means only considering for high office candidates who don’t advocate grave evil.  That’s not perfectionism.  It’s not sanctity.  That’s setting the bar as low as humanly possible.  After that, other considerations come in as well.  But it’s a start.  If all voters did that, it would radically change our politics, because it would radically change what the electorate is willing to tolerate.  But it’s not my business to sit in judgment of other voters and their proportional rationales for supporting less than ideal candidates, as Cdl. Ratzinger wisely says.  It is my business to see to it that I reject the support of grave intrinsic evil—as Cdl. Ratzinger also says to do.  Given that this means that I cannot find proportional reasons that could justify a vote for somebody who supports grave evil, I am bound in conscience to vote for somebody who does not, or to refrain from voting for that ballot item.  I am also bound in conscience not to sit in judgement of others who vote differently.

Filed under voting is a moral act

About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.