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.
A reader writes:
Could you please write something about voting for non-prolife candidates? I'd like to tattoo Bernie Sanders somewhere on me, but first I need to know catholic teaching on this. What is church teaching here? I feel like abortion aside, someone like Sanders is more pro-catholic teaching than any "pro-life" Republicans. I shouldn't put quotes over pro-life. I'm sure some are. Nevertheless, is it ok to vote for Sanders and if so, how does one justify voting for a pro choice candidate? Just thought it would be a great and much needed article
Fulfilling a long-standing death wish, I agree with you that this is an interesting question and will make an interesting article guaranteed to stir passionate debate. However, I also have to point out that the first thing to know about Church teaching on such matters is that, if I do my job well here, you will discover that the Church has no teaching per se about whether or not you should vote for Bernie Sanders or anybody else (though it does urge you to vote). The Church's intellectual and moral tradition on such questions is not geared toward telling you what to think, but how to think: how to navigate the varying prudential decisions that must be made in order to cast a vote with a reasonably quiet conscience. And that means different Catholics will arrive at different conclusions in good faith.
I know. I know. "Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both 'No' and 'Yes'." Still and all, that's what we're looking at here. With God's blessing, we can take a step toward thinking with the mind of Christ in a world of complicated and competing goods. Or, with my incompetence, I can perhaps leave you paralyzed in moral confusion--which can itself inspire you to try to learn more (hint: start with the Catechism.
To begin with, let's start with full disclosure. As I made clear some five years ago, I will not be voting for either major party candidate but will be voting for Joe Schriner a Catholic with a consistent ethic of life, since I believe that, in a national election, the only thing my vote changes is not the outcome of the election, but me. Voting is, particularly in a national election, the stone in the stone soup of civic and social involvement. Of all the things you can do to help order the common good, voting is the least impactful on the outcome of the political process. But it is enormously and cumulatively impactful on the soul of the voter and, over the course of decades, can immunize the voter to compromise with evil on greater and greater issues as he seeks to support his party.
The result, in the case of the pro-life movement, has been the triumph of a political system in which nobody really votes for a candidate anymore. They merely vote against a candidate they detest more. Meanwhile, one party pretends to care about abolishing abortion (while its real energies are usually devoted to fighting the Church in favor of other evils it deeply supports) and the other party pretends to be afraid of abortion's abolition.
Here's the deal: Americans don't like abortion. And Americans have no intention of getting rid of it either. For their part, politicians are creatures driven by the task of vote-getting. And when a vote-seeker looks at the demographics he sees this: Only 20% of Americans (at best) think that abortion should be outlawed, just as only 25-30% believe in "abortion on demand without apology". The other 50-60% don't like abortion, don't want to think about it, and don't want to outlaw it. They wish that something or other could be done for a pregnant teen, don't want to do it themselves, and so sigh and resign themselves to letting them abort that kid because "who am I to tell her she's gotta face rejection by her boyfriend and parents, as well as lifelong poverty?". Like it or not, that's what 50-60% percent of our neighbors think and feel. And that's why Planned Parenthood can (dubiously) claim that 60% of Americans oppose a 20 week abortion ban and pro-lifers can similarly claim that 60% of Americans say abortion is morally wrong. Both are credible in their claims, because the American people are completely muddled about the question and believe both simultaneously. Like it or not, we prolifers who want abortion outlawed are a distinct (and it appears permanent) minority.
What this means for politicians is simple: find a way to harvest votes from the muddle. And the tried and true method for doing that with both parties is, every four years, to hiss darkly to their end of the ideological spectrum "If The Other Guy wins, your darkest fears will be realized. But if we win, then your wildest dreams will come true."
The result is that, on the Left, candidates (early in the election) try to scare their base (dominated by the 20% who are abortion zealots) with "Handmaid's Tale" visions of a theocratic fascist regime herding women into breeder camps. At the same time, these Lefty candidates promise a glorious future in which the right to abortion will never ever be questioned again. Then (later in the election) when the candidate needs to appeal to the mushy middle, all that gets dialed back to accommodate people with all the qualms. Want proof? Remember all the hysteria in 2008 about how Obama was going to sign the Freedom of Choice Act on his first day in office as he himself promised? Yeah. That was talk for the 20% on the far Left. And the moment he was elected, the Freedom of Choice Act was never heard from again. Why? Because politicians on the Left don't want to spook that 60% in the middle if they don't have to since they want their vote next time. Americans have an uneasy peace with Roe, they figure, so why rock the boat?
Meanwhile, on the Right the 20 out of 35 years in which the GOP has owned the White House (including periods in which they also owned the Congress as well) have not produced much indication of interest in overturning Roe either. Such GOP appointees as O'Connor, Souter, Kennedy, and John "Roe is settled law" Roberts, as well as the preposterous nomination of pro-abort Harriet Miers have consistently made clear that there is no serious interest in overturning Roe.
But there is great interest in harvesting votes at election time.
So, for instance, a Rand Paul will make a play for the ardent prolife base out at the other end of the bell curve by sponsoring a Life at Conception Act. But he will also allay the fears of the mushy middle by assuring them that, while he dislikes abortion as they do, he will also make "thousands of exceptions" so that abortion will still go on. Likewise, for decades, pro-lifers have been told that, this time for sure, a GOP win will mean that the Supreme Court will finally be peopled with prolife jurists who will overturn Roe. George Weigel resuscitates this hope again in a recent issue of First Things:
With a view to encouraging that, here are two suggestions for what Catholics in America might ponder before November 8.
(1) The most important numbers to keep in mind between now and Election Day are “78,” “80,” and “83.” Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer will be 78 by November 8; Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy will be 80 by then, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be 83. If the actuarial tables mean anything, those numbers suggest that the next President of the United States is likely to get two, perhaps three, and just possibly four, nominations to the Court.
The thing is, nothing really happens and very little changes, even when the GOP owns the White House and both houses of Congress. But a significant and useful constituency has the carrot of prolife rhetoric dangled in front of it, as well as a stick which, when applied, makes clear to prolifers that if they expect some quid they better cough up the pro quo. So support on everything from unjust wars to torture to tax plans to hostility to refugees to maintaining the death penalty to a host of other things having nothing to do, or in obvious and direct conflict with, the Church's prolife teaching magically becomes part of the "prolife agenda" and prolife people find themselves working harder and harder for the GOP while getting more and more distracted from the original simple goal of ending abortion. Still and all they tell themselves hopefully, "As long as you vote for the lesser of two evils, you are A OK."
But this year, of all years, that hope is profoundly challenged by the ascendancy of Donald Trump. In 2012, many and many a reader told me that, rather than vote for a third party candidate, I was "morally bound" to vote for the "lesser of two evils" and for a candidate who "had a hope of winning". In English, this meant "Vote for Romney or God will judge you responsible for the death of the unborn." One even likened my refusal to do so in the last election with (incredibly) the sin of Onan. (There was, of course, never any consideration of the possibility of voting for a candidate who does not intend to do evil but instead aimed to do good.)
Now here's the problem for a constituency that has, for decades, been catechized to believe "Vote the lesser of two evils or the baby gets it": on the question of abortion, there is essentially no difference between Trump and Sanders.
Oh sure, Trump has professed a prolife "conversion" about ten seconds ago, in order to get the prolife electorate to vote for him, but it is transparently fake, and anybody can see that from the fact that after his "conversion" he was trumpeting abroad how "phenomenal" his ardently pro-abortion sister would be as a Supreme Court judge, as well as making excuses for (but not apologizing for) taking vengeance on his infant nephew with cerebral palsy (cutting off payments for his medical care) in a spat over Daddy's money. His non-apology: "I was angry [at the boy's parents that] they sued." More recently, we have seen Trump simultaneously pander to a gullible prolife organ about Roe while simultaneously defending the funding of Planned Parenthood. All of which is to say we have absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe he has really rejected a word of this:
If this sounds familiar, it's because it is identical to Clinton's famous formula of wanting abortion "safe, legal, and rare"--which is pretty much standard boilerplate for the whole Democratic party--including Bernie Sanders.
So should the GOP go completely insane and nominate Trump, anybody who says we must vote for the lesser of two evils will have to select some evil other than abortion to make a comparison with Democrats. And if the metric is still the preservation of human life then somebody who seriously cares about being prolife will have to reckon with the fact that Trump, in addition to being every bit as pro-abortion as Sanders, also favors committing war crimes. He has called, for instance, for the deliberate cold-blooded targeted murder of innocent women and children in war:
"The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don't kid yourself. When they say they don't care about their lives, you have to take out their families," Trump said.
The term for this, both in Catholic moral theology and in US law, is "murder". If you excuse such murder on the basis that the ends justify the means, congratulations: you have just joined the ranks of those who say exactly the same thing about the killing of innocent unborn human beings.
Relatedly, Trump has called for the resumption of the grave sin of torture, and without even the lying excuse typically offered by partisans of this evil, that it "keeps us safe" by giving us valuable intelligence. On the contrary, he says, "Even if it doesn't work, they deserve it anyway." (Dilawar, an innocent cab driver who was beaten to death by the US, and Gul Rahman, an innocent man who was frozen to death by the US, could not be reached for comment.)
And for a topper, his spokeswoman has asked what the point is of having a nuclear triad if we are not willing to use it, as well as making repeated anti-Catholic remarks, even as Trump has suggested that Muslims should have their first amendment rights revoked (something Catholics in a country with a rich legacy of anti-Catholicism should ponder long and hard before cheering).
What those committed to "lesser of two evils" thinking will do given such a choice, I don't know. As for me, I'm voting for Joe Schriner. Meantime, we should all ponder how it has come to pass that, after 35 years of faithful service to the Republican party, prolife Christians are already being told (and lamely trying to tell themselves in some cases) that a pro-partial-birth abortion, quadruply-married strip club owner who says that he has never seen any need to ask God for forgiveness and whose mouth is a fountain or brutality, lies, arrogance and racism could somehow be somebody they "must" support. How did we get here? And how do we avoid being dragged any further away from our goal of saving children by this repeated and now spectacular Mission Creep that afflicts us each and every election cycle?