How Catholics Should Vote
INTRODUCTION (Nos. 1-4, 8) In the summer of 1982 I spent two months in Bavaria for the study of the German language as part of my graduate studies in canon law. I offered Mass daily in the parish church and got to know and respect very much the layman who cared for the sacristy of the church. Often we visited after Mass and discussed spiritual matters.
One day the sacristan opened his heart about the evils of Nazism. He was in his late teen years at the time of the rise of the Third Reich. The question which haunted him was how the people of his nation, how he, could have permitted such horrible evils to happen at all or to go on for so long. Some months ago, our conversation came to mind when another native of Germany who grew up during the Third Reich commented to me on the accusation made against a number of the Catholic bishops of Germany of the time of not having done enough to teach against the evils of Nazism.
These conversations, filled with much emotion, often return to my mind and lead me to reflect upon the responsibility which belongs to every citizen of a nation to safeguard and promote the common good. I think how much weightier the individual responsibility for the common good is in a democratic republic like our own nation in which we elect the officials of our government. As a bishop, I think of the tremendous responsibility which is mine to teach clearly the moral law to all the faithful so that, in turn, we all have a clear understanding of our civic responsibility for the common good.
As your archbishop, I write to you now regarding the fulfillment of our civic responsibility for the common good, especially by exercising our right and fulfilling our duty to vote in order to choose those representatives who will best serve the common good in government. …
Concerning the moral responsibility of voting, I, as the successor to the apostles in your midst, write to present the Church's teaching regarding our civic responsibility to promote the common good, above all by promoting the respect for the inviolable dignity of all human life. Through a clear understanding of the Church's teaching, we should all be better prepared to exercise our responsibility, in accord with the word of Christ, handed down to us faithfully in the Church. Our civic responsibility for the common good is great, especially in a society which fails to afford legal protection to the weakest and most defenseless. My responsibility, therefore, is likewise great to teach the moral law, in order to assist us in fulfilling our civic responsibility for the good of all.
Common Good and Human Life
The safeguarding of human life is understandably foundational to all other precepts of the natural law. The Church's teaching from her very first years has underlined the particular gravity of taking the life of another made in the image and likeness of God, except in the case of self-defense, that is, the legitimate defense of self or others (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, No. 52-55).
Within the considerations for the protection of human life, the protection of the life of the innocent and defenseless and of the weak and the burdened must have primacy of place. There can never be justification for directly and deliberately taking the life of those who indeed are “the least” (Matthew 25:45). Such an act is always evil in itself, intrinsically evil. Society, rather, is called to treasure its members who are weakest in the eyes of the world.
For that reason, our Holy Father reminds us that “[a]mong all the crimes which can be committed against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it particularly serious and deplorable” (Evangelium Vitae, No. 58a). In treating the evil of procured abortion, our Holy Father concludes:
“No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself and proclaimed by the Church” (Evangelium Vitae, No. 62d).
The Church's teaching on the intrinsic evil of procured abortion forbids the destruction of human beings from the moment of fertilization through every stage of their development. It is intrinsically evil to destroy human embryos even for some intended good. Our Holy Father, referring to the Church's perennial teaching on the respect for human life, reminds us:
“This evaluation of the morality of abortion is to be applied also to the recent forms of intervention on human embryos, which although carried out for purposes legitimate in themselves inevitably involve the killing of those embryos. This is the case with experimentation on embryos, which is becoming increasingly widespread in the field of biomedical research and is legally permitted in some countries. … [I]t must nonetheless be stated that the use of human embryos or fetuses as an object of experimentation constitutes a crime against their dignity as human beings who have a right to the same respect owed to a child once born, just as to every person” (Evangelium Vitae, No. 63a).
The Holy Father further reminds us that the solemn duty to protect human life extends also to “living human embryos and fetuses — sometimes specifically ‘produced’ for this purpose by in vitro fertilization — either to be used as ‘biological material’ or as providers of organs or tissue for transplants in the treatment of certain diseases” (Evangelium Vitae, No. 63b).
Another intrinsic moral evil which seemingly is growing in acceptability in our society is euthanasia, “an action or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering” (Catechism, No. 2277). Our thoroughly secularized society fails to understand the redemptive meaning of human suffering, while at the same time it views a human life burdened by advanced years, serious illness or special needs as unworthy and too burdensome to sustain. The secularist response contradicts totally the response of Christ — and the response of the Church throughout the Christian centuries — who treasures, above all, our brothers and sisters in most need and who is the sign of God's merciful love to them.
It is important to distinguish euthanasia from: 1) the legitimate decision “to forgo … medical procedures which no longer correspond to the real situation of the patient, either because they are by now disproportionate to any expected results or because they impose an excessive burden on the patient and his family”; and 2) the legitimate decision to use “various types of painkillers and sedatives for relieving the patient's pain when this involves risk of shortening life” (Evangelium Vitae, No. 65b-c). Euthanasia, however, as our Holy Father has confirmed, is a grave violation of the natural and divine law, “since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person” (Evangelium Vitae, No. 65d).
Another moral concern of our time touches both upon the inviolability of human life and upon the sanctity of marriage and the family, in which human life has its beginning and receives its first and most important education. The attempt to generate human life “without any connection with sexuality through ‘twin fission,’ cloning or parthenogenesis” is a grave violation of the moral law (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day,” Feb. 22, 1987, I, 6). Human cloning, for any reason, is “in opposition to the dignity both of human procreation and of the conjugal union” (says the same document), inasmuch as it reduces procreation to a species of manufacture and treats human life as a product of human artifice. So-called “reproductive cloning” is immoral on these grounds as is what is euphemistically referred to as “therapeutic cloning.” The latter also involves the actual destruction of cloned human beings.
Another moral concern touching upon marriage and the family, which is of particular urgency in our time, is the movement to recognize legally as a marriage a relationship between two persons of the same sex. Such legal recognition of a same-sex relationship undermines the truth about marriage revealed in the natural law and the Holy Scriptures, namely that it is an exclusive and lifelong union of one man and one woman, which of its very nature cooperates with God in the creation of new human life (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons,” July 31, 2003, Nos. 2-4). Likewise, the legal recognition of a homosexual relationship as marriage redounds to the grave harm of the individuals involved, for it sanctions and even encourages gravely immoral acts.
Among the many “social conditions” which the Catholic must take into account in voting, the above serious moral issues must be given the first consideration. The Catholic voter must seek, above every other consideration, to protect the common good by opposing these practices which attack its very foundations. Thus, in weighing all of the social conditions which pertain to the common good, we must safeguard before all else the good of human life and the good of marriage and the family.
Some Catholics have suggested that a candidate's position on the death penalty and war are as important as his or her position on procured abortion and same-sex “marriage.” This, however, is not true. Procured abortion and homosexual acts are intrinsically evil and as such can never be justified in any circumstance. Although war and capital punishment can rarely be justified, they are not intrinsically evil; neither practice includes the direct intention of killing innocent human beings. In some circumstances self-defense and defense of the nation are not only rights, but responsibilities.
Neither individuals nor governments can be denied the right of lawful defense in appropriate circumstances (Catechism, Nos. 2265 and 2309). While we must all work to eradicate the circumstances which could justify either practice, we must stop the killing of innocent unborn children and the practice of euthanasia, and safeguard marriage and the family now. One cannot justify a vote for a candidate who promotes intrinsically evil acts which erode the very foundation of the common good such as abortion and same-sex “marriage” by appealing to that same candidate's opposition to war or capital punishment.
Some Catholics too have suggested that a candidate's position on other issues involving human rights are as important as his or her position on the right to life. Our Holy Father Pope John Paul II has reminded us that, in order to defend all human rights, we must first defend the right to life:
“The inviolability of the person, which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture — is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination” (Pope John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, No. 38b).
In all of our considerations of candidates and their positions, the safeguarding of the inviolability of human life in all stages of development must be kept before our eyes.
Voting as Material and Formal Cooperation in another's sin
Beyond the Catholic voter's responsibility to vote for a worthy candidate, some particular cases can involve other very serious moral considerations. Candidates and their parties, at times, advocate social policies and programs which are themselves gravely immoral or they endorse laws which permit intrinsically evil actions which are gravely unjust. The question arises, then: Is a choice to vote for a candidate who actively promotes grave injustices always sinful?
Certainly, it is never right to vote for a candidate in order to promote the immoral practices he or she endorses and supports. In such a case, the voter, who assists the candidate in fulfilling his or her agenda by getting into office, intends the same evil endorsed and promoted by the candidate. According to Catholic moral teaching, assisting another to achieve evil in this fashion is called formal cooperation, which is never morally permissible.
The Church, however, also recognizes that it is sometimes impossible to avoid all cooperation with evil, as may well be true in selecting a candidate for public office. In certain circumstances, it is morally permissible for a Catholic to vote for a candidate who supports some immoral practices while opposing other immoral practices. Catholic moral teaching refers to actions of this sort as material cooperation, which is morally permissible when certain conditions are met. With respect to the question of voting, these conditions include the following: 1) there is no viable candidate who supports the moral law in its full integrity; 2) the voter opposes the immoral practices espoused by the candidate, and votes for the candidate only because of his or her promotion of morally good practices; and 3) the voter avoids giving scandal by telling anyone, who may know for whom he or she has voted, that he or she did so to advance the morally good practices the candidate supports, while remaining opposed to the immoral practices the candidate endorses and promotes.
But, there is no element of the common good, no morally good practice, that a candidate may promote and to which a voter may be dedicated, which could justify voting for a candidate who also endorses and supports the deliberate killing of the innocent, abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia, human cloning or the recognition of a same-sex relationship as legal marriage. These elements are so fundamental to the common good that they cannot be subordinated to any other cause, no matter how good.
When considering the deliberate killing of the innocent human being, it is helpful to remember the Golden Rule which applies in every moral decision: “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1789). In terms of the Golden Rule, we must ask ourselves whether it is fair to our unborn brothers and sisters to help put someone in office who will not lift a finger to save their lives because we favor that candidate's position on healthcare reform, education, the death penalty or some other issue. If we were in their stage of human development, would we want them to make such a decision regarding us? The question is not peculiarly Catholic but derives from the natural moral law.
Candidates Who Support Imperfect Legislation
A Catholic may vote for a candidate who, while he supports an evil action, also supports the limitation of the evil involved, if there is no better candidate. For example, a candidate may support procured abortion in a limited number of cases but be opposed to it otherwise. In such a case, the Catholic who recognizes the immorality of all procured abortions may rightly vote for this candidate over another, more unsuitable candidate in an effort to limit the circumstances in which procured abortions would be considered legal. Here the intention of the Catholic voter, unable to find a viable candidate who would stop the evil of procured abortion by making it illegal, is to reduce the number of abortions by limiting the circumstances in which it is legal. This is not a question of choosing the lesser evil, but of limiting all the evil one is able to limit at the time.
In Evangelium Vitae, our Holy Father provides an example regarding the voting of a Catholic legislator, which may be helpful, by analogy, in understanding the action of a Catholic voter. He writes about the legislator who votes for legislation which limits the moral evil of procured abortion, even though it does not eliminate it totally. The Holy Father observes:
[W]hen it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects (Evangelium Vitae, n. 73c).
Thus, a Catholic who is clear in his or her opposition to the moral evil of procured abortion could vote for a candidate who supports the limitation of the legality of procured abortion, even though the candidate does not oppose all use of procured abortion, if the other candidate(s) do not support the limitation of the evil of procured abortion. Of course, the end in view for the Catholic must always be the total conformity of the civil law with the moral law, that is, ultimately the total elimination of the evil of procured abortion.
In such cases, would it be better not to vote at all? While I respect very much the sentiments of those who are so discouraged with the failure of our public leaders to promote the common good that they have decided not to vote at all, I must point out that the Catholic who chooses not to vote at all, when there is a viable candidate who will advance the common good, although not perfectly, fails to fulfill his or her moral duty, at least, in the limitation of a grave evil in society.
Clearly, the moral questions surrounding voting are complex for Catholics, especially in our totally secularized society. The teaching of the Church regarding our civic responsibility for the common good must be our guide in making prudent decisions. Only by prayer and good counsel will a Catholic voter be able to make a prudent decision regarding what best serves the common good.
We, like the sacristan in Bavaria, must ask ourselves how it is possible that we have permitted a grave injustice to be perpetrated against an entire class of human beings by not legally protecting their lives. How is it possible that the grave evil of procured abortion has been legal in our nation for over 31 years, resulting in the deaths of over 40 million unborn children? How is it possible that so-called “mercy killing” is legal in some places in our nation? We must ask ourselves how it is possible that our nation may make the destruction of human embryos legal. We must ask ourselves how it is possible for our government to redefine the God-given gift of marriage in opposition to the moral law. We must ask ourselves how it is possible for our nation to consider the legalization of human cloning, which violates the dignity of human life and the sanctity of the marital union.
As Catholics informed by the perennial moral teaching of the Church we bear an especially heavy burden of responsibility for the attacks on human life and the family in our society. If all Catholics in our nation, both Catholic voters and Catholic government leaders, had joined those Catholics and others who upheld and continue to uphold the moral law, the grave evils which plague our society would be lessened and eventually eliminated. We cannot remain silent. We have a most serious obligation to bring the moral law to bear upon our life in society, so that the good of all will be served.
- October 24-30, 2004