Can Catholics Vote for Pro-Abortion Candidates?

CHICAGO — Newspaper headlines about the Church have more impact than a nuanced theological note from a Vatican official. Just ask Mary-Louise Kurey.

Kurey is the Respect Life director for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Her office was flooded with phone calls after the publication of a column in which a well-known Chicago priest said Catholics could vote for the pro-abortion presidential candidate, John Kerry.

The priest — Father Andrew Greeley — said Catholics would not be committing a sin by such a vote. He based his statement on a pronouncement by the Vatican's top dogma point man, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Kurey said diocesan pro-life directors around the country are looking for clarification.

“Everybody's very confused,” she said. “People are saying, ‘This is a green light; we don't need to worry about the life issues.’”

Father Greeley's column first appeared in the July 16 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times. Under the headline “Catholics Can Vote for Kerry,” a similar version ran in the Aug. 10 issue of the New York Daily News.

Father Greeley, a sociologist and author, concluded that the note means that Catholics are “not obliged to vote on one issue, no matter how important that issue might be. They may vote for John Kerry ‘for other reasons’ so long as they are not supporting him merely for his pro-choice stance.'”

In addition, three bishops have made statements explicitly denouncing Father Greeley's opinion. Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore., called it “erroneous.” Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan noted that Father Greeley did not attempt to understand Cardinal Ratzinger's memo thoroughly.

And Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., said: “He seems to strongly indicate not only a tragic indifference to abortion, which the Second Vatican Council called ‘an abominable crime,’ but a shallowness of mind akin to a harlequin.”

All three made their comments to Catholic Online writer Barbara Kralis Aug. 20.

Earlier this summer, in advance of the U.S. bishops' meeting in Denver, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a private memorandum on the matter of Catholic politicians and Communion to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, chairman of a bishops' task force on the topic.

The six-point memo, “Worthiness to Receive Communion,” was published online July 3 by the Italian magazine L'Espresso and confirmed by a Vatican official as authentic. It stated that, if after receiving instruction and warning from his pastor, a Catholic politician continues to campaign and vote for permissive policies furthering the “grave sins of abortion and euthanasia,” he must be denied Holy Communion.

Then came this addendum, in regard to Catholic voters:

“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.”

Church statements — from the pope's 1995 encyclical to the U.S. bishops' documents “Living the Gospel of Life,” “Faithful Citizenship” and the recent “Catholics in Political Life” — are consistent in stressing the foundational issue of defending human life, Kurey said.

“It's important to read the Cardinal Ratzinger memo in its entire context,” she said. “He makes very clear the primacy of life and the serious consideration the life issues need to receive by people when Catholics are going to vote,” she said.

Cardinal Ratzinger's statement is nothing new, but simply applies a standard Catholic moral teaching to voting, explained Father Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life.

“It would be a mistake to interpret this teaching to mean that all issues are equal, and that a voter can choose a pro-abortion candidate because they don't like the pro-life candidate's position on capital punishment or war,” he said. “Cardinal Ratzinger, in the same letter, stated, ‘Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.’”

The key phrase in the cardinal's memo, which was written in English, is “proportionate reasons,” said Father Stephen Torraco, chairman of the theology department of Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. Father Torraco has written a pamphlet, published by Leaflet Missal, titled “A Brief Catechism for Catholic Voters.”

“When he says ‘proportionate reasons,’ what that means is that one may vote for a pro-abortion candidate if one is trying to avoid voting for a candidate who embraces an equally serious or graver evil. So if you're faced with two candidates, both of which embrace intrinsic evils, to the best of your judgment, you try to determine which of these candidates is going to do less evil,” he said.

“It's not as if the cardinal is saying that if you feel there are issues that are more important to you than abortion, then you can vote for the pro-abortion candidate. That is not what he means,” Father Torraco said. “The reason I can tell you what the cardinal means is that in Catholic moral teaching, the word ‘proportionate’ has a very, very specific meaning, and the cardinal would only use that word in a very authentic way.”

Double Effect

The word “proportionate” comes from the principle of double effect, Father Torraco said. The scenario is this: A person is in a dilemma in which he is forced to choose to act in a way that he would not normally act. The act in question must be good morally or at least neutral morally, and the person must not intend any foreseen evil consequence to his act. For such an act to be permitted, there must be proportionate reason, Father Torraco said.

Msgr. William Smith, professor of moral theology at St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., used the example of a fireman going to rescue an old woman on the third floor of a burning building.

The fireman is morally obliged to avoid deadly injury to himself, yet there is proportionate reason for him to risk his life to save the woman's life, he said. But, if the same woman wants the fireman to go to the fourth floor to grab the Kewpie doll she won in a guess-your-weight contest at the state fair, there is not proportionate reason, he said.

What, then, is a “proportionate reason” for voting for a candidate who supports permissive abortion laws?

“Abortion is categorically different than prescription drugs, for example,” said Father Thomas Euteneuer, president of Human Life International. “We're talking about a fundamental human right, which our Church and even Cardinal Ratzinger himself has made very clear. We are held to accountability for the issues that are intrinsically wrong and to not give any public credibility to them. When you have an issue of killing versus the issue of public policy, they are not proportional.”

Even the death penalty and pre-emptive war, also matters that involve human life, are not proportionate to abortion, the theologians said.

“You can argue the rightness of and wrongness of war, but there are no two sides on direct abortion or direct euthanasia or same-sex union,” Msgr. Smith said.

Father Torraco said issues proportionate to abortion would be euthanasia or the funding of stem-cell research that destroys human embryos. Msgr. Smith said it is a prudential question whether even those evils are proportionate to abortion, which takes the lives of more than 1 million Americans a year. There are far fewer embryos being killed for research purposes.

Msgr. Smith is reluctant to call a vote for Kerry sinful because the voter is so far removed, in terms of cooperation, from permissive abortion laws. It was, after all, the judiciary, not the president, that allowed abortion on demand, he said.

“Traditionally, we don't categorize voting as sinful,” he said. “It's hard to pin down — in what sense are you a cooperator? What's the causal nexus there?”

If there were a referendum on abortion, an individual's vote would have a greater moral implication, he said. But in the U.S. political system, a senator represents one vote in 100 — a representative, one in 435 — and those legislators vote on hundreds or thousands of bills, he said. The president has only the power to nominate judicial candidates, not determine their decisions, and to sign bills into law, not write them, Msgr. Smith said.

“It's much more a matter of political prudence,” he said. “In no sense would I vote for Kerry. You'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind to Catholic values to vote for him. You go right down the list, and every Catholic value, he's quoted as being against.”

Ellen Rossini writes from Richardson, Texas.