Is There a Lesser of Two Evils?

(photo: wikipedia)

A persistent question arises every election cycle among Catholics: Is it ever justified to vote for the lesser of two evils, that is, for a candidate who does not hold the Church’s teaching on abortion, but whose position is less extreme than another candidate’s?

Catholics who desire to remain faithful to Church teaching, and thus to God, naturally do not want to vote for anyone who favors abortion in any circumstance or who holds other positions not in agreement with the Church on what Pope Benedict XVI has called the non-negotiable issues — human life, marriage and family, religious liberty.

The controversial, but authentic, answer is: Yes, you may so vote.

Understandably, this needs explanation.

Confusion first arises from the common name used for the moral principle at play: the lesser of two evils. This often-used name suggests something true: that in voting for the candidate with the less extreme position there is clearly the appearance of voting for the evil that he or she would allow.

This correctly captures what is the first, most immediate and correct conclusion of the conscience of the Catholic voter: I may not vote to support an intrinsic evil in any measure.


Complex Moral Act

The lesser-of-two-evils name does not, however, accurately reflect what the voter does in making such a voting choice. We can see this by looking at Catholic teaching about the elements of every morally good act (Catechism 1750-1761): the object (what is done), the intention (why it is done) and the circumstances (the when, where, how it is done).

The first of these is the object of the will: To what is the will directed in the choice being made? This object must always be good or the act is immoral at its root. What would be the object in voting for an imperfect candidate? It would be to limit the evil that a more extreme candidate would do.

St. Thomas Aquinas enunciated this principle in the Summa Theologiae, where he noted that the object of the will’s choice is the possible good, not the impossible good (ST I-II q13, a5). Applying this principle, Blessed Pope John Paul II taught in Evangelium Vitae (73) that it is legitimate for a legislator to vote for a more restrictive law regarding abortion over a less restrictive law. He wrote: "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, in order to prevent worse legislation from being adopted."

This was not a new teaching by John Paul or applicable solely to legislators, but the application of long-standing principles of moral theology.

Concerning democratic voting, the Jesuit moralist Father Henry Davis wrote in the 1930s, "It is sinful to vote for the enemies of religion or liberty, except to exclude a worse candidate, or unless compelled by fear of great personal harm, relatively greater than the public harm at stake."

This brings us to the second and third elements, the intention and the circumstances.

If the object of the act is to limit the evil that would occur if the worse candidate, or legislation, succeeded, then the intention must be predominately directed to that object. It should not be primarily to lesser purposes, such as keeping a party in power, aiding this group or that or to some personal advantage derived from policy choices. When so much attention is focused on the economy, as important as it is, authentic concern for the common good begins with defending the non-negotiable values upon which a morally, politically and economically healthy society depends.


Circumstances Matter

Finally, the circumstances can also determine whether we can choose the lesser evil.

Father Davis affirmed this in noting that such a vote is justified, made morally possible, by the need to exclude a worse candidate — one whom he places among the "enemies of religion and liberty." Other theologians of the period speak of "enemies of morality."

Together, these categories are reminiscent of Pope Benedict XVI’s non-negotiables (human life, marriage and family, religious liberty).

This is likewise consistent with Blessed John Paul’s analysis of the legislator’s predicament. Circumstances can create a compelling reason to vote for the imperfect candidate, the so-called lesser of two evils.

In doing so, the Pope tells us, our "absolute personal opposition" to the evil the candidate does embrace must be known. In this way, our true motive is seen and the scandal of appearing to vote for evil is undermined.

It is therefore quite clear from the moral theology tradition and specific magisterial teaching that a Catholic may vote for a candidate who does not wholly embrace Catholic teaching on the non-negotiable issues.

This can be done:

in order to limit the evil that would result if a worse candidate on these issues were elected;

provided that this is predominately the intention of voting (other good but lesser motives may also be present); and

that the other candidate is indeed worse, and any scandal caused by the appearance of voting for evil is corrected, such as by explaining Catholic teaching and one’s full adherence to it.


Colin Donovan, STL, is vice president for theology at EWTN.

He can be heard on EWTN Radio’s

Open Line Fridays from 3-5pm.