Proportionality and Voting: What Is Non-Negotiable?

Election 2016 Commentary

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Editor’s note: This column is from the Oct. 30 print edition.


Things can get a little more complicated, however, when considering a “pro-choice” candidate who has a seemingly Catholic-friendly basket of negotiable policy issues. Here is where two important words enter into the conversation: negotiable and non-negotiable.One of the questions that Catholic voters often ask is how to navigate the potentially treacherous waters of moral theology when it comes to voting. We are all obligated to form our consciences properly, and that is easy to employ when faced with a candidate who clearly promotes policies and ideas in direct contradiction to the most important teachings of our faith, such as abortion and the destruction of authentic marriage.

In an important letter to the U.S. bishops’ conference in July 2004, just before the presidential election that year, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the future Pope Benedict XVI, wrote: “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.”

What did he mean exactly? Was he perhaps suggesting — as some erroneously claimed — that a Catholic could vote for a pro-abortion candidate provided the voter does not embrace that position on abortion?

If read in a literalist fashion, it would seem to leave the judgment of proportion entirely to the individual conscience. That is not, however, the case. This is clear from his subsequent teachings regarding continuity.

Cardinal Ratzinger, the theologian who coined the term “the hermeneutic of continuity” to describe reading ecclesiastical texts within the unity of the Catholic Tradition, expected clergy and Catholic faithful alike to understand his comments in light of that tradition of continuity.

In the case of Catholic moral theology, that “common teaching” is clear. There is no proportionality between certain essential issues and policy issues. Cardinal Ratzinger alludes to this in the same letter, when he contrasts abortion and euthanasia on the one hand with the application of capital punishment or the decision to wage war on the other. Later, as Pope Benedict, he would speak of this qualitative difference between issues as non-negotiables and negotiables.

“As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable. Among these the following emerge clearly today: a) protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death; b) recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family as a union between a man and a woman based on marriage and its defense from attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different forms of union which in reality harm it and contribute to its destabilization, obscuring its particular character and its irreplaceable social role; c) the protection of the right of parents to educate their children” (“Address to European Parliamentary Group,” March 30, 2006).

Those issues which are non-negotiable, like protecting innocent human life, and those which are negotiable, because they involve multiple moral principles and complex social circumstances, are not directly comparable. Negotiables, such as health care, the economy and foreign policy, can admit of various possible means to achieve the objective of the policy, and so people of goodwill can reach differing conclusions on how to achieve the goal. The Pope and the moral tradition, however, while excluding the approval of evils contrary to the non-negotiables, teach that evil effects (abortion, etc.) may nonetheless be permitted as “remote material cooperation” and “in the presence of proportionate reasons.” What might the moral object of voting be in such a case? Two possible objects, constituting the reasons, suggest themselves: 1) for the good the candidate is committed to doing, or 2) to exclude an even worse candidate from being elected.

In the first case, the object brings us back to the question of the proportionality of the goods themselves. For example, abortion takes the life of the innocent in mind-boggling numbers, with which even the great moral tragedies of history do not compare. Does providing economic and other social benefits for hundreds of millions of people balance the toleration of more than 1 million deaths per year?

If we may not “negotiate” with others over innocent life, marriage and freedom, how do we negotiate with our own consciences to tolerate the taking of life, contempt for natural marriage and abuse of freedom in order to maintain or improve the material benefits which presume the possession of life? This is why the moral tradition proposes the second reason. Since we are obliged to vote to exclude an unworthy candidate, particularly an enemy of religion and freedom, the only proportionate reason for voting for a candidate who is unworthy is to exclude an even worse candidate, or candidates, particularly in matters touching religion and freedom.

This alone respects the immutable distinction between negotiables and non-negotiables, between those views which are a matter of opinion and those which are essential to human society, and this alone is a sufficient explanation of the cardinal’s use of proportionate reason, given his own hermeneutic of continuity. Prudentially, therefore, for a vote to have the morally good object of excluding the worse candidate, the judgment of conscience would have to include the foreseeable consequences of one’s vote in achieving or hindering that object, especially with respect to religion and freedom.

The Jewish tradition teaches that “every life is like a universe.” This idea encapsulates well the Catholic Tradition on the dignity of human life and the human person. This dignity is inseparable from freedom of religion, by which we know truth and are empowered to act in charity. The loss of respect for human life, dignity and freedom, therefore, in addition to being fatal to the weak and most innocent among us, will ultimately be fatal to family life and society itself.

Colin Donovan, STL,

is  vice president for

theology at EWTN.

Pope John XXIII arrives in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, on October 11, 1962 during the opening of the first session of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or Vatican II.

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