We encourage all citizens, particularly Catholics, to embrace
their citizenship not merely as a duty and privilege, but as an
opportunity meaningfully to participate in building the culture of
life. Every voice matters in the public forum. Every vote counts.
Every act of responsible citizenship is an exercise of significant
individual power. We must exercise that power in ways that defend
human life, especially those of God's children who are unborn,
disabled or otherwise vulnerable. We get the public officials we
deserve. Their virtue–or lack thereof–is a judgment not only
on them, but on us. Because of this we urge our fellow citizens to
see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically
and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not
party affiliation or mere self-interest.
the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics 34,
National Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 1998]
Our Duty to Vote
With the development of popular government comes
the duty of citizens to participate in their own government for the
sake of the common good. Not to do so is to abandon the
political process to those who do not have the common good in mind.
Given the nature of democracies this inevitably leads to unjust laws
and an unjust society. These may come about anyway, but they should
not come about through the negligence of Christians, who would then
share in the guilt.
This duty is chiefly exercised by voting, through
which citizens elect their representatives and even determine by
referendum the laws which will govern them. The Catechism of the
Catholic Church states:
2239 It is the duty of citizens to contribute along
with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of
truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of
one's country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to
the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and
service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their
roles in the life of the political community.
2240 Submission to authority and co-responsibility for
the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to
exercise the right to vote, and to defend one's country [Rom
Pay to all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due,
revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is
due, honor to whom honor is due. [Christians] reside in their
own nations, but as resident aliens. They participate in all
things as citizens and endure all things as foreigners....
They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses
the laws.... So noble is the position to which God has
assigned them that they are not allowed to desert it. [Ad
Diognetum 5: 5, 10]
The Apostle exhorts us to offer prayers and thanksgiving for
kings and all who exercise authority, "that we may lead a
quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every
way." [1 Tim 2:2]
In their November 1998 pastoral letter Living
the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics the
Bishops of the United States speak of a false pluralism which
undermines the moral convictions of Catholics and their obligation
to be "leaven in society" through participation in
the democratic process.
- 25. Today, Catholics risk cooperating in a false
pluralism. Secular society will allow believers to have
whatever moral convictions they please - as long as they keep
them on the private preserves of their consciences, in their
homes and in their churches, and out of the public arena.
Democracy is not a substitute for morality. Its value stands -
or falls - with the values which it embodies and promotes. Only
tireless promotion of the truth about the human person can
infuse democracy with the right values. This is what Jesus
meant when he asked us to be a leaven in society. American
Catholics have long sought to assimilate into U.S. cultural
life. But in assimilating, we have too often been digested. We
have been changed by our culture too much, and we have
changed it not enough. If we are leaven, we must bring to our
culture the whole Gospel, which is a Gospel of life and joy.
That is our vocation as believers. And there is no better
place to start than promoting the beauty and sanctity of human
life. Those who would claim to promote the cause of life
through violence or the threat of violence contradict this
Gospel at its core.
Who We May Not Vote For
The question arises naturally, therefore, if among a slate of
candidates there are those for whom we may not vote, without
sinning gravely. Catholic moral theology recognizes, in the writings
of approved authors who faithfully represent the theological
tradition of the Church, sound guides for forming a Catholic
conscience. Two such authors are Fathers Heribert Jone, OFM Cap. and
Henry Davis, SJ. Speaking of the duty to vote and when it could be
sinful not to, Fr. Jone writes:
- 205. Voting is a civic duty which would seem to bind at least
under venial sin whenever a good candidate has an unworthy
opponent. It might even be a mortal sin if one's refusal to vote
would result in the election of an unworthy candidate. [Moral
Theology (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1929, 1955)]
Similarly, Fr. Davis writes,
- It is the duty of all citizens who have the right to vote,
to exercise that right when the common good of the State or
the good of religion and morals require their votes, and when
their voting is useful. It is sinful to vote for the enemies
of religion or liberty... [Moral and Pastoral Theology,
vol. 2, Chapter V, 4th Commandment, p. 90 (New
York: Sheed and Ward, 1935, 1959)]
Who, then, are the enemies of religion or liberty for whom it
would be sinful to vote? Reasonably, it would be those who attack
the most basic rights in a society, since all rights depend on those
which are logically or actually prior. Among the enumerated
inalienable rights recognized by the Declaration of Independence is
the right to life. The right to life is both logically and actually
prior to all other rights since liberty is meaningless to those who
have been unjustly killed. The protection of innocent human life is
thus the first obligation of society. This is why protection against
foreign enemies is the first duty of the federal government and
protection against domestic enemies (criminals) is the first
obligation of local government.
- They are also enemies of religion and liberty who attack the
most basic cell of society, marriage and family. A society that
doesn't foster the life-long commitment of a man and a woman to
each other and their children is self-destructing. Granting that
we have already reaped the fruit of easy divorce laws, the most
pernicious attacks against the family today are by those who
favor homosexual unions and the granting of marital status to
homosexual unions. It is also undermined by an unjust tax system
which penalizes marriage in favor of fornication.
What then of other important issues, such as social policy? If a
party or a candidate has a better vision from the perspective of
Catholic teaching, is it not possible to overlook his views on life
and marriage? First of all, most political policies represent a
multitude of choices, budgetary, practical, and as well as
principled. The two major parties approach these issues differently,
but it would be wrong to infer that one or the other is THE Catholic
position. However, when a policy touches a principle itself, as it
does in the abortion and homosexual debates, then a clear moral
choice exists, devoid of the policy debate of how we
accomplish the common good in a particular case. The common good can
never involve killing the unborn or the approval of homosexuality.
These issues touch directly on the most basic goods of all (life and
family) - and thus are of unique and paramount importance. It is not
possible, therefore, to claim an equal weight between a candidate's
position on these principles and policy positions on how to achieve
certain good ends. Sadly, many have inverted the priority of
principle over means. The Holy Father, speaking of the inversion of
priorities with respect to life, has stated,
- All this is causing a profound change in the way in which life and relationships between people are considered. The fact that legislation in many countries, perhaps even departing from basic principles of their Constitutions, has determined not to punish these practices against life, and even to make them altogether legal, is both a disturbing symptom and a significant cause of grave moral decline. Choices once unanimously considered criminal and rejected by the common moral sense are gradually becoming socially acceptable. ... The end result of this is tragic: not only is the fact of the destruction of so many human lives still to be born or in their final stage extremely grave and disturbing, but no less grave and disturbing is the fact that conscience itself, darkened as it were by such widespread conditioning, is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of human life.
[Gospel of Life 3]
To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law, means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others. This is the death of true freedom: "Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin"
(John 8:34). [Gospel of Life 20]
Those who are anti-life and anti-family manifest this darkening
of conscience, a darkening which makes their other political
decisions inherently untrustworthy. No Catholic can reasonable say
"this candidate is anti-life and anti-family, but his social
policies are in keeping with Catholic principles." Catholics
should look carefully to discover what in his policy views
manifests the same will to power over others manifested by his
anti-life principles. More than one tyrant in history has used
panem et circenses (bread and circuses) to mollify the masses. The mere
appearance of social justice is not the same as social justice,
which can only occur when everything in society is properly ordered,
beginning with the most basic realities - life and the family.
Who We Must Vote For
As noted by Fathers Jone and Davis, a Catholic can have an
obligation to vote so as to prevent an unworthy candidate, an enemy
of religion, liberty and morals, from coming into office.
- 205. Voting is a civic duty which would seem to bind at
least under venial sin whenever a good candidate has an
unworthy opponent. It might even be a mortal sin if one's
refusal to vote would result in the election of an unworthy
candidate. [Jone, Moral Theology (Dublin: Mercier
Press, 1929, 1955)]
Davis states it differently, but with the same implications, one
may even vote for an enemy of religion or liberty in order to
exclude an even greater enemy of religion, liberty and morals.
Indeed, one can be obliged to in certain circumstances.
- 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. [Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology,
vol. 2, p. 90 ]
Thus, both authors are suggesting the strong obligation (even
until the pain of mortal sin) to vote so as to exclude the electing
of the candidate who would injure religion, liberty and morals the
most. For such a purpose one may vote even for someone who is an
enemy of religion and liberty, as long as he is less of any enemy
than the candidate one is voting to preclude being elected.
The Holy Father enunciated this principle of the lesser evil with
respect to legislation, which while not obtaining the goals
which Catholic principles would demand, nonetheless, excludes even
worse legislation, or corrects, in part, legislation already in
force that is even more opposed to Catholic principles.
- A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative
vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at
limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive
law already passed or ready to be voted on. ... In a case like the one just mentioned, when 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.
[Gospel of Life 73]
This same principle has immediate bearing on choosing among
candidates, some or even all of whom may be anti-life and
anti-family. Voters should try to minimize the damage done to
society by the outcome of an election, even if that outcome is not wholly
satisfactory by Catholic principles.
Formal versus Material Cooperation in
- Voters are rightly concerned about the degree to which their
vote represents cooperation in the evil which a candidate
embraces. Obviously, voting for a candidate whose principles
exactly coincide with Catholic teaching would eliminate that worry.
However, that is a rare, if not non-existent, situation. Even
those who embrace Catholic principles may not always apply them
correctly. The fact is that most candidates will imperfectly embrace Catholic
principles and voting for ANY candidate contains many unknowns
about what that candidate believes and will do.
- The moral distinction between formal and material
cooperation allows Catholics to choose imperfect candidates as the means of limiting evil or preventing the election of a
worse candidate. The justification of doing that is described
above. Formal cooperation is that
degree of cooperation in which my will embraces the evil object
of another 's will. Thus, to vote for a candidate because
he favors abortion is formal cooperation in his evil political
acts. However, to vote for someone in order to limit a greater
evil, that is, to restrict in so far as possible the evil that
another candidate might do if elected, is to have a good purpose in voting.
The voter's will has as its object this limitation of evil and
not the evil which the imperfect politician might do in his less
than perfect adherence to Catholic moral principles. Such
cooperation is called material, and is permitted for a serious
reason, such as preventing the election of a worse candidate.
[cf. Gospel of Life 74]
Many Catholics are troubled by the idea of a
lesser of two evils or material cooperation with evil. They conclude
that they can only vote for a person whose position on the gravest
issues, such as abortion, coincides exactly with Catholic teaching.
To do otherwise is to betray their conscience and God.
Sometimes this view is based on ignorance of
Catholic teaching, a sincere doubt that it is morally permissible to
vote for someone who would allow abortion in some circumstances,
even if otherwise generally pro-life. It is also perhaps the
confusing expression "lesser of two evils," which suggests
the choice of evil. As I have explained above, the motive is really
the choice of a good, the limitation of evil by a worse
Sometimes this view is motivated by
scrupulosity - bad judgment on moral matters as to what is sin or
not sin. The resulting fear of moral complicity in the defective
pro-life position of a politician makes voting for him morally
impossible. This situation is different than ignorance, however, in
that the person simply can't get past the fear of sinning, even when
they know the truth.
However, I think it is most frequently
motivated by a sincere desire to elect someone whose views they
believe coincide best with Church teaching. This is certainly
praiseworthy. Yet, human judgments in order to be prudent must take
into account all the circumstances. Voting, like politics, involves
a practical judgment about how to achieve the desired ends - in this
case the end of abortion as soon as possible, the end of
partial-birth abortion immediately if possible, and other pro-life
political objectives. A conscience vote of this type could be
justified if the voter reasonably felt that it could achieve the
ends of voting. The question must be asked and answered, however,
whether it will bring about the opposite of the goal of voting (the
common good) through the election of the worst candidate. That, too,
is part of the prudential judgment. In the end every voter must
weigh all the factors and vote according to their well-informed conscience,
their knowledge of the candidates and the foreseeable consequences
of the election of each.
- Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL