Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Can Catholics Vote for Pro-Abortion Politicians?

(Cross-posted from Vox Nova).

We seem to be skirting around this issue on the blog, so I would like to address it head on. On whether a Catholic can vote for a pro-abortion candidate (I will refrain from the "pro-choice" euphemism), a number of Catholic commentators say they cannot, and quite vociferously.

The most sophisticated reasoning on this front is laid out by the Catholic Answers voter's guide. In a nutshell, this group argues that there are five non-negotiable issues in current US political discourse: abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research, and human cloning. Catholics are told to "find out where each candidate stands on each of these issues. Eliminate from consideration any candidate who is wrong on any of the five issues. Vote for one of the remaining candidates." How were the issues chosen? Because "involve principles that never admit of exceptions and because they are currently being debated in U.S. politics". Priests for Life come to a similar conclusion, though focusing on the issue of abortion, stating unequivocally that "support for abortion is enough for us to decide not to vote for such a person." On the EWTN website, Fr Matthew Habiger of Human Life International also concludes that "to vote for such a candidate is to willfully participate in that candidate's choices and deeds..It is a sin, and must be repented."

First things first. The Catholic Answers guide, and the opinions of the others, do not speak for the Church teaching when it comes to voting. The only organization in the United States that can speak authoritatively on this issue is the USCCB, and it has issued its own (somewhat different) voter's guide. This careful document presents a broad spectrum of Catholic teaching and calls for Catholics to be "political but not partisan... principled but not ideological... clear but also civil... engaged but not used." Wise words.

The Catholic Answers guide is tragically flawed. For a start, why only five "non-negotiables"? They most certainly do not overlap with the broad array of acts recognized as intrinsically evil, which cannot be defended by appeal to intent or circumstance. It is possible to argue that attacks on the sanctity of human life are paramount, and should come first. In this light, the first four qualify. But gay marriage? A valid teaching, sure, but should it be on par with the core gospel of life issues, ahead of all other teachings? And why is there no mention of torture? As I discussed recently, torture is an intrinsically evil act, a non-negotiable; an attack on human dignity directly following genocide, abortion, euthanasia and suicide in Gaudium Et Spes; and currently condoned in prominent US political circles. But it warrants no mention in the voter guide. Why not?

The whole recourse to "non-negotiable positions" when it comes to voting can box a person in. If one believes in such positions at the ballot box, then how many are there? And how can a voter validly choose between one candidate who supports non-negotiable A (say, abortion) versus another who supports non-negotiable B (say, torture). As noted by one of my favorite Catholic bloggers, the iconoclastic Zippy:

"If there are in fact non-negotiables - and I think there probably are, though what makes voting for a candidate and his policy non-negotiably wrong is not yet clearly established - then voting in a way which chooses one non-negotiable over a different one is inherently proportionalist. What that implies is that modern democracy is a kind of lex orandi (or behavioral training ground) for the lex credendi of proportionalism."
In other words, it is not licit to choose the lesser of two evils, by arguing that abortion is far worse than torture. Adopting a rigid set of "non-negotiables" in the polling booth tends to lead to a proportionalist trap. Taking this reasoning to its logical conclusion, then Catholics should stay home on voting day. But this goes against the bishop's advice!

Fortunately, there is a way out, and it involves making a careful distinction between voting and actively supporting a non-negotiable policy. The crux of the argument is that voting for a candidate is not the same thing as voting for the act itself, and that a candidate's support for an intrinsically evil act is an expected but unintended consequence of voting for that person. In other words, a person is not voting for more or less abortion; there is no "on-off switch" that gives you abortion if you vote A and no abortion (or even less abortion) if you vote B.

Before going any further, let's look at what then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his famous letter to Cardinal McCarrick back in 2004:
"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."
This is key. Formal cooperation in evil mean that a person "freely participates in the action(s) of a principal agent, or shares in the agent’s intention". Clearly a voter's proximity to an intrinsically evil act is a lot less than a legislator's, and voting for such a candidate can be licit for proportionately serious reasons. More precisely, an act that may lead to foreseeable evil consequences can be permitted if the act in itself is not evil; the evil effect is not intended as a means or an end, and the good attained is proportionate to the evil arising from the act.*

Voting itself is not an evil act. And clearly, if you support the evil act when you vote, then all bets are off. But what if you are conscientiously opposed to abortion, when can you vote for a pro-abortion politician? Well, you would need to ask a number of questions. First, how much power will the politician have to affect the evil act? Second, would he or she be effective in bringing about the policy? Third, if the policy is enacted, would it be effective in achieving its ends? And after this, the relative gravity of the good and evil effects must be considered. Nothing here is certain, and the person must act in the realm of probability, which of course allows for prudential judgment.

And on the abortion issue, here are questions that must be addressed in the US political context:
  • Will the legislator be able to influence abortion? What if the office has no authority to address this issue (a local office, for example)? And even with national office, how much influence does an elected representative at the legislative or executive level have in affecting the legality of abortion, given that the "right" ultimately derives from the Supreme Court?
  • How much focus should there be on changing the composition of the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade? How can we be certain that judges will choose this path, and how do we weigh the potentially harmful decisions they may make in other areas? And even if Roe v. Wade is overturned, will the incidence of abortion truly diminish, or will it just shift to the state level?
  • Is criminalization of abortion sufficient? Evidence from elsewhere (Latin America in particular) points to a booming abortion industry even when it is not legal.
  • How much attention should be paid to the economic factors that affect the abortion decision, given that most women opting for abortion are economically disadvantaged, and (as I noted yesterday), there is a strong link between poverty and abortion. Will policies that focus on poverty, economic opportunity, and access to adequate health care and child care be more effective than coercion?
  • And what if the pro-life politician scores poorly on other policy issues, such as war and torture, especially if he or she makes barely a dent in the incidence of abortion?

Note that each of these questions entails an element of prudential judgment. Honest and serious Catholics who abhor abortion can come to different conclusions, and vote for candidates with vastly differing opinions on matter. The problem is when one side turns an issue that is non-negotiable in terms of moral licitness into a non-negotiable in terms of voting. It then risks aligning the Church with a single political party. Just look at the Catholic Answers list. As EJ Dionne noted, "The leaflet might as well have said that voting for President Bush was a non-negotiable position for Catholics". Its selectivity surely violates the USCCB's call to be "political but not partisan."

These principles are all basic to Catholic moral reasoning, and yet many today seem to have forgotten them. Back in the 1980s, moralists Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, and John Finnis argued that the nuclear deterrent was intrinsically evil given its intent to kill innocent civilians. But they never argued that Catholics should not be allowed to vote for candidates supporting the nuclear deterrent, for the reasons explained above. It's funny how those who take pride in their orthodoxy sometimes forget the basics.

[* For more detail, see Moral Theology for the Voting Booth and Voting and "Non-Negotiable" Issues by Christopher Decker, 2006.]


Anonymous said...

The day I hear the USCCB state that Catholics must vote Republican under pain of mortal sin, then I will refrain from voting altogether and pray for the future of my church. In the meantime I'll vote with a clear conscience for whomever I please just as I've always done.

Furthermore, I don't feel obligated to obey Karl Keating or any of the other self- appointed "interpreters" who place themselves above the Bishops. Who do they answer to for their arrogance?

Antonio Manetti said...

As long as we're correcting terminology, how about using the term "anti-abortion" in place of the "pro-life" euphemism and "pro-abortion rights" instead of the "pro-abortion" dysphemism.

Anonymous said...

You should also mention the DOCTRINAL NOTE on some questions regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life, issued in 2002 by the congregation for the doctrine of the faith

And the message of the pope to the euro-deputees
where he himself chose to highlight these three unnegotiable principles :
- protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death; - recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family - as a union between a man and a woman based on marriage - and its defence 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; - the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.

In the doctrinal note of 2002 those are cited among other unnegotiable principles, that we can put together in a wholesome protection of the human dignity and of the common good. Including thus the quest for peace, immigrant rights and the interdiction of torture (from Europe from which I wrote it seems awful that such a point could be debated - but the eugenism that we are today doing isn't better). But that the pope chose, in the situation of Occident today, to highlight the three points I cited, is significant. I think for USA we can drop the third for it isn't really threatened, is it ?

I would say in conclusion that those insisting on abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage or civil unions are in harmony with the thought of the pope - that can be argumented to add rational arguments (there's a difference between violating the human dignity in the symbolic level of laws and in scientific research, and not enough protecting poors - the impact is more permanent and deeper : Benedict XVI said : how can we imagine a society could protect itself from crime if it legalize it for unborns ?) to the one of authority -; but that doing that exclusively is undue.

The fact that such themes are given priority does not allow us to be blind on other aspects - but those are to be very, very unrespected by candidates who are OK on priority topics, to allow us to vote for their opponents (that's what we could call proportionnate reasons). And for me, practizing a bit of hermeneutic of the magisterian teaching, it seems evident that torture - I mean its REAL ban - must be put on nearly the same level that abortion, and certainly higher than gay marriage. It is clearly unnegotiable.

I would add, by personal experience, that nearly everyone in the world acting for REAL human dignity, does hugely fear for the victory of Democrats, for it would remove the only powerful opponent, in the UN and other international organisations, to the thorough planetary imposition of abortion, pansexualist teaching and so. You don't vote only for yourselves... Republicans are far from perfect but Democrats seem so sectarian and to have such a radical agenda... radical but which is the same as that of the big inhuman powers acting all over the world...

Christopher Decker said...

Thank you Morning's Minion for the citation to my papers critiquing the "non-negotiable" issue theory advanced by Keating et al. based on traditional Catholic moral theology (in particular, the Principle of Double Effect). If anyone would like to read the papers, please send me an email at

decker2003 said...

Thank you Morning's Minion for the citation to my papers critiquing the "non-negotiable" issue theory of voting advanced by Keating et al. based on traditional Catholic moral theology, in particular, the Principle of Double Effect.

If anyone would like to read my papers, please send me an email at

Matt said...

Republicans are far from perfect but Democrats seem so sectarian and to have such a radical agenda...

Anon: The sky in your world must be a very pretty color indeed. The agenda of the Republicans, as expressed in the actions of the Bush administration, would seem to be the very definition of "radical". Signing statements, warrantless wiretapping, torture, a this way/that way attitude towards habeas corpus, an unprovoked, agressive war, cronyism, "We're an Empire now"...this is all mainstream??

Anonymous said...

I concur and do agree but what are our alternatives in voting in so far as we vote effectively a corporatist and warmongering Republican Party is NO ALTERNATIVE, Evil in any guise is evil...Ted Bundy or Stalin,one poor woman or a million victims ...It seems a Cathlic is damned if he supports either party.