I Was Right for the Wrong Reason

It would be both dishonest and absurdly ironic (since my October 17 article in Crisis was about intellectual integrity) if I were to fail to point out and correct a rather serious oversight that it contained. I stated that the Church teaches that to vote for a candidate who supports abortion is to be complicit in grave and intrinsic evil. This is not unqualifiedly so.

The document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship put out by the USCCB states:

A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Then-Cardinal Ratzinger stated, in a letter which may be found on the website of Priests for Life:

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 statement might seem like an opening for a justification of voting for Obama, but it is not. I bring it up, not to confuse the issue, but to clarify it. It is extremely important to understand this teaching, and that for three reasons. Firstly (and fundamentally) because truth matters. Secondly, because it is this very point which is used as a loophole by sophists to “justify” voting for Obama, and it is never wise to overlook the stratagems of the opposition—rather, one ought to expose them. Thirdly, it is important because the logical conclusion of my inaccurate premise might very well lead one to the misguided view that one may not ever vote for a politician who is not entirely in line with Church teaching on abortion.

I do not propose to defend my first point…since anyone who does not agree with it will have to contend that the opposite is true and that it matters…but I will address the next two briefly and in order.

It’s pretty easy to see how the sophists can use the perceived loophole contained in the statement quoted from Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. According to an article in the Detroit Free Press they’re already doing it. According to some Catholics, one may vote for a candidate who “backs abortion rights” (such as Barack Obama, maybe?) as long as one does not agree with the candidate’s stand, but for other grave reasons, such as concern for the poor. This is rather a subtle argument, but it is false. Here is why: Cardinal Ratzinger says in the quote above that the reasons must be “grave and proportionate.” (italics mine)  It is perfectly clear (and Cardinal-designate Burke has stated it in so many words) that “programs for the poor” are not proportionate to abortion. The crucial point—the one that it is absolutely imperative to understand—is that one is never permitted to choose the greater of two evils. This is the point that the Liberal Catholics’ smoothly sophistical argument slides right over.

One may well scratch one’s head and ask: “Well, all right then! What is the point of the qualification? Under what possible circumstances might it be permissible to vote for a candidate who fails to stand fully with the Church on the issue of abortion?” To quote once again from Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship:

Sometimes morally flawed laws already exist. In this situation, the process of framing legislation to protect life is subject to prudential judgment and “the art of the possible.” At times this process may restore justice only partially or gradually.

This brings me to my third point. Mitt Romney’s platform is not to oppose the current legal status of abortion in the cases of rape, incest, and life of the mother. We know that the Church makes no exception in condemning abortion in every case. Thus, Mitt Romney’s stand is not in line with Church teaching, and one might argue (from my inaccurate premise) that a Catholic cannot vote for him.

Since, however, what the Church actually teaches is that a Catholic must 1) not share the candidate’s stand on abortion; and 2) must have grave and proportionate reasons to vote for him, let us apply those standards to the question. A Catholic who does not hold that abortion is permissible in the cases of rape, incest, and life of the mother, may nevertheless vote for Mitt Romney for this grave and proportionate reason: the evil of unrestricted abortion, funded by taxpayer money (to say nothing of the other serious and intrinsic evils not only unopposed but actually vigorously pursued by our current president) is incomparably worse than the evil of merely being willing to allow abortion to remain legal in some cases. This is, of course, keeping in mind that there are only two candidates who have a chance of winning this election. We do not have a chance of electing a president who is opposed to abortion in every case. We do have a chance of making sure that president we get will work to restrict it.

This brings me to clarify one thing more: that while we are absolutely bound not to vote for the greater evil, we are not bound to vote for the lesser evil, but merely allowed to do so. It remains a matter of prudential judgment. When making a prudential judgment in an election, however, it is well to keep in mind that voting third-party, or abstaining from voting, may very well have the effect of allowing the worst man to win.

I hope that this serves to correct the error and clarify the issue. The bottom line is that, although I reached it by way of a faulty premise, the conclusion that a Catholic cannot in any way justify voting for Barack Obama remains absolutely firm.

Thank God that the truth does not depend on our faulty human reasoning.


  • Bernadette O'Brien

    Bernadette O’Brien writes from Western Kentucky’s farm country. She graduated from Thomas Aquinas College in 2009.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...