Every election cycle, the debate arises…
“Candidate ‘A’ opposes abortion, but I disagree with his other positions. Candidate ‘B’ promotes access to and advocates a legal right to abortion, but I feel that he is more correct on the other issues of the day. Is it morally permissible for me to vote for Candidate ‘B’”?
The question is often framed within the background of the Church’s proclamation of the Consistent Ethic of Life. So let’s begin by summarizing what this teaching says.
“Adopting a consistent ethic of life, the Catholic Church promotes a broad spectrum of issues ‘seeking to protect human life and promote human dignity from the inception of life to its final moment.’ Opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care. Therefore, Catholics should eagerly involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized in all these areas. Therefore, Catholics should eagerly involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized in all these areas. Catholic public officials are obliged to address each of these issues as they seek to build consistent policies which promote respect for the human person at all stages of life. But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community. If we understand the human person as the “temple of the Holy Spirit” — the living house of God — then these latter issues fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house’s foundation. These directly and immediately violate the human person’s most fundamental right — the right to life. Neglect of these issues is the equivalent of building our house on sand. Such attacks cannot help but lull the social conscience in ways ultimately destructive of other human rights. As Pope John Paul II reminds us, the command never to kill establishes a minimum which we must respect and from which we must start out ‘in order to say yes over and over again, a yes which will gradually embrace the entire horizon of the good’” (Living the Gospel of Life, # 23 [emphasis in the original]; U.S. Bishops, 1998).
In our opposition to abortion, we are not excused from caring about other moral wrongs; we may not be indifferent to them. But, abortion and euthanasia are not two of many morally equivalent attacks on human dignity and life; these two direct attacks are preeminent moral threats against life; they are of a greater moral weight. Blessed John Paul II wrote about abortion:
“Among all the crimes which can be committed against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it particularly serious and deplorable. The Second Vatican Council defines abortion, together with infanticide, as an ‘unspeakable crime’… The moral gravity of procured abortion is apparent in all its truth if we recognize that we are dealing with murder and, in particular, when we consider the specific elements involved. The one eliminated is a human being at the very beginning of life. No one more absolutely innocent could be imagined. In no way could this human being ever be considered an aggressor, much less an unjust aggressor! He or she is weak, defenceless, even to the point of lacking that minimal form of defence consisting in the poignant power of a newborn baby’s cries and tears” (Gospel of Life, # 58; Encyclical of Pope John Paul II, 1995).
“Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops – who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine – I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium” (Gospel of Life, # 62 [emphasis added]; Encyclical of Pope John Paul II, 1995).
It should be noted that present medical technology in the area of embryonic stem cell research requires the direct killing of an innocent human life and is therefore unacceptable.
On another side note, it is sad and tragic to see Catholics and others of good will fail to recognize the need for a division of labor. Some are called to work in this field and others are called to work in other fields. Some are called to minister outside abortion mills while others are called to serve the impoverished, the hungry, the homeless or the disadvantaged. Some are called to work to raise awareness and education about abortion while others called to provide general education as missionaries. This is okay. We can and must work together, respecting the necessary division of labor, to promote human dignity. But, while none of us may be indifferent about any of these concerns for the human person, we must recognize abortion, euthanasia and infanticide as preeminent threats against life and thus more morally urgent.
So let’s now look at Candidate ‘A’. He opposes abortion, but in other areas, you do not agree with his policies for aiding the poor and marginalized. Perhaps you believe that more involvement is needed at the Federal level of government while Candidate ‘A’ believes that these concerns are better addressed at the State and Local level or the private sector. On the question of abortion, there is no judgment; abortion is always wrong, so that is always an objective test and there is no room for disagreement. Regarding the other concerns, each of you has arrived at a different solution using your prudential judgment and in these matters you can disagree. The same is true in the case of Candidate ‘B’.
So what is the solution?
Recently, Archbishop Chaput remarked when asked, in an interview with John Allen, about whether a Catholic can vote for a pro-abortion politician, “I can only speak in terms of my own personal views. I certainly can’t vote for somebody who’s either pro-choice or pro-abortion.”
Why is this?
“Man may never obey a law which is in itself, immoral and such is the case of a law which would admit in principle, the liceity of abortion. Nor can he take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law or vote for it. Moreover, he may not collaborate in its application” (Declaration on Procured Abortion, # 22; Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, 1974).
The politician who votes for or advocates for abortion is formally cooperating in an intrinsic evil. Those who vote for such politicians, while themselves opposing abortion, are cooperating remotely and materially. Is this remote, material cooperation permitted? Only if there exists a grave and proportionate reason to do so.
“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” (Cardinal Ratzinger, Memo to Cardinal McCarrick, 2004).
So what might be a proportionate reason? Remember, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia are preeminent and direct attacks against life. Other issues of our day do not rise to the same moral weight. Thus, reasons arising from the difference of opinion concerning the prudential judgment about addressing these other issues, based on what bishops, cardinals and popes have written, do not seem to be proportionate.
In the case of two candidates whose pro-life positions are not perfect, to vote for the candidate whose support for abortion is far more limited than his opponent’s is permissible. Are there any other examples? I am not formally trained in moral theology, but the only proportionate reason that I can imagine, would be other, greater direct attacks on the right to life of innocent human persons. I don’t see anything like that in the current landscape, therefore, like Archbishop Chaput, in my judgment I cannot vote for a pro-abortion politician.
Into the deep…
Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.
He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplains to the St. Peter Chanel Business Association and co-founder of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.
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