Monday, January 18, 2016

"What's the Worst That Can Happen?" Reflections on Catholics and Voting in 2016


With the first primaries yet to be held, I’m seeing Catholics debating the worst case scenarios and what should be the best response if certain candidates get nominated. I try not to use this blog for discussion on the merits of candidates, so I don’t plan to discuss why I favor candidate X or deplore candidate Y. That kind of approach tends to turn a discussion into a partisan debate that obscures the Catholic teaching itself. Also, since some people come to this blog to seek an explanation of what the Church holds, I don’t want to give someone the impression that my personal views on what candidate is best/worst is Church teaching.

The reason I write this is that I am seeing three views thrown around where those who promote them give the impression that their view is the only one compatible with Catholic teaching. Now it is not wrong that people who sincerely seek to follow Church teaching reach different views on what is the best (or least odious) way to vote given the candidate choices. The problem that I see is that some of these arguments seem to overlook the consequences of their decision. What I hope this article will do is to encourage people to consider the consequences of their choice in seeking to make the best decision out of those available, by pointing out some of the pitfalls of each decision that one needs to consider.

The Proposed Options and Preliminary Considerations

As I see it, when we decide that none of the options are appealing, the options boil down to three:

  1. Vote for the candidate of one of the two major parties as the lesser evil
  2. Vote for a Third Party or independent candidate on grounds that neither candidate is a lesser evil
  3. Refusal to vote on the grounds that neither candidate is a lesser evil

It’s not a hopeful view of the slate of candidates in this Presidential election, and many Catholics are struggling to find the choice which they find least offensive to their sensibilities. That is legitimate in itself. After all if a person believes that they cannot in good conscience vote a certain way, they ought not to do what their conscience condemns. However, we are all obligated to form our consciences according to the teaching of the Church and we ought to determine whether what seems least offensive to our sensibilities is actually the proper way to think of it.

Voting for the Candidate of One of the Major Parties

Barring some incredibly bizarre occurrence, the next President of the United States will be either a Democrat or a Republican. Regardless of your opinion of our dualistic political system, enough people vote for one of the two parties to ensure that 2016 will be no different than any other election since 1860. It’s reality and we need to be aware of this fact when voting.

It’s more than that however. Some people are conditioned to think that their party is the only party to vote for and consider voting any other way to be a betrayal of what they stand for. That’s a bad way to think from a Catholic perspective. Partisan rhetoric aside, parties change over time. Certainly conditions in America have changed since the Democrat and Republican parties were originally formed. A party which supports something morally good in one era can abandon that good or embrace a separate evil in another. So to invoke a certain President from the past as the eternal symbol of the party is only accurate to the point that that President reflects the current values of the party.

In addition, we have a case where neither party fully embraces Catholic views. The current Democrats reject the Catholic position on many moral issues and the current Republicans reject the Catholic position on social justice. And when the parties do nominally agree with the Church position (Democrats on social justice, Republicans on morality), they often are either ineffectual in their support or propose solutions which are morally dubious at best.

The point of all this is neither of the major parties is “God’s party” where it reflects what we as Catholics hold to be good. Because of this, the Catholic has to consider what is the good that a party purports to stand for and what evils it supports. Do the evils one party favors outweigh the goods the party claims to stand for? Is the other party’s opposition going to be an obstacle to the evils the first party supports? Is one party’s lukewarm defense of good no different than the other party’s fervent promotion of evil?

To discern this, we need to look at the issues and contrast them with what the Church teaches on right and wrong. The Church teaches that some things are intrinsically evil—that is to say, there can be no circumstances or intention that can make that action good. In other cases, a thing can be morally good or neutral in nature, but is made evil by intention or circumstances. So, when a party supports something intrinsically evil, we need to be very careful before casting a vote in this direction. If we vote for the party in question because it supports that intrinsic evil, that is sinful. 

But what about if we deplore that evil? Can we vote for that party for other reasons? The answer is, it depends. As the future Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in 2004 in a memorandum:

[N.B. 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 favour 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.]

That’s not an invitation to vote as you please. The concept of material cooperation indicates that even when the person does not directly participate in an evil act, the more enabling a person’s action is, the greater the proportionate reason is required to justify such an act.

So, when a person insists that the party which supports intrinsic evils, the question to be answered is, "What reason do you see the party that supports an intrinsic evil as 'not being as bad; as the other party?” I’m not talking about personal preference here. The Catholic Church teaches us about morality, and the American bishops speak about specific conditions that we need to be aware of as voting Americans. If we take the perspective of that’s not ex cathedra, so I can ignore it, then we have missed the point. While we can be in disagreement on the best way to follow Church teaching, Church teaching in itself is not optional. For example, the Church makes very clear as to the importance in rejecting abortion:

Now the first and most immediate application of this teaching concerns a human law which disregards the fundamental right and source of all other rights which is the right to life, a right belonging to every individual. Consequently, laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual; they thus deny the equality of everyone before the law.


 John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae §72 (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1995).

So, when the Church condemns things as intrinsic evils that go against the fundamental rights as defined by the Church, and one party supports those intrinsic evils as “rights,” we have to ask ourselves, “Is the stand of the other party so evil that we must support this party’s stands as the lesser evil? Or are we just voting out of political preference and ignoring real moral issues?” Unfortunately, it’s a question few seem to ask. Instead, we cherry pick Church teaching to find the quote (often out of context) to justify what we were going to do anyway.

Ultimately, we have to be honest with ourselves, recognizing our sinful nature and considering the possibility that our support for one party might be based on our own selfishness and that we are ignoring the Church teaching on the issue. Unfortunately, self-deception is easy if we appoint ourselves the interpreter of what is and is not in keeping with Church teaching. When one starts (for example) using arguments that a candidate who is pro-abortion is really the most “pro-life candidate,” it is pretty clear that self-deception has come into play

Voting for the Third Party or Independent Candidate

Now nobody wants to be forced into an either-or situation where both choices are bad. So some people try to find a third option which says “None of the above.” When it comes to the elections, some try to find a third option. They usually do this because of a few different views. They believe in the candidate, or believe that they need to start supporting third parties to break the monopoly of the dualistic system we have, or they are so disgusted with the two main parties that they say “a plague on both your houses” and vote this way as a protest.

The thing to remember is that historically third parties don’t succeed in America with national office unless they address an important issue the main parties are ignoring. The Republican Party succeeded in becoming a major party because they were formed to address the issue of slavery in a way which neither of the major parties of the time (Democrat and Whig) were addressing. [1] Sure we have local and state races turn out this way, but this is rare.[2] 

What a third candidate tends to do historically is to divide the vote of one major party so that the other major party gets elected even though a majority of voters voted against him or her. The most drastic case of this happened in 2000 in Florida. George W. Bush carried the state with 537 votes. What people forget however is that if Ralph Nader had not run for President, the odds are good that those 97,000 votes would have gone to Al Gore, and we would not have had lawsuits over “Butterfly Ballots” and “Hanging Chads.” Other cases where a third party has played spoiler and divided the vote was H. Ross Perot in 1992 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. In both cases the third party divided the vote of one major party and resulted in the election of the other major party with less than 50% of the vote. [3]

So, the moral consideration necessary for the Catholic who feels offended by the two major parties is whether they truly feel that there is no real difference between the two. Their vote for a third candidate will take votes away from one of the two major parties…is the voter willing to accept that consequence?

I don’t ask this question with the intent of playing “Gotcha!” assuming there is only one right answer. Theoretically speaking, it is possible to have an election where both candidates are equally offensive to Catholic teaching and that great harm will be done regardless of who is elected. In such a case, a “protest vote” may be the only recourse a person has to avoid going against conscience and to demonstrate that not everybody approves of a policy.

But given the potential results (that we could be potentially assisting in giving the election to a morally offensive party), we have to be very certain that the evils supported by both parties are truly equivalent and not just a result of recognizing that only one party is morally offensive and the other party against one’s own preferences. Remember, we are talking about the impact of the elections on souls here. A government which actively enables evil is more harmful than one which is lukewarm about protecting good.

Refusal to Vote

Some go so far as to refuse to vote for any candidate at all, whether for a specific office or for that entire election. This tends to be a sort of political despair where one declares themselves to find no merit in any potential candidate or else feels their vote is meaningless (for example, a Democrat in a solidly “Red” state or a Republican in a solidly “Blue” State) or even apathy over the whole concept.

This is never an option to be taken lightly. In fact, the Church teaches that voting is a responsibility for which we have a moral obligation:

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: (2265)

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.

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.” (1900)


 Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 540–541.

To refuse to vote is to be passive in the face of seeking a greater good or rejecting a greater evil. If enough people who dislike the current system refuse to participate, the result is to ensure that the negative system will continue without hope of change. Effectively, the only time a refusal to vote is a reasonable response is when there is no real choice and participation seems to give legitimacy to something wrong:

(from Moon over Parador)

Making Proper Decisions and Avoiding False Rhetoric Used To Avoid The Discernment Process

We need to avoid using false rhetoric to justify a choice as praiseworthy when that choice is being done out of pragmatism, partisanship or apathy. Likewise, we must not misuse what the Church teaches about the moral issues of voting to camouflage the fact that we would vote that way anyway. The Christian faith binds us to follow Our Lord, even when it is difficult. Sometimes the choice is not clear-cut. There can be choices where there is no “good” candidate and we have to vote so as to block what we see as the most harmful option.

When these decisions have to be made, we have to consider what the Church teaches about evil, and what evils must be placed first in our discernment. If some grave evil is promoted by one party, it is only tolerable to vote for that party if the other party holds to something even worse. The obvious example might be brought up concerning Weimar Germany facing the choices of one party supporting things contrary to the Church vs. the Nazi Party. The question is, do we really claim (outside of silly slogans by college students) that the choices in America have reached that level?

“What’s The Worst That Can Happen?"

I personally believe that we need to ask ourselves seriously what are the negative consequences of our vote that we can reasonably anticipate. Obviously we can’t anticipate something when the candidate lies about it and entirely conceals their intention. But when a candidate makes clear what they do stand for, we have to compare and contrast that with the teaching of the Church and the moral obligation to do good and avoid evil. We need to ask whether our vote will try to block the candidate or party which seeks to do what the Church calls evil or whether it will make it possible for the party which supports that which the Church condemns to come to power.

I want to make clear here that I’m not trying to force the reader to vote for a certain party or candidate. I simply want to point out that voting is a civic duty in the eyes of the Church and we need to cast our vote in such a way that good is promoted and evil hindered to the best of our ability. In some elections, voting for one of the two parties may be justified. At other times, both parties might be going against what God has commanded, requiring a third party or a refusal to vote.

But ultimately, we must make certain that our beliefs as Catholics are forming how we vote, not our political preferences. No party is 100% following the teaching of the Church. So there will be parts of the party platform which do not fit in with the moral teaching of the Church. So in such cases we must evaluate which sins are the worst in the eyes of God and His Church, and not feign ignorance over just how much the preferred candidate supports them.

In doing this evaluation, we seek the truth and strive to do what God calls us to do.



[1] I imagine that if both parties were to become officially pro-abortion, it is possible that we might see this situation occur again. Of course given our inertia to uncertain change or to go against a party one has sympathy for, it might not.

[2] Murkowski in 2010 and Lieberman in 2006 are examples, but these were both incumbents in cases of the voters disagreeing with the party nomination and reelecting them despite not receiving the nomination.

[3] Adding the Electoral College to our equation makes it more complicated of course. Bush, Clinton and Wilson all received the Electoral vote majority. The third party vote caused certain states to go the other way with the “winner take all” approach than they might have gone without a third candidate.

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