Monday, March 28, 2016

Thoughts on Catholics and the Major Party vs. the Third Party Debate

Stephen before the council(How we think we look debating others)


I have encountered some hostility between Catholics who debate over whether to vote for a major party, third party, write in or not vote in the 2016 elections [†]. Since all of the candidates seem flawed in a major way in this election, I’m not going to attack their decision as sinful when it is obvious they are seeking to apply the Catholic teaching and their conscience [*] to what is a bad situation. But I do think some of the arguments given for voting their way are flawed and need to be rethought. Rethinking may cause some to change their minds and may cause some to develop better reasons for their positions. My hope is that my fellow Catholics will practice constant discernment of the issue between now and November so they might make the best choice as Catholics on how to vote.

The major dispute over choosing the major party vs. the third party is over who is the worse evil. Some insist there is absolutely a greater evil in the choice between the two major parties. Others claim they are both equally wrong. Those who hold there is a greater evil between the two choices point out that a third party vote is essentially a vote for the party they ordinarily oppose. Those who deny that one is worse than the other essentially say that they refuse to vote for a candidate they see as promoting evil, and since they think the two are the same, they will not vote for either one.

The acrimony over this debate involves the issues of intrinsic evil. The fact is, we have one party which openly champions things like abortion, the contraception mandate, and “same sex marriage” while the other party holds views on immigration, war and torture which are not compatible with the teaching of the Church. In other words, both parties are wrong about some serious things. The argument is over whether one is worse or both are equivalent. The person who holds one is worse than the other generally advocates one party. The person who says they are equivalent tend to support the third party option. 

The Major Party Consideration 

The question a person needs to ask before supporting a major party candidate is, “How does this candidate match up to the Catholic teaching, and are there any disqualifying factors?  The US bishops wrote:

42. As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate's position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter's support. Yet if a candidate's position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support.


USCCB, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, (2015)

So, we can’t support a candidate solely on one issue while ignoring their stands on other issues, but some positions do disqualify a candidate from our support. Those positions that disqualify a candidate cannot be weighed against other issues as if ten social issues outweighed abortion. As St. John Paul II wrote:

[38] The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fínds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.


 John Paul II, Christifideles Laici (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988).

The point is, we need to discern which candidate is more likely to work for (or at least less likely to work against) the defense of life. The argument that "candidate X may be pro-abortion, but his positions on other issues make him more ‘pro-life’” is not an argument a Catholic can make.

The Third Party Consideration

On the other hand, the question people who support the third party option need to ask themselves is whether they are giving full consideration to the issues or whether they have a personal repugnance for one of the options that prevents them from being objective. If it is the latter, a person needs to look beyond preference to evaluate the real issues. The reason I say that is because: the third party vote is not a vote free of consequence. About the only way we can have a third party candidate elected president is if America underwent a King Ralph situation, but the third party vote is still influential. Why? Because when a person who ordinarily votes for a major party chooses to vote for a third party, the party he ordinarily votes for gets less votes while the opposing party gets about the same number [§]. The result is often that the major party with voters who defect to a third party will wind up with fewer votes than the opposing major party, resulting in the opposing major party winning the election.

This actually happened in the 2000 elections. In Florida, George W. Bush was elected with a majority of 537 votes. Now regardless of what your views were on hanging chads and butterfly ballots and how the recounts were handled, there is one fact that made this possible—97,488 people who normally voted for the Democratic Party instead cast their vote for Ralph Nader and the Green Party. Given that the Green party is to the left of the Democratic party, few (if any) of those voters would have voted Republican. The vast majority would have probably voted for the Democratic party. If they had, Al Gore would have carried the state by slightly less than 97,000 votes and would have been President over George W. Bush [∑].

We Have to Consider the Ramifications of our Choices—Even if we Dislike the Options

That’s the kind of thing the Catholic opting for the third party vote needs to consider—are they willing to accept the election of the party they normally vote against and all the consequences of not preventing a party that goes against the right to life that goes along with that result? Ultimately, that is a decision of conscience. As Archbishop Chaput puts it:

The fact that no ideal or even normally acceptable candidate exists in an election does not absolve us from taking part in it. As Catholic citizens, we need to work for the greatest good. The purpose of cultivating a life of prayer, a relationship with Jesus Christ, and a love for the church is to grow as a Christian disciple— to become the kind of Catholic adult who can properly exercise conscience and good sense in exactly such circumstances. There isn’t one “right” answer here. Committed Catholics can make very different but equally valid choices: to vote for the major candidate who most closely fits the moral ideal, to vote for an acceptable third-party candidate who is unlikely to win, or to not vote at all. All of these choices can be legitimate. This is a matter for personal decision, not church policy.

Chaput, Charles J. (2008-08-12). Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (pp. 230-231). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

I agree with the Archbishop. If one makes their best effort to discern the truth about the candidates and issues, is informed about the teaching of the Church, and decides that following Church teaching and conscience means support for a major party or a third party vote, then I cannot tell them they are doing wrong. However, if one has not made their best effort to discern the truth and has not struggled over how to best follow Church teaching, such a person has not discerned deeply enough and needs to continue prayer and study over the issues. [ß]

Avoiding Rash Judgment In Debate

As we struggle to decide how to make the best decision in a morally troubling election, we need to avoid attacking and misrepresenting people who reach a different conclusion by following the Catholic teachings. I’ve seen some supporters of the third party option attack Catholics who support a major party of supporting the evil that party does. That is rash judgment. I’ve also seen Catholics who support the third party option attacked as being in favor of the opposing major party. That’s also rash judgment. So is making comparisons between a major party candidate and Hitler.

Nor can the supporter of the third party option belittle the concern over life issues that leads another to vote for a major party. For example, I’ve seen the Catholic voter who supports the third party option say they were not going along with the “Vote Republican or the fetus gets it” argument. That’s nothing more than the Appeal to Mockery fallacy that only ridicules an argument but does not actually refute it.

If a person seems to support a candidate or the third party option for the wrong reasons, then we need to speak up and refute those reasons with charity. But if the person has formed their decision based on the teachings of the Church, properly applied of course, then we must not attack their decision as one of supporting evil or accuse them of being faithless Catholics.


The point is, the Catholic has a responsibility to cast their vote wisely to pursue good and oppose evil. That wisdom requires the voter to consider all the issues (giving them their proper weight) and whether their information is actually correct. What I am concerned about is that people may lose sight of the issues Catholics need to consider, getting so wrapped up in the question of whether a candidate is angelic or scum, that they forget the moral issues that will exist the day after the election which the new president will act on.

I find it significant that the Church mentions the life issues by name. She has made clear that the Catholic cannot treat that as one issue among many, to be set aside at will by the voter in favor of other issues. So I’ll conclude by asking each voter (regardless of whether they choose a major party or the third party option) to consider this: Is a voting decision based on the moral teaching of the Church? Or based on personal preferences and dislikes? Have we properly understood the Church teaching? All of us have a moral obligation to evaluate our behavior honestly, knowing we will have to answer for our efforts before God.




[†] For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to lump third party, write in candidate and not voting all in under the heading “third party option” because the results are the same.

[*] Of course this article assumes that a person is intending to sort out the moral quandaries in choosing to vote in accord with the Church teaching. If a person intends to support a candidate regardless of what the Church teaches and merely cherry-picks the Church teachings to legitimize what they planned to do anyway, they do wrong.

[§] Recognizing there will be variants of course in numbers of voters.

[∑] I recall during the campaigning before the 2000 elections, Nader supporters said there was no real difference between Bush and Gore. I imagine they found out otherwise after the election was resolved.

[ß] I think what makes this so hard for is is the fact that when a person makes a choice we disagree with, we tend to automatically assume that choice is made contrary to Church teaching. Given that some Catholics do support immoral candidates or positions out of ignorance or from rejecting Church teaching, it is easy to leap to that conclusion. But we must not do this.

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