Sunday, August 14, 2016

Thoughts on Two Errors in Catholic Voting


One of the most troubling things about Catholics debating right and wrong is that sometimes that debate gets misdirected. Instead of looking at our calling as Christians, we look at what the Church says through the lens of political preferences. People tend to accept or reject the Church over whether the teaching seems to be in line with their political positions. People tend to confuse their political preferences with what the Church teaches, or misinterpret Church teaching to justify what they want but actually justify what the Church has no intention of supporting. The first is harmful to Christian charity. The second deceives people into supporting evil in the name of a "greater good."

I. Fighting over Legitimate Differences of Opinion

The first ugly problem I see is when Catholics confuse thinking about what the Church teaches with the way we prefer people should apply Church teaching. They are two different things. For example, look at what St. John XXIII wrote in 1963:

11. But first We must speak of man’s rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of illhealth; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.


 John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1963).

I suspect, while reading this, many started thinking about certain political parties and their platforms, praising one and condemning the other based on their preferences. What makes this dangerous is people are condemning others without cause, not because they reject the Church, but because they reject one proposed political solution. Yes, sometimes, political platforms embrace things the Church warns us are evil (we’ll get into that below). Then we have to oppose the platform, whether we work to reform it from inside the party or rejecting the party and walking away. In such a case we cannot excuse the immoral position, or evade our obligation to oppose it. When the Church says “X is intrinsically evil,” a party which calls the act good, or a right is at odds with living as a Christian, and we must oppose them.

But the Church does not endorse a specific political platform on how to carry out her teaching, and sometimes Catholics falsely accuse each other of rejecting Church teaching when it is more a case of one Catholic thinking the second Catholic’s preferred plan won’t work. We have to be honest with ourselves. We can’t cherry pick the Church teaching to find convenient phrases to justify what we want to do anyway. We have to be sincerely trying to seek out and follow Church teaching when we support legislation or candidates.

One Catholic may think that a particular political proposal will better promote social justice in America. A second may believe the harm it causes outweighs the good claimed. If both are sincere and have their conscience properly formed by the Church, neither sins for not favoring the approach of the other and it is unjust of accusing them of disobeying the Church.

II. Falsely Claiming a Right to Support A Candidate who Favors Evil in the Name of a Good

On the other side, we have to understand that conscience is not the same thing as feelings or opinions. Conscience tells us about what is right and wrong about an act. Our opinions and feelings can mislead us by sentiment, or an imperfect knowledge of the facts. A person may not feel that he does anything wrong. But conscience formed by the Church tells us something is a grave evil and we cannot treat it as a lesser concern just because we like the candidate’s other positions. A person who does not know that Church teaching must form conscience but sincerely seeks to do right might make a mistake in pursuing the good. The Catholic does not have that excuse. 

Since the Church made known to us we cannot use an evil means to cause good (see CCC #1789), we have an obligation to consider the action we want to use and the goal we want it to achieve. If will the evil in means or goal, we cannot use the action without sinning. If we don’t intend the evil, we have to assess if it outweighs the good intended. If the unintended evil outweighs the intended good, we cannot do the act without sinning. We cannot support an action that violates the rights of the human person—and the Church defines life as the fundamental human right—we can only tolerate it prevent a greater evil against that right to life. Our task is to limit the evil done if we can’t stop the evil outright:

4. The complex array of today’s problems branches out from here, including some never faced by past generations. Scientific progress has resulted in advances that are unsettling for the consciences of men and women and call for solutions that respect ethical principles in a coherent and fundamental way. At the same time, legislative proposals are put forward which, heedless of the consequences for the existence and future of human beings with regard to the formation of culture and social behaviour, attack the very inviolability of human life. Catholics, in this difficult situation, have the right and the duty to recall society to a deeper understanding of human life and to the responsibility of everyone in this regard. John Paul II, continuing the constant teaching of the Church, has reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a «grave and clear obligation to oppose» any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them. As John Paul II has taught in his Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae regarding the situation in which it is not possible to overturn or completely repeal a law allowing abortion which is already in force or coming up for a vote, «an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality»


 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2002).

This is a good rebuke of a popular misconception. Some Catholics believe they can vote for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil as a “right” on the grounds that his other policies will make fewer people want to avail themselves of that “right.” That reasoning is usually a post hoc fallacy that assumes the candidate’s other policies will cause the decline in abortion, and does not consider other possible reasons for the decline, such as the declining birth rate (many countries are now below replacement levels) and the success of pro-life laws. 

The problem is, even if these policies did make intrinsic evils less necessary do not change the fact that politicians think these intrinsic evils are good and want to defend them, which goes against what Christians need to do—make known to the world the need for salvation and how we need to live to follow Our Lord. Maybe the world will resist what we have to say, but that doesn’t change our obligation. If we vote for politicians who promote intrinsic evils, how convincing will we be when we claim to be against those evils?

That’s the problem of scandal—an attitude or behavior that leads another to do evil. If we don’t practice what we preach, people will decide our practices are easier to follow, even though our words claim we value Church teaching. Our Lord’s words on scandal are not pleasant ones to hear (Matthew 18:6-7). So, if we want to bear witness, we’ll make sure we consider the message our actions send, making sure they match up with our words. That means squaring our political preferences with our Catholic faith, not the reverse.


In this election cycle, neither major candidate could be called good, and even the largest minor parties support intrinsic evil. Most have endorsed things the Church condemns as unjust. As a result, Catholics are scrambling to salvage the best way to limit evil. Unfortunately, we’re greatly divided and observers, understandably, not only have a hard time seeing what American Catholics actually believe, but would have a hard time recognizing Tertullian’s description of how the earliest Christians were seen:

But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death.


 Tertullian, “The Apology,” Chapter XXXIX, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. S. Thelwall, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 46.

I believe Catholics need to be more aware of the meaning of what the Church teaching, not presuming that we know enough to reason out on our own something unfamiliar to us when we have the Church as mother and teacher. Between now and November, we need to study and pray—to know God’s will and to deal with each other in charity. We should make clear witness of the Catholic teachings that guide our decisions, while striving to avoid bad judgments through misunderstanding.

Our choices may be bad, but we have the opportunity to witness to what is right in charitably discussing the what we believe.

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