Saturday, October 22, 2016

Conscience, Persecution, and Sins of Omission

It is common sense that nobody wants to suffer if they can avoid it. It’s also true that the Church does not demand we seek out persecution. But, if conscience does put us at odds with a government, we have to accept suffering or even death rather than do what is morally wrong. This has always been our obligation. We cannot appeal to what a feared government might do in our time if we don’t compromise on what we believe to avoid that evil. That means we can’t try to appease this immoral government might do if elected, and it means we can’t violate our conscience to block the immoral government from taking power.

That doesn’t mean we have to be passive sheep, taking no action against evil. It does mean we can’t do evil so good may come of it. That’s hard because sinful nature leads us to justify wrongdoing by excusing the evil done by saying either it’s not evil or it’s not important. So, some Catholics try justifying a vote for a pro-abortion candidate by downplaying the evil of abortion compared to issues they just happen to agree with. Other Catholics try to downplay the evils the other candidate does or supports by arguing it’s not important compared to the evils they’re trying to stop.

Catholics have used both tactics, fearing what the more loathed candidate will do. That doesn’t mean they’re acting out of bad will. Some Catholics might be sincere and are unaware they have reasoned badly, putting them in opposition to the Church without realizing it. That’s a reminder we should always be evaluating our views in comparison to what the Church teaches. One thing I’ve learned over decades of studying Catholic teaching is just because we don’t know the answer to something doesn’t mean there is no answer.

Don t panic

I believe we must start by not panicking. 2017 will not be the first year the Catholic Church was ever persecuted. Nor is it likely to be the worst persecution ever experienced. To be honest, I suspect Christians living in ISIS held territory wish they had our problems instead of theirs. I don’t want to commit the fallacy of relative privation here. It’s false to say because we’re not suffering as badly as another group of people, it means we’re not suffering. No, what I mean is we need to realize that the world has persecuted the Church in different ways and to different degrees throughout history. So it may wind up being our turn to take a stand even if it means ostracism, lawsuits, fines, or imprisonment.

What makes this frightening is that we have been unjustly harassed by the government, but we haven’t physically suffered for our beliefs. Now we might, and we want to avoid this at all costs. That can be dangerous. During Diocletian’s persecution in the early fourth century, Christians who had been undergoing a period of relative respite and safety were suddenly targeted all across the Roman Empire. Caught by surprise, many yielded to the state rather than suffer. That’s the danger of being so afraid of suffering that we betray Our Lord.

Like I said above, It’s natural that Catholics are trying to make the best of a bad situation and limit the evil suffered. But, again, we can’t do evil so good may come of it (see CCC #1756, 1789). That means we can’t violate our conscience (which we have an obligation to form by the teaching of the Church) and we can’t call evil “not important” to justify embracing a bad means to seek protection. That means we need to be aware of what the Church teaches and why it’s important so we don’t treat evil as unimportant. We need to seriously consider the proposed solution to see if it requires us to violate our conscience by choosing to do evil or to tolerate an evil which outweighs the good sought.

What people are getting wrong is this: It’s not a case of saying, “I will tolerate the lesser evil from candidate X to stop abortion or World War III.” It’s about saying, “I will be silent about these evils so candidate X will win and stop abortion or World War III.” It’s choosing to commit a sin of omission so good might come from it—and the Church condemns doing evil so good may come of it. Even if someone thinks Candidate X is more likely to limit evil, we can’t be silent about his or her own evils. So, even if we want to vote for Candidate X, we have to make clear we will oppose that evil if he or she is elected and insist that the candidate repent of that position—and that is what American Catholics are not doing. Instead, Catholics who support one of the major parties are telling others to be silent on these evils lest they get the wrong person elected.

God tells us to be holy and keep His commandments. The Penitential Rite at Mass requires us to say,

I confess to almighty God

and to you, my brothers and sisters,

that I have greatly sinned,

in my thoughts and in my words,

in what I have done and in what I have failed to do

There’s no secret that we sin if we do wrong, if we fail to do right, and if we fail to speak against sin. If we are sorry for our sins, we must make a firm purpose of amendment, to go and sin no more. Yes, we may fall into the same sins again. But that is different from having the intention to continue in the same sin, refusing to change.

Where does that leave us? It forces each one of us to consider what the Church teaches and where a preferred candidate stands. If the candidate promotes evil, we cannot be silent about it, and we certainly can’t accept a candidate who openly says they will do intrinsic evil (which includes abortion). So, if we must vote for a candidate whose evil seems less than the other candidate, we cannot be silent about the other candidate’s evil out of fear this candidate will lose if we speak out. Is it possible this will lead to persecution? It is. But in this case, it would be a persecution we would have to accept because to be silent when we must speak is to do evil, and to do evil so good might come of it is forbidden to us.

So, let us do what our properly formed conscience tells us to do and recognize that we must do what is right before God—even if persecution comes as a result.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Martyrdom and a Pinch of Incense, 2016 Style

The proconsul then said to him [St. Polycarp], “I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast thee, except thou repent.” But he answered, “Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil; and it is well for me to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous.”10 But again the proconsul said to him, “I will cause thee to be consumed by fire, seeing thou despisest the wild beasts, if thou wilt not repent.” But Polycarp said, “Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt.”


 Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., “The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 41.

I think I finally figured out what really bothers me most of all about the 2016 elections: Catholics insisting we must vote for their candidate, and if we will not, we are responsible for all the evils that happen as a result. In doing so, these individuals are, even if they don’t realize it, arguing that we have to sacrifice certain moral teachings as “less important” so their preferred candidate can protect us from the evils of the other side.  That means, depending on whom they support, either pretending that abortion is not as important as the issues we happen to be concerned with or pretending we can ignore other issues we dislike so long as we support abortion. Such Catholics insist concern over the moral issues they downplay are really too unimportant to take a stand on with other things at stake . . . especially if you live in a swing state.

I hear this, and it seems reasonable, except for one thing. Many saints went to their deaths despite being told that it was a small thing to offer a pinch of incense to state gods—they didn’t even have to be sincere, so long as they would go through the motions. The martyrs chose death because they realized it was not a small matter. It was a witness that they recognized the authority of the state gods, which meant they denied the full authority of God over the universe. Even an insincere witness could lead people astray. To be faithful to God, the martyr knew he had to give up His life.

St PolycarpPolycarp declared, "Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury:
how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?” 

As I see it, the problem is the arguments saying we need to support Candidate X to oppose Candidate Y, and that concerns for other issues is putting lesser issues first is a misrepresentation of the Catholic teaching on double effect. Double Effect means that we do not will an evil so good may come of it. In fact, if it were possible to prevent the evil we would do everything possible to avoid it. Also, the unwilled evil must be less than the desired good. So, for example, we endure side effects from medicines for the good of making us well. But if the medicine had a greater than 50% chance of killing the patient for a good like healing a minor illness, we could not choose to prescribe that medicine.

In this election, the evils are avoidable. We choose not to violate our conscience and we choose not to vote for a candidate who will bring about evils. That’s the part people forget when they do a moral calculus. Yes, the Church is quite clear that the right to life is the most fundamental right. We can’t do things that support such a candidate who favors that evil without a proportionate reason (i.e., a reason which outweighs the evil done). Yes, that teaching is well known. The problem is people wrongly think, “Unless Catholics vote for this candidate, this evil will happen, so they need to stop worrying about conscience and vote for this candidate.”

But doing what the conscience forbids is evil, even if we hope to achieve a good end. Saving our lives or our freedoms are good things to strive for. But if it comes at the cost of sinning against God, we cannot choose the sin to save ourselves. That’s true whether we are told to burn a pinch of incense at the altar or whether we’re told to ignore our conscience and vote for a candidate so good may come of it.

So, how should a Catholic vote? I’m not going to tell you, “You must vote for X.” All I can do is urge each person to consider the evils each candidate promotes and how to respond in light of Church teaching. Because the Church rejects abortion so emphatically, I do not believe a Catholic with a proper understanding can invoke “proportionate reasons” in 2016. But does that mean we must support the other major party candidate by default?

No, we can’t accept such a candidate by default. It is possible that both candidates are morally offensive. A hypothetical “Hitler vs. Stalin” shows the flaws with “either-or” thinking in elections. What we have to do is consider a candidate’s positions independently and see how they compare with Church teaching. Of course, we have to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good (i.e., insist on not voting for any candidate who is not flawless). But we can’t say that we can ignore a candidate’s unjust positions on the grounds of “he’s not as bad as the other guy.”

See, the Church is quite clear that we may not do evil so good may come of it (CCC# 1789). That obligation doesn’t change if we live in a swing state, or if we think that the stakes are vital. The Catechism also says:

1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.

So, even if one wants to claim that this election is an “emergency” and we have to stop one candidate by voting for the opposite major party candidate, an emergency does not justify doing evil. The problem is. I’m seeing many supporters saying, “That issue isn’t important in an emergency!” But it is. Sins that cry out to God for vengeance include abortion and same sex marriage, yes. But it also includes oppressing the poor and the alien, and defrauding the worker of his wages. In my opinion, if one thinks they must vote for a morally bad candidate to limit evil, they must speak out against that moral evil and make clear that, while they think abortion is the greater evil, they still intend to oppose the moral evils of their candidate. Then, if that candidate is elected, they must publicly follow through. But that’s not what’s happening in the social media I’ve seen.

Regardless of how we vote in 2016, we need to put our Catholic faith first. That means we don’t pretend moral evils in a candidate don’t exist or aren’t important. It means we evaluate our choices in light of being a Catholic. We study the faith and form our consciences in accord with it. We also must pray so we will accept God’s will even if it is not our will. If God wills 2016 to be a sort of “Babylonian Captivity” which forces American Catholics to grow in our faith through some level of government harassment or even persecution, we must not compromise to avoid it. We should remember the witness of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste:

Forty Martyrs of SebasteThe Forty Martyrs of Sebaste.

After they had been torn by scourges and iron hooks they were chained together, and led to a lingering death. It was a cruel winter, and they were condemned to lie naked on the icy surface of a pond in the open air till they were frozen to death. But they ran undismayed to the place of their combat, joyfully stripped off their garments, and with one voice besought God to keep their ranks unbroken. “Forty,” they cried, “we have come to combat; grant that forty may be crowned.” There were warm baths hard by, ready for any one amongst them who would deny Christ. The soldier who watched saw angels descending with thirty-nine crowns, and while he wondered at the deficiency in the number, one of the confessors lost heart, renounced his faith, and, crawling to the fire, died body and soul at the spot where he expected relief. But the soldier was inspired to confess Christ and take his place, and again the number of forty was complete. 


 John Gilmary Shea, Pictorial Lives of the Saints (New York; Cincinnati; Chicago: Benziger Brothers, 1887), 128–129.

If we would save our lives or our security at the cost of compromise, there is no guarantee we will succeed. So, let’s stop bullying others who will not vote for your candidate. Let’s stop pretending a sin is “not important” when our preferred candidate is guilty of it. If we vote in a way which compromises our faith, or leads one to think our Catholic faith is an ideology that can be set aside when convenient, we do evil like the one who would burn a pinch of incense at the altar of false gods in exchange for safety.

So, no matter how we vote in 2016, let’s be sure it’s a vote that witnesses what our Catholic faith holds to be true. And, let’s also make sure that our actions after the election continues to bear witness—especially if the preferred candidate wins.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Now is the Time! Picking Up the Pieces From a Divided Election

I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.

—Francis Cardinal George

Let’s Imagine the worst [*] has happened. The candidate you despise the most has been elected President and now you have to face 4-8 years of a ruler who will use the powers of their office for evil. In such a time, it’s pointless to point fingers over how it should have gone and who’s to blame.  Yes, some fellow Catholics did play the role of Judas by putting their political preferences first and supported a candidate whose positions the Church calls evil. No, we can’t condone that. It’s a sign that many in the Church need to be re-evangelized. But regardless of how they voted, we have to pick up the pieces all the same.

Now, stop imagining. Regardless of how the election goes, there is a lot of partisan and unjust behavior Catholics have directed against each other—even when they’re striving to be faithful Catholics. We have to realize  that these other faithful Catholics were not our enemies when their properly formed consciences led them to a conclusion different from ours [†]. In an election with no good choices, there was bound to be disagreements on what the best Christian witness should be.

We’ll also have to repent over the times when we failed to do the Christian thing. Whether one voted against the teaching of the Church,  whether one rashly judged or calumniated a candidate or group of voters they disagreed with, whether one gave scandal by tolerating evils in their candidate they would not tolerate in an opponent, or whether one behaved like Pharisees, believing in their own righteousness and looking down on others who disagreed as morally bad because they disagreed, there is a lot of fallout over the insults and unjust accusations that American Catholics have hurled against each other.

Now, not after the election, is the time to start clearing up the damage to our souls and our relationships with others. Now is the time to start clearing up the damage that keeps us from witnessing to the Kingdom of God. Now is the time to recommit ourselves to being Catholics first and prepare to defend the faith from the wrongdoing our next President will bring.

Those opposed to the next President will be tempted to reject anything he or she does, even if it is compatible with our beliefs. Those who supported our next President will be tempted to ignore or downplay the evil he or she does. Both attitudes are wrong. When the next President does real good compatible with our faith, we should support it, and when he or she doesn’t, we must oppose it and work to limit it.

We’ll have to stop treating the bishops as enemies of the faith because they took a stand against the evils of a candidate. We’ll have to realize that trying to cite our Catholic teaching selectively to make a bad candidate seem good was a corruption of the Faith.

The point is, over the next 4-8 years, Catholics will have to forgive and seek forgiveness over the wrongs suffered and inflicted. We’ll have to set aside the blame and work together as Catholics to convert society as Our Lord commanded. So why not start picking up the pieces now? Why not start forgiving and seeking forgiveness now? Why not start affirming our Catholic faith regardless of how it affects our preferred candidate now?

Perhaps it’s because of our pride?

The Christian path requires us to live as Our Lord taught, even if it costs us. Yes, at times we may have to suffer an unwanted evil (double effect) in trying to do good. But we can never treat that evil as inconsequential. Under double effect, such an evil is something we would avoid if at all possible and must be less than the desired good. It’s not wrong to want to avoid suffering and hardship. But it is wrong to sacrifice our conscience, beliefs and moral obligations to do so .

So let’s stop tearing into each other because we disagree in matters where the Church allows prudential judgment. Let’s also show mercy to those who do wrong (it is still the Year of Mercy after all). Yes, we must correct others who are in error, but we must do so in charity—not by being so harsh that we cause people to reject what is true because of how we present it.

No, it’s not going to be easy. As I write this, I reflect on my own behavior. There have been times when I have been rude or sarcastic or even judgmental of others who were properly applying prudential judgment according to the teaching of the Church. I regret that. It hurt feelings and didn’t help preach the Kingdom. Each one of us will have to prayerfully seek out how to change. But we must all seek change and turn back to God in the areas we failed.

We should not wait until November 9 (the day after the elections), or January 20, 2017, (Inauguration Day) to start picking up the pieces and healing relationships with God, the Church and each other. We should start now.


[*] Relatively speaking. I’m sure believers from other parts of the world wish they could have a “worst” like ours.

[†] That means they didn’t vote against the Church teaching. Unfortunately some think that means “You must vote this way!”

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Avoiding Sin When We Promote Candidates

He said to his disciples, “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. (Luke 17:1–2).


As Christians, we can’t lose sight of our ultimate end when living in the world. Therefore, we must approach what we do in this world with that end in mind. That doesn’t mean we should be so spiritual that we deny we have anything to do good in the world. After all, there are corporal works of mercy which involve helping a person’s physical needs. Our Lord warned us of Hell if we ignore helping people with these things.

However, when we do good in the world, we must not stop at considering the worldly benefits or worldly losses might come from our actions. Because we believe that our life ultimately has a supernatural end which involves being eternally with God or being eternally separated from Him, we cannot do things which put us in opposition to God and risk damnation. If an action is evil, we cannot do it—even if we want to do it to achieve a good result.

As we count down the final days of this election, Catholics seem to lose sight of this obligation. With two fatally flawed candidates running for President, and the knowledge that one of them will be elected, we are scrambling to find a choice that will limit evil or, failing that, finding a candidate who we believe will not be morally wrong to vote for, even if he has no chance of winning. The problem is, the two major party candidates are so loathed by large portions of the voters that those trying to block one perceived as a greater evil have staged their opposition to that candidate in apocalyptic terms. If we don’t stop Candidate X, we will be forced to suffer all sorts of evils. 

From there, it’s a short step to arguing that the only way to stop Candidate X is to vote for Candidate Y, who is also unsavory but promises to oppose X on certain issues that concern us. Because of that, we must support Candidate Y and overlook the moral faults of that candidate because they are “not as important” as what Candidate X will do.

How Far Do We Go In Defending Our Beliefs Before We Betray What Truly Matters?

But for wales

The problem I see in the above scenario is people have stopped thinking of the election in terms of “What must I do to be faithful to God” and replaced it with “If you don’t vote for my candidate, whatever evils happen are your fault!” That’s hijacking the authority of the Catholic Church in the name of promoting a candidate . . . something that makes us into the false teachers the Bible warned us about.

Our primary mission, given us by Our Lord, tells us we must baptize, preach the Gospel and tell them what God has commanded (Matthew 20:18-19). This is something we must do regardless of whether we are treated well or mistreated. We can’t sacrifice an eternal truth in the name of a political candidate whom we think it is vital to be elected to avoid mistreatment.

Think of Henry VIII demanding an annulment of his marriage. Think of Pope Clement VII considering the consequences of this decision. If he refuses the annulment, England is lost to the Church to the Protestant Reformation, and endangering many souls. All he has to do to avoid this is to consent to the annulment. It should be an easy decision, except for one thing. The investigation shows that the marriage was indeed valid and unbreakable. To protect the Church from hardship, he has to give his assent to what is morally wrong.

The easy decision was the one which was impossible to make if Pope Clement VII would be faithful to Our Lord. So he made a decision which seemed foolish from a worldly perspective. He denied the annulment. Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church in England, leading to the martyrdom of many faithful, persecution for about 300 years for many more, and the abandonment of the Catholic faith by more still. 

I’m not trying to equate any candidate with the historical players in this event. I’m trying to show that what seems like a commonsensical approach to defend the Church from persecution might actually betray what we believe.

Bullying Fellow Catholics in the Name of God 

1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.


 Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 435.

One of the more appalling things I have seen in 2016 is the bullying of some Catholics by others to vote in a certain way. This is not limited to one political party or ideology. This has been done by Catholics who are conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, or even the “None of the above” faction emerging. The bullying involves telling Catholics they disagree with that if they don’t vote a certain way, they are responsible for the evil. They especially target Catholic voters who live in swing states. They claim these voters must vote for Candidate X or Y, to avoid sin because of the evils associated with the other side. I’ve seen accusations like “sins of omission” thrown around recklessly. 

Such Catholics have no right to make such a demand and, if the bullied Catholic believes it is wrong to vote for this candidate, the bullying Catholic is actually trying to coerce the other into violating his conscience, which falls under the sin of scandal, trying to lead someone into sin. Remember, Our Lord said it was better for such a person to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around their neck than it would be to face the consequences of leading someone into sin. They forget that when the Pope himself says, “I’ll just say a word: Study the proposals well, pray and choose in conscience” in response to a question about the American elections, they cannot demand a person forsake his conscience to vote for their candidate.

The Teaching is “Limit Evil,” Not “Ignore Evils We Think Are Less Important”

22 You who forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You who detest idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast of the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 For, as it is written, “Because of you the name of God is reviled among the Gentiles.” (Romans 2:22–24).

The Catholic obligation is learning for ourselves or informing others about the moral teachings we must follow so we might all understand our obligations and why we must follow them. The Church does not endorse candidates. Nor does she demand we vote for a certain platform. What she does do is teach (which requires assent—agreement) the teachings we must follow. In following we must promote good, and limit evil. The problem is many Catholics are redefining this in a way which benefits their candidate. Evils their candidate supports are considered “less important” and explained away through the “special pleading” fallacy. Evils the other candidate supports are portrayed as unforgivable.

This results in making our Catholic faith look hypocritical. Some Catholics insist on people being sexually moral, and give our support for a candidate who boasted of sexual immorality. Others insist on defending the oppressed and give support to a candidate who supports abortion as a right. This kind of “witness” leads people to think our values are to be set aside as we wish. No, we aren’t “electing a saint,” (a popular retort when the moral failings of a preferred candidate are pointed out). But the evils a candidate refuses to be sorry for can be huge warning signs about how he or she will behave in office.

Yes, Some Evils Are Worse Than Others . . . 

We do need to acknowledge some evils are worse. The Church is quite clear that the right to life is the primary right from which all others depend. So a candidate who will violate this right is unfit for office. The Church names abortion and euthanasia “unspeakable crimes” (Gaudium et Spes #51) St. John Paul II says that trying to defend other rights without defending the right to life is “false and illusory” (Christifideles Laici #38). Even the Ratzinger Memorandum, which some people try to pass off as permission to vote for a pro-abortion candidate, is actually a strict limitation on when it is permissible. It condemns voting for such a candidate because they are pro-abortion as a mortal sin, and it places voting for such a candidate for other reasons under the obligations of double effect—the evil effect cannot be willed and must be less than the good sought.

But, in 2016, there is no situation where we have to tolerate of the evil of abortion in order to stop a worse evil. So the remote cooperation cannot be justified in this case. An informed Catholic cannot vote for a pro-abortion candidate or party in 2016. Nor can such a Catholic appeal to “conscience” in opposition to the Church. The Church is the measure by which our consciences are properly formed. As the CDF put it,

38. Finally, argumentation appealing to the obligation to follow one’s own conscience cannot legitimate dissent. This is true, first of all, because conscience illumines the practical judgment about a decision to make, while here we are concerned with the truth of a doctrinal pronouncement. This is furthermore the case because while the theologian, like every believer, must follow his conscience, he is also obliged to form it. Conscience is not an independent and infallible faculty. It is an act of moral judgement regarding a responsible choice. A right conscience is one duly illumined by faith and by the objective moral law and it presupposes, as well, the uprightness of the will in the pursuit of the true good.


 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian (Donum Veritatis) (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1990).

So, the Catholic who votes for a pro-abortion candidate in the name of “conscience” has a malformed conscience that cannot be justified. The Church has made it clear we cannot rebel against her teachings, and we cannot pretend she has concealed her teaching. Ignorance is not an excuse for us.

. . . But Just Because One Candidate is Disqualified Does Not Make the Other Candidate Good

However, some Catholics who rightly oppose pro-abortion candidates and parties commit the either-or fallacy. They assume that because one candidate is in direct opposition to Catholic teaching, we must support the other. But that is not necessarily the case. It is quite possible for both major party candidates of being unworthy of our support, and Catholics can say, “I will not vote for either one” without being responsible if the candidate who supports the greater evil gets elected. This is a case of refusing to do what one believes is evil so good may (hopefully) come from it.

What the political bullies forget is this:

  • We may not do evil so good may come of it (CCC #1756)
  • Doing what our conscience condemns is evil
  • Therefore we may not do what our conscience condemns so good may come of it.

If a Catholic’s conscience is properly formed by Church teaching, and the Catholic reaches a conclusion different from yours on what must be done, you cannot coerce him into doing what he thinks is wrong just because you are afraid of the consequences of your preferred candidate losing. If you think he has gotten something wrong, you can politely and charitably (two things lacking this campaign) dialogue with the aim of understanding why he thinks this way and offering another perspective.

But accusing that person of willful ignorance or bad will, or of disobeying the teaching that leads him to his conclusion in the first place is unjust. It is rash judgment at best, and calumny at worst. 


I think many in 2016 have lost sight of what we are obligated to do as Catholics. There is a trend of downplaying real evils as if they were unimportant if acknowledging them means harming a candidate. Yes, sometimes Double Effect can permit us to tolerate an unwilled evil if the good is greater. But that does not mean we can ignore or downplay the evil we see as lesser. Nor can we play the hypocrite, defending a candidate from the evils we denounced when committed by another candidate. We have to acknowledge them as evils, not make excuses for them.

Even if one decides that such a candidate is a lesser evil they may vote for, they must be able to demonstrate that they are not holding a double standard. They must show why their candidate’s evil is less than the evil of the candidate they oppose in such a way that does not excuse the evil of their candidate. They must recognize that some faithful Catholics can question whether either candidate can be trusted to lead morally.

Finally, we must remember that two faithful Catholics who properly formed their consciences (that is—they’re not voting for a candidate who supports intrinsic evil) can reach different decisions of the fitness of a candidate. In such a case, we must respect their properly formed conscience even though our prudential judgment leads us to a different conclusion. If the shepherds of the Church will not condemn their decision, we cannot condemn it as going against the Church.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Faith and Politics: Things Catholics Forget in 2016

Samuel and DavidBut the Lord said to Samuel: Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature,
because I have rejected him. God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance.
The Lord looks into the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)



Recent videos emerged showing the ugly personal behavior of one of the Presidential candidates. It disgusted some Catholics enough to disavow support for him. Others insist that the issues at stake outweigh these concerns. Unfortunately, these two factions have appealed to Church teaching to justify their concerns and denounce the other side as neglecting crucial issues. I’m not interested in commenting on this video or taking sides in the counter-accusations. What I am interested in doing is discussing some points where some in these factions have lost sight of what it means to be Catholic in these elections.

Never Do Evil So Good May Come of It

The first thing we must remember is we may never do evil so good may come of it. This is not a relativistic thing where we say, “X doesn’t bother me, so it’s ok.” This is about obeying the teachings of the Church. When the Church says we must never do X, we must never do X. What’s forgotten during this election is the fact that we must never do what our conscience condemns as evil. Yes, conscience can err (see Gaudium et spes #16), and if we do not bother to look to see whether we’re right or wrong, we will have to answer for it. But if we do strive to form our conscience to the best of our ability, and that conscience forbids a vote for a candidate, then to vote for that candidate is choosing an evil means to achieve a good end.

If another Catholic believes this person has not properly formed their conscience and are behaving scrupulously, they can discuss the issue with charity, seeking to clarify the desired good and the concerns about voting for a candidate. But it is unjust (not to mention a logical fallacy) to accuse someone of supporting Candidate Y simply because he cannot vote for Candidate X in good conscience.

Consider the Witness Before Unbelievers When Voting and Defending Candidates 

The second thing I think we should consider is the issues of witness and scandal. As Christians, we are supposed to give witness with our lives, showing what we believe. If we insist that others obey Catholic teaching, we should obey it ourselves. So, if we speak against sexual immorality (for example) in a candidate we despise, we cannot condone it in a candidate we support. Otherwise, this leads unbelievers to think we are hypocrites who preach, but don’t practice. So, when we vote or when we defend a candidate, we have to consider whether our vote or support witnesses to our faith or whether our actions become a case of “Because of you the name of God is reviled among the Gentiles.” (Romans 2:24)

Let’s be clear, however. I’m not talking about watering down the message of our Faith to make it palatable to unbelievers. I’m talking about showing them we are willing to follow what we believe regardless of whether it benefits us or leads us to act against our preferences. Yes, it is possible to say in some cases that voting for candidate X is a vote to limit evil compared to candidate Y. But we don’t witness to the faith by saying, “But Candidate Y did it worse” or “We need to ignore the evil of Candidate X because we don’t want Candidate Y elected.” We have to avoid the appearance of special pleading. We can’t demand the candidate we oppose be held to a standard we will not apply to a candidate we support without looking hypocritical.

Political Platforms Can Be Similar, but not Identical, to our Moral Beliefs

I notice that every four years, Catholics point to the parties they favor and say that to be faithful to our beliefs we have to vote for this party. Conservatives point to the teaching on abortion. Liberals point to the teaching on social justice. But we have to remember that these political platforms are only similar to Catholic moral teaching, not identical. The political platforms might resolve some of the sinful situations in our country, but it would be wrong to think we can meet our obligation simply by voting for a candidate. Regardless of whether the president-elect defends or opposes the right to life, we have an obligation to promote the right to life and help the women and children in need. Regardless of whether the president-elect defends or opposes just assistance for the poor, we have an obligation to help those in need.

Even if the candidate we support is elected, we have an obligation to correct them when they go wrong. For example, the Republicans tend to neglect conditions which might lead a woman to consider abortion out of desperation while the Democrats tend to ignore the principle of subsidiarity that makes aiding those in need in favor of a bloated bureaucracy. Our task is not over if our preferred candidate wins.

Both Candidates Can Be Unacceptable Choices

The either-or fallacy tells us that if we’re not for Candidate X, we’re helping Candidate Y. It’s used to tell us that because Candidate Y holds a position condemned by the Church, we must vote for Candidate X. What this overlooks is the possibility that both candidates can be unfit for office. We can’t claim we must support X because Y is so terrible. It is possible that both X and Y are bad choices according to our moral beliefs. The most obvious example of this is the hypothetical case of Hitler vs. Stalin. The evils of one does not mean we can support the other.

We have to look at each candidate and see if he or she holds positions that are completely incompatible with our faith. If that candidate fails the scrutiny it does not mean the other candidate wins by default. The other candidate can also fail in the scrutiny. In such a case, a person who says, “I will not vote for either one” is not supporting the worst candidate. The person who votes for the worst candidate is supporting the worst candidate. The other simply believes both candidates are wicked.

Of course, with America being a dualistic system, one of the two will win. So people who think one of the two is tolerable get angry when people refuse to vote for their choice. They think their candidate should win, and those who disagree and say, “I think both are wrong,” are seen as blocking their candidate from victory. But it is not the fault of the voter who sincerely believes this candidate is contrary to what a candidate needs to be.

The solution is not to convince the skeptical voter that the other candidate is worse. The solution is to show that their preferred candidate is good. You don’t have the right to bully the fellow Catholic whose prudential judgment is different from yours. If he has sought to follow the Church with no intent of evasion, he is not sinning in not voting for your preferred candidate.

God Will Always Be With His Church

Nobody wants a President who will do what they think is evil. Not everybody has a properly formed idea of right and wrong, and their idea of what is evil might be malformed. Knowing that is hard. We don’t want some idiot with a wrongly formed conscience to vote for the most wicked candidate while thinking it is good. We also don’t want to wind up with America becoming more unjust with more suffering. These are reasonable concerns. It’s not wrong to want a Church at peace in a country at peace. But we’re not guaranteed having this situation. Consider the Church through time and throughout the world. History tells of many times and places where the Church has been mistreated.

God permits these persecutions, and He warned of them (John 15:18-25). We’re not obliged to deliberately seek them out, and we’re not forbidden to seek justice, but when times of suffering come, God remains with His Church. Three hundred years of persecution in the Roman Empire afflicted the early Church. That was just the beginning. The Church in America has not suffered like the Church in the Middle East, or the Church in Eastern Europe or like the martyrs all over the world. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Another thought to remember is that God chastises who He loves (Revelation 3:19). With St. John Paul II prophetically warning us that we are part of the culture of death, our choice of rulers may stem from the fact that our cultural selfishness has brought us to this point where God permits incompetent rulers to chastise us (see Isaiah 3:4). He may be preparing us for a modern Babylonian captivity where we are forced to endure hardship for our faith to bring us back to Him.

Either way, His will is not thwarted. Regardless of who is elected, He will be with His Church. The question is, will we actually seek His will? Or will we assume our partisan politics are close enough?

But What About the Issues?

There’s no doubt that the issues are serious. America has fallen far and fast, and our nation calls many evils “good.” Certainly, we have to vote to block unjust laws and promote good ones.  A good society is one which makes it easy to be good, after all. And, of course, an informed Catholic has no real excuse for voting for a pro-abortion candidate when a proportionate reason does not exist. So, yes voting to promote our moral beliefs is important.

But there is more to our task than voting. Regardless of who is elected, we have the task to promote good and limit evil. So even if a candidate who opposes abortion is elected, this does not end our task to defend life and reduce the reasons people seek abortions. Nor does it give us an excuse to forget other issues where the new president does evil. A sympathetic government might make the task easier, but it doesn’t eliminate the task.

The Salvation of Our Souls Can't be Neglected

But for walesWhether it’s for personal gain or for a cause we believe in,
neglecting our obligation before God is dangerous.

The thing that troubles me most about this election is some people are willing to downplay evils if it benefits their candidate. Whether it’s a Catholic misrepresenting what a proportionate reason is to justify a pro-abortion candidate or one who downplays evils committed by their candidate while condemning them in an opponent, these are Catholics calling for letting the ends justify the means.

But we who have the teaching of the Church to guide us have no excuse to do wrong. We’ll be more severely judged (Lumen Gentium #14) than those without the Church. If we sacrifice our faith for our politics, we endanger our souls. We must never act in a way that does this. Nor can we demand others endanger their souls by acting against their conscience. That means before we ever get to whether a candidate is moral or immoral, or what the issues are, we must consider whether our own behavior in the elections are in line with what Our Lord commands. If it is not, then we risk our souls in the name of a political preference.

We must stand up for what is right, and of course we must use our judgment to choose a candidate who is not in opposition to what we believe. If we’re tempted to compromise on our Christian beliefs on doing right, then we must consider the cost of doing so.


It’s not for me to judge the soul of you, the reader. I have no idea how much effort you put into learning what is right and striving to follow it. All I can hope to do here is post some dangerous attitudes I’ve seen and why I think they are dangerous. There’s certainly nothing I can do to demand you vote differently than you choose—even if I did know your plans. 

What my fear is, is that we will lose sight of our obligation as followers of Christ and compromise our morality in favor of what we hope to achieve—even if it is a good end. To risk our souls, or to risk the souls of others by becoming a stumbling block for them, would be doing wrong. In an election where the candidates for President seem to be the worst possible, we must be careful not to risk souls in favor of achieving a goal by immoral means. Let’s fight for promoting good and limiting evil—but let’s make sure the means we use are worthy of the King we profess to serve.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Thoughts on the Defense of Life and Repugnant Elections

In 2016, the choices for president are so bad that many Catholics are struggling over how to vote in a way compatible with our faith. I’ve seen many abandoning their traditional party loyalties who never would have thought it possible before. Some even go so far as to consider voting for a candidate they would have firmly opposed four years ago. Now the Church does not tell us which candidate we must vote for, and neither will I. But Church teaching does oblige us to do what is right even at the cost of our personal preferences. The fact that this obligation may block us from voting for a candidate or party we normally favor does not mean the Church teaching is politically biased. Her teaching is true in the 1st century and the 21st.

This year, the major parties nominated two candidates for President who would ordinarily be unfit for our consideration. Both advocate positions incompatible with the Catholic faith to the point that one could only justify a vote for one of them by intending to block what they see as a greater evil. Some Catholics respond to this problem by looking to the minor parties so they won’t have to vote for a candidate who will support evil—their consciences forbidding a vote for either Trump or Clinton. However, barring some sort of fluke, one of them will be elected President. So even this option requires us to investigate if one of the two will do less evil than the other before choosing “none of the above."

As Catholics, we must use Church teaching to guide our vote. The Kingdom of God is not a political kingdom, but our votes enable people who receive authority and use it to do good or evil. So we have an obligation to vote in a way that promotes the good and limits evil to the best of our knowledge and ability. We look to the Church for guidance, even when doing the right thing means suffering or putting aside personal preferences.

The Church has been clear that the right to life is the fundamental right from which all other rights come. She calls abortion and euthanasia “unspeakable crimes” (Gaudium et spes #51) and says that working for social justice without this defense of life is “false and illusory” (Christifideles Laici #38). Voting for a candidate because he or she supports abortion is gravely sinful. Voting for such a candidate for other reasons is remote cooperation—an evil not directly willed but the action makes the evil possible nevertheless—and can only be justified by a “proportionate reason” (Ratzinger Memorandum). That’s a term which is widely misunderstood. It means we have to answer the question, “What evil are we striving to block which is so bad that it makes abortion seem like a lesser evil?”

This is an objective question, not a morally relativistic one. We can’t say that issues A+B+C (issues we favor) outweigh abortion. We have to be able to point to a real evil, not a speculation on “what might happen” and be able to honestly tell God at the final judgment, “I sincerely believed this evil was so serious that opposing it took priority over defending the right to life in being faithful to You.” God will not be deceived, so we had better be convicted in conscience as formed by the Church and not feign moral conviction if it is a political preference. Vincible ignorance—not knowing but being at fault for not even bothering to learn what is right—is not a valid defense before God.

Here’s the thing to keep in mind. The Church is not speaking out against an evil worse than abortion where we have to pull together to stop it first. Historically speaking, a Third Reich or a Stalinist regime would qualify here, but we do not have such threats present here outside the tired epithets of “communist” and “fascist” hurled around at every election. The Pope and bishops consistently speak against abortion and other attacks on the right to life as the worst evils of our time. This doesn’t mean that other issues are not important. We will have to oppose all evil policies our next president tries to implement. What it means is we can’t downplay or ignore the defense of life in favor of these other issues.

That makes 2016 hard. Of the candidates running in the two major and two largest minor parties, three openly support abortion as a “right” and one claims to oppose abortion but whose moral behavior leads some to reasonably doubt his sincerity. That means that Church teaching gets targeted as partisan (in 2008 and 2012, critics slandered the USCCB as being “the Republican Party at prayer”) when she defends right and denounces wrong when people find it inconvenient. The result of this is some Catholics think this means they’re being forced to vote for a candidate they don’t want to. This is never the case.

We need to avoid the “either-or” fallacy where we assume that we can only choose between X or Y. But if there is a legitimate option Z, or an option to refuse both X and Y, we can take it without sinning against the Church. It’s not an easy choice to make of course. America is polarized into Democrat and Republican. One of them will be president in January 2017, and we do have to consider whether we have a valid moral concern in refusing to elect one of them, or whether it is a matter of personal dislike. If it’s a matter of personal dislike, then we may have to do right against that personal preference. But if it is a valid moral concern, and our conscience is not against Church teaching, then we cannot violate Church teaching.

I would describe the issue this way. If Church teaching disqualifies the pro-abortion candidate from receiving our support, and our conscience prohibits us from voting for the other candidate, then we can choose another option—even if that option has no chance of winning. However, we must be very certain that our conscience was properly formed in the teachings of the Church to prevent the triumph of evil.

I would like to end this article with a reflection Archbishop Chaput wrote in 2008:

Finally, here’s the third question. What if Catholics face an election where both major candidates are “pro-choice”? What should they do then? Here’s the answer: They should remember that the “perfect” can easily become the enemy of the “good.”

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.

The point we must never forget is this: We need to keep fighting for the sanctity of the human person, starting with the unborn child and extending throughout life. We abandon our vocation as Catholics if we give up; if we either drop out of political issues altogether or knuckle under to America’s growing callousness toward human dignity.

We need to keep fighting. Otherwise we become what the Word of God has such disgust for: salt that has lost its flavor.

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.

Each one of us will have to answer to God for how we vote. I believe each one of us needs to approach this election with prayer and study so that we can honestly (He will not be fooled by any deception) say to Him. “Lord, I did my best to seek Your will and form my conscience according to the teaching of Your Church. I voted this way because I could see no other way to vote without being unfaithful to You and Your Church.”

Let us remember as we discuss (or even debate) the right course for voting that our Kingdom is Heaven, and we must not lose that kingdom in exchange for a temporary country. Nor must we refuse to bring our nation towards Christ.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Ship of Fools vs. The Barque of Peter

Regular readers of this blog know I hold the belief that God protects His Church from teaching error, even if individual members and even whole regions should fall. I also hold that Our Lord ties obedience to Him with obedience to His Church. Finally, I hold that the successor of Peter today has the same authority and protection that his predecessors had. From that, I reason that we can trust God to protect us from having a Pope who teaches error in matters of faith and morals. That doesn’t mean that a Pope will be a flawless ruler or teacher. it doesn’t mean that he will be impeccable as an individual. It certainly doesn’t mean that a Pope’s teaching will be followed without people misinterpreting or misrepresenting it.

The problem I’m seeing in the Church is people withholding obedience from the Pope because they think he is teaching error on the grounds that what he says doesn’t square with how they think he should govern the Church. Accusations from this sector run from claiming he is guilty of heresy to claiming he causes people to sin by being unclear. Tragically this number has grown. More Catholics assume that the Pope has erred because of the difference between what he says and what they think Church teaching is. But nobody asks whether they might be the ones who have things wrong, not him.

To borrow [†] from the analogy of the “Ship of Fools” in Plato [The Republic, Book VI. 488 B-E] the condition among the Catholic laity and some clergy is like a mutinous crew on a ship, where each sailor claims to be an expert in navigation, despite their lack of training (in fact, they deny this is something anyone can learn), favoring one who says what they want to hear, and are hostile to one who actually is trained in navigation who has actual knowledge of ship handling and tells them something different. 

Whether a dissenter thinks the Church is too lenient with sinners, or thinks that the Church is too harsh because she calls something a sin, they play the part of the mutinous sailors. Because the Pope and bishops do not steer the ship the way they want, these critics turn against them and call for a new navigator or a change in direction.

But if, as I profess, God protects the Church from falling into error under the successor of Peter (see Matthew 16:18, 28:20), then we have to trust that He will not let the Barque of Peter founder, despite whatever personal flaws they see the Pope as having. Yes, a Pope can have the wickedness of a John XII. He may have a problematic understanding of theology like John XXII. He may be a poor shepherd like St. Celestine V. But even in these cases (and I deny that Pope Francis is anything like them), God protected the Church under them from teaching error where people would be damned for following. St. Augustine, in his work Contra Petilian, invokes Matthew 23:2-3, pointing out:

Furthermore, when such men sit in the seat of Moses, for which the Lord preserved its due honor, why do you blaspheme the apostolic chair on account of men whom, justly or unjustly, you compare with these?


 Augustine of Hippo, “In Answer to the Letters of Petilian, the Donatist, Bishop of Cirta,” in St. Augustin: The Writings against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. R. King, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 568.

In other words, if Our Lord told the Jews to obey the teachings (but not the practices) of the Pharisees because of the authority given them, then we have even less excuse if we disobey the successors to the Apostles when they teach. Yes, there will be priests and even bishops out there we can point to who teach error—either sincerely, or out of rebellion—but their rebellion always comes in opposition to the Church under the Pope.

When people claim there is a conflict between Pope Francis and his predecessors, I believe this is a sign that they need a remedial course in what both actually teach. The problem is, too many assume the Pope advocates evil that could come from an abuse of his teachings. The problem is, he explicitly rejects those abuses and asserts he is a son of the Church when it comes to the teachings most rejected today. He calls for mercy and outreach to sinners. So did his predecessors. The problem is, we assume mercy means moral laxity. If we have that assumption, everything he says will be interpreted in that light and we will (falsely) assume any initiative of mercy must be an attempt to undermine Church teaching. But we forget the possibility of our being in the wrong and the Pope being in the right.

So I think the conflict in the Church today is a conflict between the ship of fools and the barque of Peter. It’s between those who judge the Church according to their own will on one side, and those who trust God to protect His Church and give assent to the Pope’s teachings, striving to learn the truth about what they are called to be. The Catholic Church, under the headship of Pope Francis, is the Barque of Peter. This ship will reach the final destination. However, the ship of fools—guided by what we prefer—is doomed to founder.

Each of us must choose which ship we will embark on. Speaking for myself, I choose to board the barque of Peter because I trust God to protect the Pope from leading the Church in a wrong direction. I refuse to set foot on the ship of fools, because I do not trust those people who claim to know Church teaching while the Church does not. You can call me a fool, or accuse me of being blind to the problems in the Church. But this is the way I will follow because I want to be faithful to God and His Church.






[†] Borrow, not claim it is identical. Yes, I’m aware that Socrates was speaking of philosophers and statecraft, and that the governing of the Greek city-state is not the same thing as the governing of the Church, so the full analogy doesn’t 100% fit. But it makes a useful image for the concern at hand.