Friday, January 3, 2020

Does Conscience Cease to Matter in a “Purple” State?

Norfolk I’m not a scholar, as Master Cromwell never tires of pointing out, and frankly I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not. But damn it, Thomas, look at those names.… You know those men! Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship? 

More (moved) And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?

—Robert Bolt, A Man For All Seasons, Act II

Preliminary Note: The purpose of this article is not to argue that the Catholic voter is required to vote for a minor party. It is intended to point out why the “You must vote for Candidate A or you are guilty if candidate B gets elected” argument—used by Catholics of both major parties—is not part of Catholic moral obligation.


In election years, I find that certain arguments get made by Catholics from both major parties. But if you point out that it is the same argument with merely a different conclusion on who to vote for, you can expect some serious hostility. After all, they’re different from us. Their side is wrong. The problem is, some of these arguments aren’t merely partisan. They’re wrong according to moral theology too.

One of these arguments is that: It might be okay to vote for a minor party, “down vote,” or decline to vote if the state is solidly Blue or Red* and your vote will have no impact on the final result. But if you vote in a purple state, you have the obligation to vote for the right party… That right party being theirs. Such Catholics (and their attitude are found in both parties) act as if those who reach a different conclusion from them are guilty of grave sin.

It’s a puzzling attitude that they take because what it boils down to is: “You can only vote as your conscience dictates, as long as your vote doesn’t matter,” as if conscience was suspended based on where you happened to live. 

The Catholic Church and Conscience

The Catholic Church takes conscience seriously. We are tasked with properly forming our conscience. When we are convicted that we must act in a certain way, or we cannot do what we believe to be evil. Conscience, unfortunately, sometimes gets misrepresented as “if I don’t see anything wrong with X, I’m following my conscience.” But that’s not conscience. Conscience tells me I must do X; I must not do Y.

Sometimes, conscience is erroneous. A person wrongly thinks he must do something he should not, or thinks he must not do something he should. This is why we are obligated to look to the teaching of the Church to properly form our conscience. Gaudium et Spes makes clear.

16. In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

The idea of being bound to obey an erroneous conscience might scandalize us, but it should understand it this way: if (IN A NON-SCRUPULOUS WAY#) we wrongly think we do evil to act in a certain way but choose to do it anyway, thinking it is evil, we are choosing to act wrongly.

But, if we simply refuse to look for the teaching of the Church, we have no such excuse. Lumen Gentium #14 tells us:

They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.

As Catholics, we have all the advantages of a Church established by Christ, teaching with a His authority. That means we have to look to the Church to form our conscience.

But sometimes, the manner of following Church teachings can take different legitimate forms. Provided that this manner is not a Pharisaical evasion (cf. Mark 7:9), we can choose the manner we think is best—especially if our conscience insists on it—despite what others think best.

The Ratzinger Memorandum

This requires nuance of course. Many Catholics misuse the Ratzinger Memorandum§ to justify voting for a candidate who supports an evil. The document was written to address presenting oneself for Communion if their actions are at odds with Church teaching. Much of it deals with Catholic but pro-abortion politicians. It points out that being in disagreement on other issues—such as capital punishment@ or war—does not disqualify one from receiving the Eucharist. But voting in a way rejecting the Church teachings on abortion does

The point relevant to voting is at the end:

[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.] 

The debate over this passage is over what remote material cooperation means and what is considered a proportionate reason. A link to a 2016 article I wrote explaining this can be found HERE. My summary was:

The action of voting for a pro-abortion politician without directly supporting abortion does make the moral evil possible (material cooperation). That action is remote because, while it does not directly cause abortion, it still makes the continuation of abortion possible. Therefore, a vote for such a candidate requires a reason that justifies electing a person who will defend the right to abort over one million babies a year.

This all makes clear that we must not vote for a candidate because he supports evil, and if we vote for a candidate despite his evil, we had better have a proportionate reason that will justify remotely enabling the evil. 

Voting for a Minor Party is NOT the Same as Voting for an Evil Candidate

But what the Memorandum does not include in “remote cooperation with evil” is voting for a minor party that otherwise fits the moral qualifications. Bishop Conley of Nebraska wrote an article on the subject in 2016. In it, he raises a very wise point:

My third point is that when we vote, we need to carefully consider the specifics of each race. Blind partisanship can be dangerous, and we have to look past political rhetoric and media alarmism to make prudent discernments.  

In each race, we need to discern whether there is a candidate who can advance human dignity, the right to life, and the common good. When there is, we should feel free to vote for that candidate—whether they are a member of a major party or not. In extraordinary circumstances, some Catholics may decide, in good conscience, there is not a suitable candidate for some particular office and abstain from voting in that particular race.  

We also need to remember that we are not responsible for the votes of other people.  Choosing not to vote for “Candidate A” is not the same as actively voting for “Candidate B.” No Catholic should feel obliged to vote for one candidate just to prevent the election of another.

We should remember this point well. One is not obligated to vote for someone believed to be a bad candidate simply because they can win—especially if one’s conscience does not permit it.


It is especially false for a member of the laity to say that the Catholic who does not vote for a preferred candidate is guilty of sin and to blame if the worst candidate wins. Those who make that argument are usurping the authority of the Church to pressure people into following their personal beliefs. If the Catholic voter believes that a vote for Candidate A is the best moral choice, then let him set forth his reasoning in a way that convinces, not one that tries to coerce those who disagree. If we think that a person is following an erroneous conscience, then let us point out the teaching they missed, not behave in an arrogant manner.


(*) For my non-American readers, a “Blue” state is going to vote Democrat. A “Red” state is going to vote Republican. A “Purple” state (mixture of Blue and Red) is evenly divided and could go either way. Since our national elections are essentially 51 state elections (50 states plus the District of Columbia) where the electoral votes of a state goes to the winner of the state, these “purple” states are important in determining who becomes President, as the Blue and Red electoral votes are virtually guaranteed (see the map for an example. It may not be accurate come November 2020).

(#) This needs to be stressed. The scrupulous person often sees sin where there is none, or mortal sin where the matter is venial. Such people need the gentle guidance of a spiritual director to avoid being driven to despair. Such people are especially vulnerable to partisan Catholics who insist it is sinful to vote differently than their own views.

(§) Yes, it’s addressed to that McCarrick. But the unworthiness of the recipient does not negate the truth of the document.

(@) With Pope Francis refining the Catechism on the Death Penalty, that might change.

(€) If I rewrote this today, I probably would have phrased it “without intending to support abortion” to avoid giving the impression that indirectly supporting abortion is okay.

No comments:

Post a Comment