A Catholic Apologist’s Guide to Voting as a Catholic

A Catholic Apologist’s Guide to Voting as a Catholic August 25, 2020

Every two years for the last sixteen years the calls, letters, and emails would start pouring into Catholic Answers during the summer before an election from Catholics wanting information about how to balance their moral obligations as a Catholic with their civic duties as a responsible citizen. Although I wasn’t involved in the development, writing, or publication of Catholic Answers’ Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics, first published in 2004, I suspect that one of the reasons it was created was to have a resource on hand for the apologists to distribute in response to these questions from Catholic Answers’ clients.

My job as a staff apologist was to give the clients what I liked to think of as “Catholic Answers’ answer” to their questions. And Catholic Answers’ goal was, as my first department manager liked to say, to “speak with the Church’s voice.” We were expected to find out what the Church had to say on any given point of doctrine or morality and give that information to our clients. Our own opinions simply didn’t matter. So, Catholic Answers developed and published its voting guide, based on its interpretation of the relevant Church documents, and over the years I passed on that information to those who contacted Catholic Answers with questions about voting.

This voting season is different. I no longer represent Catholic Answers, but I’m still a Catholic apologist with 17 years of professional experience in parsing Church teaching and answering questions about the Catholic faith. And I’m finally free to offer my own opinion on the moral principles of voting as a Catholic. So, let’s look at some of the questions Catholics ask about voting.

“Can I vote for a Democrat?”

When I was with Catholic Answers, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, we had to be extremely circumspect in our presentation of voting principles to avoid any appearance of political partisanship. That meant I had to bite my tongue a lot whenever a client asked if it was a sin to vote for a Democratic candidate.

The short, direct answers are “Yes, you can vote for a Democrat” and “No, it’s not a sin to vote for a Democrat.” Any Catholic, whether that person is a layman, consecrated religious, deacon, priest, or bishop, who tells you that to vote for a Democrat is, ipso facto, a sin, or that you have to go to confession for voting for a Democrat, is wrong. Period.

And, lest I be accused (again) of being a “left-wing hack” (as happened recently on Twitter), I will also say that it’s not a sin to vote for a Republican and you don’t have to go to confession for that either.

The essential ecclesial document on this issue is Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles, a letter released in July 2004 by Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) when he was the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Of note should be the context in which the letter was released. It was sent to Theodore McCarrick, then the Archbishop of Washington, D.C., and made public the summer before the 2004 presidential election in the United States. Its primary purpose was to address a situation in which American Catholics were faced with the issue of whether they could vote for a fellow Catholic (John Kerry), who was the Democratic candidate for President that year.

In that context, then-Cardinal Ratzinger stated:

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 favor 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 (emphases added).

In other words, a Catholic can vote for a candidate who takes a permissive stance on moral evils, such as abortion or euthanasia, so long as the Catholic doesn’t cast his vote because he himself supports abortion or euthanasia and wants to vote for a candidate who reflects those values.

“What about ‘proportionate reasons’?”

When progressive Catholic pundits have asserted that this provision in Ratzinger’s letter allows for a Catholic to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights, conservative Catholic pundits have responded that Ratzinger said that there have to be proportionate reasons to vote for a pro-choice candidate. Then they assert that, given the death toll from over the last 50 years, abortion is the gravest moral issue in American politics, and therefore no other consideration rises to the proportionate reasons required to vote for a pro-choice candidate.

Only, well, Ratzinger never said that “there have to be proportionate reasons to vote for a pro-choice candidate.” What he said, and here’s where Catholic apologists should be diligent in helping their clients to parse the meaning of ecclesial documents, is that a Catholic who stands with the Church on the moral issue of abortion but votes for a pro-choice candidate for other reasons is engaging in “remote material cooperation.” Ratzinger asserted that it’s “remote material cooperation” that can be morally permissible “in the presence of proportionate reasons,” not supporting a pro-choice candidate for reasons other than his position on abortion.

What are “other reasons” why a Catholic may choose to vote for a pro-choice candidate? The Catholic may live in a political system in which there are only two major political parties and the field of candidates will be limited to only two who will have a viable chance of winning an election. There may be a scenario in which one of the candidates supports abortion rights but is otherwise well-qualified for office while the other claims to oppose abortion but is otherwise manifestly unfit for office. If a Catholic chooses to vote for the qualified candidate because he is able to responsibly discharge the duties of office, and not because of his support for abortion, then the Catholic is engaging in the “remote material cooperation” for which Ratzinger and the CDF allowed was morally permissible.

In a case like this, the constraints of the political system in which a Catholic finds himself with only two viable candidates from which to choose creates the “proportionate reasons” necessary to engage in the “remote material cooperation” involved in choosing the qualified candidate who favors abortion rights over the unfit candidate who claims to oppose abortion. Were there other viable candidates from which to choose, or if the choice to refrain from voting altogether didn’t create a situation in which the unfit candidate might benefit, the prudential algorithms for choosing one’s candidate would have to be adjusted accordingly.

“What about the ‘non-negotiable’ moral issues?”

First, let’s be clear on one thing: “non-negotiable” is not a theological term and the Church doesn’t use that language when discussing moral issues. “Non-negotiable” is a business term, and it was first used by Catholic Answers in its voting guide to frame discussion of a handful of moral issues that the apostolate focused on as “moral principles that do not admit of exception or compromise.” That handful of issues was chosen, not because they were the only moral issues on which a Catholic was required to give assent to the Church’s magisterium, but because they were issues that were the focus of contemporary debate in American politics (VG, pp. 3, 16).

Whenever I had to answer questions about the moral issues that Catholics need to consider when voting, I didn’t just send clients Catholic Answers’ voting guide. I also sent them the USCCB’s document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. The voter’s guide was a quick overview (and was never intended to be an exhaustive treatment); the USCCB document was a more complete guide to the Church’s teaching on voting obligations and moral issues Catholics need to consider when voting.

“Are you going to tell me who to vote for in this election or not?”

No, I’m not. If you were waiting for me to tell you who to vote for, I’m sorry to say you’ll be disappointed. I’m not restrained from doing so, I just don’t want to do so. I want you to use your own prudential judgment to choose the slate of candidates you believe will best serve our nation over the next two to six years. What I can and will suggest to you is how to vote—how to use your prudential judgment as a Catholic to make those decisions. Here are my recommendations:

1. Stop listening to clergy (deacons, priests, and bishops) who tell you it’s a mortal sin to vote for So-and-so. They are overstepping their rightful authority and committing pastoral malpractice. Assuming they know full well the Church’s teaching on what constitutes a mortal sin—if they don’t know, they shouldn’t have been ordained in the first place—then they ought to be ashamed of themselves. When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis wrote:

It is debatable if it is all right for me not to vote, but at the end of the day I am a father of all and I cannot be wrapped in a political flag. I realize that it is difficult to disentangle myself from the electoral climate when elections approach, above all when some come to beat down the door of the Archdiocese to say that they are the best. As a priest, before an election, I send the faithful to read the political platforms so that they can choose. In the pulpit I take care of myself rather well, I stick to asking people to look for the values and nothing else.

2. Read the Church’s documents on Catholic voting obligations. You can start with Ratzinger’s letter and the USCCB’s Faithful Citizenship. If you want to take a deeper dive, check out the sources the USCCB drew upon in drafting its guide.

3. Get educated on the candidates’ stances on moral issues. Check out candidates’ web sites. Collect voting guides from organizations you trust. State conferences of Catholic bishops sometimes give recommendations on proposed state laws that voters are being asked to consider. I like to collect voting guides not just from my own trusted sources but also from the opposition. This is helpful in voting for propositions and for non-partisan offices (such as judgeships). If an organization you don’t trust tells you they are supporting a proposed law or a candidate for a non-partisan office, that’s a clue you can use to vote the other way.

4. Check your voting status and make sure it’s current. In my state, I can check my voting registration on the web site of the California Secretary of State. I have a practice of doing so whenever I see a headline in one of my social media newsfeeds that makes me furious. If that has you checking your voting status every other day, you can schedule reminders to yourself on your phone or computer to check once a month.

5. When it’s time to vote, make the most prudential choice you can and vote. Don’t second-guess your conscience and run around asking priests, deacons, or lay Catholic apologists if you voted “correctly” or if you “sinned” in how you voted. If you did your best to vote in a responsible manner, in a way that reflects your commitment to your Catholic faith, you can rest assured that you met your obligations as a citizen and as a Catholic.

6. Stop telling fellow Catholics they’re committing a mortal sin if they vote for So-and-so. Finally, if the clergy has no authority to tell a Catholic that he’s committing a mortal sin by voting for So-and-so, neither do you have any such authority. As frustrated as you might be with the political status quo, you can’t try to change that status quo by manipulating your fellow Catholics into voting as you think they should.

In their introductory letter to the latest edition of Faithful Citizenship, the US bishops quoted Pope Francis in their reflection on the spirit in which Catholics should approach their civic obligations:

Your identification with Christ and his will involves a commitment to build with him that kingdom of love, justice, and universal peace. … You cannot grow in holiness without committing yourself, body and soul, to giving your best to this endeavor.

(Image: Polling station sign, Pixabay.)

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