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Catholics, Voting, and Abortion

Trent Horn

Audio only:

As the election season continues Trent reviews the principles Catholic politicians and voters need to follow when it comes to voting and the issue of abortion. He also addresses the question, “Can a Catholic ever licitly vote for a pro-choice candidate?”


Welcome to the Council of Trent Podcast, a production of Catholic Answers.

Faith, voting and abortion. Do we ever shy away from controversial subjects here on the podcast? “I think not,” says the teacher from the Incredibles. Welcome to the Council of Trent Podcast. I’m your host, Catholic Answers’ apologist and speaker, Trent Horn.

Before we get into the subject of today’s podcast, I have news for our Patreons at trenthornpodcast.com. So if you support the podcast at trenthornpodcast.com, you get exclusive access to bonus episodes, the ability to comment on shows to message me, to submit questions for our open mailbag episodes. You get a really cool Council of Trent sticker. If you’re a gold level subscriber or higher, you get premium access to submit questions for our episodes and you get a mug. You get a Council of Trent mug.

And speaking of submitting questions, we’re going to be doing another open mailbag episode soon, this time on morality and politics. So we’re not turning this into some kind of political talk show, but if there is a Catholic moral issue that intersects with politics, I will take your questions on it in an upcoming episode.

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And to see it’s well worth their time to listen. Now onto the subject of today’s episode, we know the election’s coming up, lots of people are talking about it. I see chatter on social media about Catholics, who they can vote for, who they can’t vote for. The issue of abortion almost always comes up in those conversations.

And it’s unfortunate when you look at it online, usually these interactions typical for online social media interactions, they generate more heat than light. And you get these positions that are very extreme, so you have one extreme position, which is, a Catholic could never vote for a democrat or they’re going to hell.

Or if you ever vote for a pro-choice candidate under any circumstance, you will go to hell. That’s a false extreme position. But the other extreme position is to say, it doesn’t matter who you vote for, just use your conscience, and ultimately it doesn’t matter who you vote for. The church doesn’t have guidance on which issues matter in particular, just use your best judgment.

That’s also another false extreme view, and I’ve seen both views floating around the blogosphere in Catholic social media. So actually I’ve been putting together scripts of Catholic Answers for a series of videos that I call Faith Voting and Abortion.

So I put them together. I don’t know when they’re going to come out. I’m sure they’ll come out before the election when people have a lot of questions about voting. And of course, as a disclaimer, Catholic Answers as a 501(c)(3) organization, we’re not telling people, “This is the candidate to vote for.” We don’t endorse candidates.

I do believe for 501(c)(3)s, we can have positions on ballot measures, for example. So if there was a law, a ballot measure being passed, I don’t think there’s any this year, but for example, some of you will say, “You can’t get involved in politics.” No, we just can’t endorse candidates.

Like if there was a ballot measure that’s tried to outlaw abortion, I would say vote in this ballot measure to outlaw abortion. And the church could say that. The church can endorse issues, it just doesn’t endorse candidates, and we do not do that either.

But it doesn’t fall from that, we don’t have substantive advice for people when they enter into the voting booth. So we’re going to come up with these video soon, but I thought I would just share the scripts with you here on the episode today as food for thought. So I’ll read you the scripts, and then I might add just a few thoughts that didn’t make it into the final draft if they pop into my mind.

All right, so here they are. The first one is five rules for every Catholic politician. Here are five rules. If you were a Catholic politician, when it comes to voting and the issue of abortion, this is what you need to follow. Number one, it is every politician’s duty to make sure the law recognizes the right to life of all innocent human beings.

The Catechism says, “The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation.” Pope John XXIII said, “To safeguard the inviolable rights of the human person and to facilitate the performance of his duties is the principle duty of every public authority.”

So if you were in public authority, if you’re an elected official, your primary job, you had one job. Elected official, you got one job. You have more than that, but your primary job is to make sure everybody has the right to life. We live in a civilized society. And if we wanted to be barbarians, we could go out and live in the woods again. Go listen to my Survival episode on that. That’s not what we want. Elected officials need to protect the right to life of all people and rule number two, that includes unborn children.

If you pass a law that protects unborn children from being aborted, you’re not imposing your Catholic faith on people any more than if a Catholic politician passes a law against the lynching or a law against marital rape or spousal abuse, he does not impose his Catholic values on people. What he imposes are common sense, norms of morality that every person of Goodwill should be able to agree with. That if you can’t say, well, this idea that it’s wrong to dismember children, that’s a religious belief, I can’t get on board with that. No, that should be one of the most basic elements of your moral framework. And you’re not imposing a religious view on people just because you pass a law that happens to coincide with a religious view.

Because many religious people also have very basic moral sentiments that are enshrined in the code of their religion. Society exists that people have different beliefs or no beliefs at all can coexist peacefully, but you can’t have that if you don’t have the right to life, because you can’t even have that social coexistence in the first place.

All right, rule number three. Politicians can never vote to increase or maintain legal access to abortion. Pope Saint John Paul II said, “In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never illicit to obey it, or to take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law or vote for it.”

Fourth, politicians can vote for laws that limit abortion, even if they still allow some abortions to be legal. Now there is a small group, very small group within the pro-life community that holds the view that it is always wrong to vote for an abortion law, unless it’s a total ban on abortion.

Like they’ll say that you sin, if you take, let’s say you live in a country where abortion is legal through all nine months of pregnancy. These people would tell you that it is a sin… If you could pass a law that outlaws all abortions except for those in the case of rape and incest, they would say that it’s sinful or wrong for you to vote for that law because you’re saying it’s okay to kill children who are conceived in rape and incest.

If we are able to pass a law that bans 98.5% of abortions, we’re not saying that children who are conceived in rape and pregnancy don’t matter. All we are trying to do is limit the harm of a currently existing evil. And Pope Saint John Paul II recognized that in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life.

So he says, “When it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, 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.” So you’re not endorsing the evil that is allowed, that is permitted, rather, what you’re trying to do is to reduce as much as is politically feasible as is possible, you’re trying to reduce the evil that currently exists.

So a Catholic politician can never maintain or increase abortion access, but he could vote for a law that reduces abortion even if it does allow for exceptions. Finally, Catholic politicians that vote for laws or funding bills that promote abortion should not present themselves for Holy Communion because they’ve committed the grave sin of formally cooperating with a grave evil.

So if you have a politician who votes… You had this in New York for example, they have states that are voting for religious reproductive choice acts that would take Roe V. Wade and make it part of a state’s constitution. So that even if Roe V. Wade were overturned, abortion would still be legal in the same methods and framework in that state.

If a politician votes for something like that, they shouldn’t present themselves for Holy Communion any more than somebody who voted for slavery or voted for the legality of rape. In 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger put it this way, “Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest understood in the case of a Catholic politician as is consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws, his pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.”

Now, not every pastor, not every Bishop does this. Some do, and I think it’s great when they do that, but that’s what they should do. I mean, look, when we talk about abortion, I think what’s important. Look, my blood pressure’s already rising. I try very hard on Catholic Answers live when we do why are you a pro-choice? To speak in a calm tone to not become emotional. But sometimes I worry that I’m dampening my emotions a little bit. This is something to be emotional about. We just can’t let our emotions get ahold of us.

We don’t want the horses driving the chariot, we want the charioteer to drive the chariot. That’s a throwback to the philosopher Plato in the Passions. So it’s okay to have emotions, we just don’t want to be emotional in this regard. But I am frustrated, it does make me emotional.

I want to say if we’re talking about abortion, abortion, abortion, instead, I want to replace the abortion with dismemberment of unborn human beings. Dismemberment of children. And so I don’t know why we don’t do that. I think in many cases, the reasons we don’t is we have a sensitivity towards those who have engaged in the sin of abortion, whether they’ve obtained one, paid for someone else to have one, maybe even performed one, that would be the minority of people we would interact with.

But I think the Alan Guttmacher Institute said that one in three women by the age of 45 will have had at least one abortion in their lifetime. There’s probably a decent number of people listening to this podcast who have been either have been involved in an abortion decision or know someone who has, I will guarantee you the listeners of this podcast have either been involved or they know someone who’s been involved.

And so the key here is to balance between being sensitive and gracious to those who are still healing from the trauma of abortion and not sweeping it under the rug, sweeping it under the rug doesn’t do anyone any good. People will say, “Trent, don’t talk about abortion in such harsh terms. What about people who are post-abortive?”

Well, according to the Allen Guttmacher Institute, half of all women who have abortions have had a previous abortion. So sometimes those who are post-abortive, the best thing we can do is to speak about the reality of abortion in a compassionate way, but without mincing words, because we don’t want someone in that situation to make the worst mistake of their life again.

Instead, what we want them to find is hope and healing in Jesus Christ, to be able to go to the sacrament of reconciliation, to have their sins absolved and to continue down this path of healing and reconciliation. Because even if they seek God, and seek the church, and seek out reconciliation, to have been involved in the sin of abortion, that is a trauma that will last their entire lives. But as Pope Saint John Paul II said in paragraph 99 of Evangelium Vitae, he said that those who are post-abortive can become some of the most eloquent defenders of the right to life.

Now, let’s talk about the rules for Catholic voters. We talked about Catholic politicians, what they have to do, here are four rules for every Catholic voter then when it comes to the issue of abortion. First, Catholics can never vote for laws. Like politicians, they can never vote for a law to maintain or increase access to abortion.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says, it doesn’t matter what your conscience tells you. If your conscience tells you to vote, to make abortion legal, your conscience is broken, buddy. You got to go get it fixed. See I’m getting emotional there, but that’s okay because I’m still in control of my emotions.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says, “A well all formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.” If someone says their conscience, we all have to follow our conscience. And that is an argument I do take up in my video series when you talk about conscience and following your conscience.

We should follow our conscience, but it has to be properly formed. The conscience is not infallible. You have to do what your conscience says, but your conscience could be improperly formed. You have to tell your conscience, “Conscience, it would never be right to have a law to make it legal to dismember unborn human beings.”

It doesn’t matter if your conscious [inaudible 00:13:49] it needs to be fixed. So you can never do that. Second, if a Catholic votes for a politician because of that politician’s commitment to keeping abortion legal, then he’s committed a grave sin. So if you vote for a pro-choice candidate because that candidate is pro-choice and you want that candidate to make abortion legal, if you’re voting for a candidate precisely because they are pro-choice, then that’s a grave sin.

In 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger said, “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 or euthanasia.” It will be no different than if a Catholics and some Catholics unfortunately did support the Third Reich in Nazi Germany.

If they were to vote for the final solution, if they were to vote for Hitler and knowing he would implement the final solution, if they were to vote for that, they would be formally cooperating with evil. They would be in a state of grave sin, just as much as the people who pulled the levers in the gas chambers. To vote for people who promise to do evil makes you formerly cooperating with that evil, if you are intending the evil.

Now, that’s an important distinction to make because formal cooperation with evil is always wrong because what makes it formal is that you intend the evil. The problem is that we live in a world where we end up cooperating with evil, sometimes in material ways. I go to Target and I buy something, and I know they support LGBT things or planned parenthood or whatever.

The problem is, so many companies out there support illicit causes, I give them money, I know they use that money to support evil things. I have materially cooperated with evil, but because it’s so remote in those cases, and because I have a good reason to shop there, namely basically everybody’s involved in some kind of illicit venture, and my cooperation doesn’t further the evil that much, it can be justified in that case.

This is important. Understand the distinction between formal and material cooperation with evil and knowing that material can have various degrees of remoteness keeping you away from the evil that you’re supporting. This is important because when people say you can never vote for a pro-choice candidate, that’s true in the formal sense. You can never vote for a pro-choice candidate because they’re pro-choice. But you shoot yourself in the foot if you say that, absolutely because there could be a case where you could vote for a pro-choice candidate.

This the third rule. A Catholic could vote for a pro-choice politician in spite of his views if he has proportionate reasons for doing so. So this is what Cardinal Ratzinger said about that. When a Catholic does not share a candidate stand in favor of abortion 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.

All right, so there’s the key there. Remote cooperation with evil. Remote material cooperation with evil can only be justified if you have proportionate reasons. So what might those be? What I write here is I say, “These proportionate reasons would have to show that the candidate who is an alternative to a pro-choice candidate actually supports even worse evils than the pro-choice candidate does, which I would say would be a rare occurrence.

The USCCB says this in their document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. Voting in this way, IE voting for a pro-choice candidate in spite of them being pro-choice would be permissible only for truly grave reasons. Not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences, or to ignore a fundamental, moral evil.

How grave would these reasons have to be? Well, let me ask you this. What reasons would be grave enough to justify voting for a candidate that doesn’t think a certain race of humans were persons? If you would just never vote for someone who is racist, if you would never vote for someone who said, “Oh, that minority group, they’re not actually people.” If you would never vote for a person like that, why would you ever vote for someone who says the unborn are not persons?

I personally have as a general rule, I don’t vote for people who think some people aren’t people. I think that’s a great rule to live by. In general, I don’t do that, but I recognize I could have a proportionate reason to vote for a pro-choice candidate. I know that sounds shocking, but let me give you an example.

Imagine an election where there are only two viable candidates, both of whom support legal abortion, and if their stances are about the same, the USCCB says a voter could take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more or likely to pursue other authentic human goods.

All right, let me give you a concrete scenario. Imagine we have two pro-choice candidates running for office, but one of them wants to support forcing Catholic hospitals to perform abortions. The other candidate says, “I’m pro-choice.” So if a Catholic hospital doesn’t want to choose to do an abortion, they shouldn’t have to. So two pro-choice candidates both want abortion to be legal. One wants to force Catholic hospitals to do abortions, but the other one wants to protect the religious liberty of Catholic hospitals and keep them from having to do that.

So in this case, you could choose not to vote if you don’t want be involved in that decision. But if you did vote, you would be justified in voting against the candidate who promotes the most evils. And now you can vote for a third party candidate who probably won’t win. There’s that Simpsons episode where the aliens come down and impersonate Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, and they impersonate them and they say, “It doesn’t matter. You have to vote for one of us.” And the guy says, “I’ll vote for a third party candidate.” “Go ahead, throw your vote away.”

But you could in that situation of two pro-choice candidates, but one wants to force Catholic hospitals to do abortions, you vote for the other one, in spite they’re pro choice views. Because the other pro-choice candidate promotes the intrinsic evil of not just abortion, but the evil of suppressing religious liberty. So here, you’re voting for the lesser of two evils.

That’s why it’s important. Once again, Catholics shoot themselves in the foot if they say you can never vote for a pro-choice candidate under any reason. No, that’s not true. You could vote for a pro-choice candidate in spite of their pro-choice position.

But then the other side that says, “Well, yeah, if your conscience leads you to, you can vote for them. It’s not a big deal.” No, because the USCCB makes it very clear. In that case, it can only be done. You can only do that for truly grave, moral reasons. It can’t just be advancing a narrow interest, or it can’t be because you like the political party that that candidate happens to belong to. It has to be a reason that is truly grave, that the other candidate that you’re voting for this pro-choice candidate, because the alternative somehow involves worse evils.

So what might those be? Well, I’m actually going to address arguments that people say, well, there could be a lot more worse evils that we actually haven’t thought about besides abortion. I’m actually going to cover all that. We only made it through the first two video scripts here that I’ve worked on. I’ve got three more. We’re going to have these out very soon because people will say, “Well, actually, there could be other reasons to vote for a pro-choice candidate that you haven’t considered, Trent.”

I have considered them, and we’ll be sure to release those and maybe I’ll update them in a future podcast. But for now, I hope this provides some clarity, some more light rather than heat on the situation, but I would recommend you check out some more of our resources at catholic.com.

Read actually the USCCB’s document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, and just consider these issues. Also, I’ll include a link on the description for this episode, but when people say all the issues are equal, no, it’s not. Abortion is the preeminent social issue of our time. I wrote a whole essay on that. You can find it. It’s called the World’s Worst Injustice.

Actually, if you Google, let me see here. We’ll see if the search algorithm changed anything. But if you Google the world’s worst injustice, you hit send, it shows videos from the video game, Injustice 2, which is a cool video game. It doesn’t come up. It came up before. Okay. So this is really weird, like a week ago, when I searched for the title of my article, the World’s Worst Injustice, where I argue that abortion is the preeminent social issue of our time, and Catholics need to take that into account when they’re voting. So not all issues are equal.

You can’t vote for a candidate who endorses the world’s preeminent social issue because you happen to like or you agree with some aspects of his economic policy, for example. It would have to be a truly grave, very, very proportionate reason for voting for someone who endorses that kind of an evil. So I wrote this essay, the World’s Worst Injustice arguing from the Catholic perspective that abortion is the preeminent social issue of our time.

And I know this is controversial, I wrote it a year ago when at the USCCB, there was a debate and some of the bishops did not want to include that language. Ultimately it did prevail and I will wholeheartedly defend this view, and I don’t care the consequences, frankly, in doing so. But it was just strange when I’ve searched for it on Google, I could find it last week, but the algorithms would not let me find it.

The article is called the World’s Worst Injustice. I put it in quotes, I put my name, and I couldn’t find it. So could something be up at big tech? Could big tech be censoring certain viewpoints? Gosh, I couldn’t imagine. But if you go to catholic.com and search for the world’s worst injustice, you will find it. And I’ll include it as a link in the show description at catholic.com.

So we covered five rules for Catholic politicians, four rules for Catholic voters, not every issue is equal and that’s to be taken into account. You could vote for a pro-choice candidate in spite of them defending such a horrendous evil, but only for truly grave reasons. It would only come up very rarely, like the example I gave, I think is rare, but could happen where you have two pro-choice candidates running for office. That’s actually not that rare, I’m in California, we have two pro-choice candidates running and you just got to try to vote for the lesser of two evils in that regard.

But otherwise, if it was pro-choice candidate, and someone who is not pro-choice, I believe the Catholic voting for that pro-choice candidate has a significant burden of proof to tell me that the alternative endorses even graver evils than the pro-choice candidate. That person has a burden of proof, I would like to see them meet that when they’re saying it is okay to vote for someone who thinks it’s all right to dismember children in the womb.

I hope what you take from this is that I am not advocating partisanship. I have my own political views, you have your political views. That’s fine. I’m not advocating us making decisions on partisanship or party, I’m asking us to make decisions based on principle. We may disagree how they’re apply it, but we must agree in those firm principals, especially when it comes to protecting the most fundamental right that we have, which is the right to life.

So I hope this was a helpful episode for you all. Hopefully very soon, we will have all of these videos up. So it’s [inaudible 00:25:17] episode, was more of a sneak peek at them of episodes one and two, I’ve got three more that’ll come after this. So do stay tuned, they will hopefully go up soon and maybe we’ll revisit the topic in a future episode.

If you’re a premium subscriber at trenthornpodcast.com, please consider leaving a question for our morality and politics episode. I’ll do a special open mailbag on Catholic moral issues that intersect with politics, and we should have some very interesting discussions and answers for that. So check that out at trenthornpodcast.com. If you’re a premium subscriber, gold level subscribers, you get priority access to having your questions answered and you get a mug, so be sure to check that out.

Thank you all so much. Continue to pray. And just above all, continue to pray for our elected officials, no matter what party they belong to, pray for them, that they will do God’s will, promote the common good and defend the dignity of every human being from conception to natural death. Thank you all so much, and I hope you have a very blessed day.

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