During election seasons many Catholics feel politically homeless and reject stances taken by the major political parties. Some of these voters opt for a third party candidate that they think better aligns with their values, even if he or she has no real chance to win the election. Some do this to help the party win future elections while others feel it is immoral to vote for anyone who contradicts Church teaching on grave evils.
But can Catholics vote for third party candidates, or must they vote only for the major party candidate who best aligns with Catholic teaching? The short answer is: Catholics can vote for third party candidates but they are not morally obligated to vote for those candidates.
Some people say Catholics can’t vote for a third party candidate because they have a moral obligation to vote for the candidate who is most likely to prevent the most amount of evil.
Now, it is one thing to say Catholics should, as a matter of prudence, use their vote to do as much good as they can; so, voting for someone who won’t win an election fails to accomplish any goods either now or later. But this is not the position of the Church.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says “Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country” (2240). This exhortation does not mean Catholics must vote in every race any more than it means every Catholic must enlist in the armed forces. Instead, Catholics have a general obligation to use their vote to promote the common good of society and the Church leaves us wide discretion to determine how to do that.
In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the United States Conference of Catholic bishops recognizes a Catholic’s right to not vote when every candidate in a race endorses an intrinsic evil:
When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to 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 likely to pursue other authentic human goods. (36)
If a person can withhold their vote during an election because they don’t want to support a morally flawed candidate, then a person could give his vote to a morally appropriate third party candidate instead.
But are Catholics obligated to vote for the candidate that most closely aligns with Church teaching? Like we said of the prudential judgment that Catholics should use their vote to achieve the most good, this is something to seriously consider but it is not the position of the Church. Professor Charles Camosy, who recently wrote an article urging Catholics to vote for Brian Carroll of the American Solidarity Party (whose platform is heavily influenced by Catholic social teaching), said:
[T]here is no “Catholic” candidate for whom to vote this November. Catholic teaching does not endorse or prohibit voting for the major candidates. It offers guidance about the principles to be used — and prohibits voting for candidates only if one is voting for them because they stand for something the Church has rightly named a grave evil.
Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship does not require Catholics to vote for certain candidates. The guide even allows Catholics to vote for candidates who endorse intrinsically evil acts provided that they have “morally grave reasons” to justify their vote (35). For example, it would be justifiable to vote for a candidate who endorses abortion and opposes euthanasia if the other major candidate endorses both of these evils.
This would be the case even if a third-party candidate existed who opposed abortion and euthanasia since the “morally grave reason” to vote for the pro-abortion candidate is to take the only feasible option to prevent the worse pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia candidate from getting elected.
A similar example of voting for the “lesser of two evils” can be found in Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical The Gospel of Life. The Pope said that in many modern countries abortion is legal and Catholic politicians must work to try and make it illegal. This leads to a dilemma because those politicians may not have enough electoral support (either among voters or their colleagues) to abolish abortion. But, they may have enough support to pass a law that at least reduces the evil of abortion. The Pope offered this guidance:
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 and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects (73)
So, if a Catholic politician can vote for a feasible imperfect law over an unfeasible perfect law, then a Catholic voter can vote for a feasible imperfect candidate over a more perfect candidate who is not feasible. But this doesn’t mean Catholics should dismiss third-party candidates or their concerns about today’s modern political systems.
While Catholics should recognize that some evils are more preeminent than others, they should protest any grave evils that exist in the platforms of the political party they endorse. They can also explore viable third-party candidates in smaller, local elections that have a better chance of winning. But above all, they should continue to pray for their country and not turn politics into an idol they think will heal every woe. There is a reason the Psalmist said “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help. When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish” (Psalm 146:3-4).
Choosing elected leaders is important, but we can’t trust in them for our salvation even in this life. That’s because it is God who providentially arranges everything for the good for those who believe in him (Rom. 8:28), which includes the institution of earthly rulers (Rom. 13:1). So, let’s trust in God and use our best judgments when it comes to electing civic leaders. And, whoever does end up being elected, let’s follow St. Paul’s exhortation that:
supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:1-4).