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Can Catholics Vote for Pro-Choicers?

Our vote is a form of cooperation in our leaders' governing decisions. Here's how we navigate this moral duty.

Trent Horn

Faith, Abortion, and Voting, Part 4 

In this series leading up to Election Day, we will explain why abortion is the most serious and urgent social issue of our time and what this means for Catholic voters. Are we simply free to vote for whatever candidate we prefer, for any reason that’s in our conscience? Or does our right to vote come with objective moral responsibilities that we must consider before casting our ballot?

In part 3 of this series we talked about principles Catholic voters should observe regarding the preeminent issue of abortion. But are those rules absolute? And what if there is no pro-life candidate?

Even little decisions we make in life can bring us into contact with evil done by others. For example, a company can take the money I spend in its stores and use it to support immoral causes. Theologians call this moral cooperation with evil, and there are two basic kinds.

Formal cooperation is when I intend to promote the evil—for example, by giving money to Planned Parenthood so it can perform abortions.

Material cooperation, on the other hand, occurs when I provide some of the means for the evil but don’t intend the evil, such as when I buy goods at a store, and the store donates some of that money to Planned Parenthood.

Catholics may never formally cooperate with evil, but we may materially cooperate under certain circumstances.

First, our cooperation must be remote, that is, far removed from the evil that it supports. Much of our activity as consumers falls into this category. That’s why it’s not a sin to buy groceries at a store that’s part of a chain that donates to a foundation that supports charities that may fund contraception distribution.

Second, there must be a proportionately good reason to justify the cooperation. The good being sought must outweigh the harm caused by our relatively negligible cooperation. Frivolous consumer activity that materially supports a serious evil may not be justifiable even if it is fairly remote.

In our previous essays we showed that it is gravely sinful to formally cooperate with abortion. We may never directly vote to support it or vote for a candidate because he will support it. But in rare cases, a Catholic could materially cooperate even in the evil of abortion if the cooperation is remote and there is a proportionately good reason for doing so.

As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) put it, “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.”

These proportionate reasons would have to show that the candidate who is an alternative to a pro-abortion candidate actually supports more evils of a gravity equal to abortion than that pro-abortion candidate. Since abortion is so grave, this is a very rare circumstance, and accordingly the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says, “Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.”

This means that Catholics could not vote for a candidate who endorses an intrinsic evil such as legal abortion merely because they prefer that candidate’s party or because they find the other candidate unlikeable or even morally reprehensible in his personal conduct. And as we noted last time, voting for a pro-abortion candidate also wouldn’t be justified merely because you disagreed with the other candidate’s views on an issue Catholics could reasonably disagree about.

The only reason that could justify voting for someone who endorses an intrinsic evil like abortion would be in the super-rare case that the alternative candidate endorsed even worse evils. These issues couldn’t just be other intrinsic evils; they would have to be intrinsic evils that reach a scale that is worse than abortion, which the USCCB calls the preeminent social issue of our time. Thus, a Catholic couldn’t justify voting for a pro-abortion candidate even if the anti-abortion candidate endorsed another intrinsic evil, such as human cloning, that causes far less harm than abortion.

But what should we do if two viable candidates in an election both support legal abortion? In this case, a Catholic may vote for the one who, as the USCCB says, is “deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.”

For example, a Catholic could vote for a candidate in spite of his support of legal abortion if the other pro-abortion candidate also wanted to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions. In this case, the pro-abortion candidate is merely tolerated in order to prevent the election of a candidate who endorses even more evil.

However, if the only relevant difference between two candidates were that one supports the legal killing of unborn human beings and the other does not, then there would be almost no chance there is a proportionate reason to vote for the pro-legal-child-killing candidate.

But what if a Catholic thought that the candidate who supports legal abortion would nonetheless, thanks to his other policies, do a better job at reducing abortion rates? Some say that we could vote for a supporter of legal abortion over an opponent of legal abortion if we thought he would better address abortion’s “root causes.”

In our last entry, we’ll see if this reason stands up to scrutiny.


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