Among events local and national, with the news cycles and social media going full bore, you may have heard, through some medium or other, various apocalyptic portents to the effect that the fate of the world relies upon your vote in the November U.S. elections.
Yes. Here we are: morality and voting. I give this overview of the Catholic principles, and I hope it proves to be quite dull and obvious. But… I’m not sure everything I will explain here is obvious, and that is the reason I risk being so dull.
Yes, the Catholic Church affirms your general moral obligations to participate in civic affairs, via all major ways that are open to you. The Church strongly encourages you to vote in elections. The Church exhorts you morally. But let us be clear right off. The Church does not say that voting is a preeminent moral responsibility on par with the 10 Commandments. The ability to “cast a vote” in democratic elections, taken in comparison to the supreme obligations to love God and neighbor in harmony with the Decalogue, works in rather low among the overall interplay of many moral responsibilities. It is not a mortal sin if you do not vote. However, it is probably a venial sin, and it might be indicative of other sins, perhaps more grave.
No candidate is perfect. Have we started with the sufficiently dull and obvious? Good. Rather than telling you how to discern the “perfect” candidate, or devolve into arguments about who is better than who for “this” national or state or local election, we must deal here with the parameters, in general, of voting for imperfect candidates. Does the Church have anything to say about this? Let us start with this statement from a U.S. Catholic Bishops’ document, which, I will actually say, is quite good and helpful, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.
Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods. A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity. (#34) (Bold emphasis added).
Firstly I recommend reading more of the document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, which is the basis of this blog post. My main purpose of this post is really to define some terms and give some highlights from the Faithful Citizenship document. So let me do that.
“Formal cooperation in evil” means you are giving your aid to someone who is doing an evil action, in a tangible way, or by an explicit endorsement. The latter means, if you are not giving direct help to accomplish some evil deed, you are still giving your real approval of the evil deed.
Formal cooperation in evil is a sin: “if the voter’s intent is to support [a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act]… a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil.” Let us illustrate this statement in the clearest of terms for some select moral issues.
- If a candidate intends to promote abortion, and you vote for them because you intend to support abortion, it’s formal cooperation. It’s a sin.
- If a candidate intends to promote violence-to-families, and you vote for them because you intend to support violence-to-families, it’s formal cooperation. It’s a sin.
- If a candidate intends to promote racism and chauvinism, and you vote for them because you intend to support racism and chauvinism, it’s formal cooperation. It’s a sin.
- If a candidate intends to promote assisted suicide, and you vote for them because you intend to support assisted suicide, it’s formal cooperation. It’s a sin.
No one can really claim ignorance here. Those who vote with the intent to support an evil, that the Church has condemned, intrinsically, as evil, have sinned to some degree or other. If the sin is not the formal cooperation we have described, it is the sin of obstinacy in willful ignorance. If the sin is neither of these two things then it may well be the sin of apostasy. Clearly we are presupposing such important elements as the evangelical foundation in the Catholic moral teaching of the Catechism, and that of the creed, defining what we know the Catholic Church to be and to teach. There is not much to protest here, unless one objects to the whole Catholic Church, or has, in other general terms, rejected Christ. You get the drift. If we have read the Catechism’s explanation of the Ten Commandments, we know the motives which are unacceptable to hold when we support a certain candidate.
We enter here into the realm of possibilities where everyone raises objections. What about acceptable motives for supporting a not-perfect candidate? I’m glad you asked. Let us look at the next statement from Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.
There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. 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. (#35)
Here we have the whole argument
- A candidate intends to promote assisted suicide. Although I do not intend to support assisted suicide, I vote for them because I claim that there are grave reasons that make it best to vote for them.
- A candidate intends to promote racism and chauvinism. Although I do not intend to support racism and chauvinism, I vote for them because I claim that there are grave reasons that make it best to vote for them.
- A candidate intends to promote violence-to-families. Although I do not intend to support violence-to-families, I vote for them because I claim that there are grave reasons that make it best to vote for them.
- A candidate intends to promote abortion. Although I do not intend to support abortion, I vote for them because I claim that there are grave reasons that make it best to vote for them.
There are just a few evident criteria here.
First, note that one may not honestly “ignore” the fundamental moral evils. There can be no equivocation or “beating around the bush” that the candidate indeed supports at least one kind of intrinsically evil act.
Second, note the scenario that there are “truly grave moral reasons.” This implies that there are other evil acts in question, which are likely to be remedied by the not-perfect candidate if elected in such “grave” circumstances. We might even presume to say there are multiple intrinsically evil acts in question.
So here is the situation upon which everyone seems to pontificate. Only two candidates are “electable” in most local, state or national elections. Both support things which are intrinsically evil. Everyone gets out their crystal ball to predict the future, and claims that the candidate they are supporting will prevent more evils than they will cause. Things will be “better” if that particular candidate gets elected… so my crystal ball of prognostication tells me. Sound familiar? Sound all too familiar? I’m not being snarky with this synopsis, the very next paragraph of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship will bear me out.
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)
There you have it. Now we have really covered the whole range of possibilities which Catholics might encounter in a candidate.
Let us here insert an important sidebar about the moral responsibility of voting. Many times the American voter has the ability to write-in any eligible candidate of their choosing, one who would not support any intrinsic evils. Of course, in most every circumstance, candidates written-in on the ballot have no real chance of getting elected. It seems, unfortunately, that this option is treated in the Faithful Citizenship document just like the “extraordinary step” of not voting. Although, by writing in a candidate you clearly have voted in that race and election. You clearly have exercised your right as a citizen, and your general duty as a Christian.
But now, comments about our option to write-in candidates aside, we must run through one more important consideration. The terminology here is a mouthful, but it really is the terminology of Catholic moral theology. Moral theology uses the phrase “material cooperation in evil,” and this phrase is further qualified by two distinct ideas, explained as follows.
In all cases, “material cooperation in evil,” indicates that a person is connected to, or cooperating indirectly in, an evil action, in a manner that is not direct or affirmative. This makes “material cooperation in evil” a different thing than “formal cooperation.” There are two scenarios with “material cooperation in evil,” and hence there are two more terms to throw in.
- Where our material cooperation in evil is “remote,” we don’t have to take any specific action to remedy that evil, beyond prayer; in some distant way my life and my actions can be said to cooperate is these evil happenings, but it’s really God’s problem to deal with, not mine. I am supposed to keep praying and go on growing in holiness, “loving justice, living mercy, and walking humbly.”
- Where our material cooperation in evil is “proximate,” it means we have some “proximity” or influence on the situation, and so we should take some kind of action to counteract the evil. Our connection to the evil reality is not direct or affirmative, but we are still “close enough” to the evil that we have a moral obligation to do something.
These are the subtleties: remote, and proximate. So then, when we become aware of our own “proximate material cooperation in evil” this is a situation where we are not at any fault for bringing about or endorsing the evil, but prudential evaluation has opened up to our consciences some immediate, practical or potential, way of countering the evil with goodness. In these cases it is at least a venial sin of omission to ignore outright the possibilities for good actions which our consciences have opened up to us.
I will here avoid giving examples to illustrate these principles of moral theology, because the only examples I wish to review are the ones we have already used above. Namely, what about the examples of voting for imperfect candidates?
The Church has not defined voting to be a proximate means of material cooperation. What does this mean? Well, if voting is not proximate-material-cooperation, and if we have done our conscientious job as Catholics to swear off formal cooperation (see all above), then, all votes we cast would relate to “the evils of candidate X” as remote-material-cooperation.
- A candidate intends to promote abortion. Although I do not intend to support abortion, I vote for them because I claim that there are grave reasons that make it best to vote for them, despite the remote-material-cooperation in evil.
- A candidate intends to promote violence-to-families. Although I do not intend to support violence-to-families, I vote for them because I claim that there are grave reasons that make it best to vote for them, despite the remote-material-cooperation in evil.
- A candidate intends to promote racism and chauvinism. Although I do not intend to support racism and chauvinism, I vote for them because I claim that there are grave reasons that make it best to vote for them, despite the remote-material-cooperation in evil.
- A candidate intends to promote assisted suicide. Although I do not intend to support assisted suicide, I vote for them because I claim that there are grave reasons that make it best to vote for them, despite the remote-material-cooperation in evil.
This explanation of mine may frustrate people, merely a multiplying of words that seems pointless, but this is the best summary of the moral principles that can be offered from Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. These principles of morality and voting have not endorsed anyone’s personal crystal ball of prognostication, they have not condemned any person who votes for “this” or “that” party in the next U.S. election. But they are the principles (the starting points) of morality and voting. So where have all these words left us?
It leaves me with a dramatic, but also rather sincere prayer. I pray the Lord would stop all damnable prognostications insinuating that the fate of the world depends upon the next round of elections in the United States of America. The Lord has told us the fate of the world. It’s all going to end, except for each human soul; and “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world [or the next election], and lose his own soul?”
Sure, if we’re talking about American politics, there’s room for arguing about how the goods-vs-evils of candidate A will “so evidently” be better or worse than the goods-vs-evils of candidate B. Argue prudently and be informed about the evils as much as the goods, etc. etc. But, if we’re talking American politics AND doing so as Catholics, will we not return at some point to the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, and final Judge of the living and the dead? Sure, the U.S. could lead the world swiftly into World War III. The U.S. could also lead the world into a new era of harmonious world trade and equitable “material prosperity” for every country. Yet, the greatest of the saints could not tell us which scenario is more likely to bring eternal salvation to the greatest number of souls. Will your crystal ball do that for us? I prefer to put away the crystal balls of political prognostications and take up the mission of Jesus Christ.
Quick note: it should be obvious that, by speaking of crystal balls, metaphorically, I am making fun of superstitious practices regarding spirits and magic. I know that a small sphere of glass does not have power to show the future, and I stand with the Church in condemning all forms of fortune telling, psychic mediums, new age prophesying, and the like. Yet are we not always tempted, each of us, to make future-seeing deities out of political candidates and their election promises? Metaphorically speaking, I have a political “crystal ball” that I use from time to time, my own opinions about how this or that scenario is going to play out in the future. When these opinions are put forward as nothing other than our humble and prudent considerations about doing good in the public square, we are doing politics properly and rightly. When we cross the line by claiming that our political causes will lead to a kind of definitive salvation for others, we have made a false god out of politics.
So, I say that this consideration leaves us with a question, and an unusual one, of conscience. It is the question posed by the very terminology about “proximate” material cooperation in evil: Where has prudential evaluation opened up to our consciences some immediate, practical or potential, way of countering evil with goodness? Voting for a certain candidate, and telling others to vote likewise, doesn’t count as an answer! A vote can do something, it may be practical or potential, but it is really quite slow, and – despite much clamoring to the contrary- not immediately at work for good. The ends never justify the means, and the Catechism will bear me out on that! Therefore…
Swear off all formal cooperation, inherent in votes meant to support intrinsically evil actions, and stand ready to side with the Church on the moral issues of intrinsic evils.
Remember the moral terminology of “remote material cooperation.” But… don’t try to insert it on the spot in any political arguments! Really, I mean that. If you have actually taken turns comparing the goods-vs-evils of candidate A with the goods-vs-evils of candidate B, great. Just say “let’s pray for each other and for those in need,” and then log off the computer.
But then, ask.
Where has prudential evaluation opened up to my conscience some immediate, practical or potential, way of countering evil with goodness? If all politics started with such questions we might have avoided many of the evils that are now so prolific. This might be tantamount to saying that if every politician was a living saint before they started their career as an elected official then our society and government would, almost by definition, be perfect. That would be a miracle as great as the complete conversion-to-utmost-sanctity of all governors and officials who are currently in office. But if we must acknowledge that they are not likely to become saints by tomorrow, we must also confess that tomorrow we can, personally, each be more like a saint than we were yesterday.