These last few months have been agonizing, haven't they? We've finally come to the end of the election season. I've read so many statements and articles, and listened to so much news that I've often felt just as frustrated near the end of this election as I did at the beginning. But I have prayed about it and talked with friends that I know are faithful, prayerful Catholics and serious thinkers. I've come to some clarity and I hope that I can help you, even here at the 11th hour.
Many of you may be thinking, "What's your problem Father, it's a no-brainer! Trump is a buffoon; I'm voting for Hillary! Hillary is a crook, I'm voting for Trump! No, no Father, I'm voting for a 3rd party, the American Solidarity Party, their whole platform is Catholic Social Teaching!" I'm sorry, it's not that easy.
I want to challenge us all today to go a little deeper. A presidential election is too significant to be waved off or dismissed as an easy problem. We're electing a person that will have great power over the well-being of millions of God's people, born and unborn. The president can lead the country to powerful good or powerful evil. This makes the casting of a vote much more than a simple political act, but also a serious moral act.
We first need to step back and establish what it means to have a well-formed conscience and what that allows and disallows. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman called the conscience the "primordial vicar of Christ." It is the voice of God's divine law in our hearts and it helps us know right from wrong in the concrete situations of life.
There are certain things we can do to form our consciences well. We can receive the grace of the sacraments and nurture ourselves with all that is genuinely true, good, and beautiful. We can also pray and fast; study the Scriptures, the Church's teaching, and the issues at hand; and seek the advice of wise friends and mentors. A person who does these things can be confident that he will make a moral decision. This is within each one of our grasp. On the other hand, if our conscience is ignored or malformed, it becomes not a servant, but a slave, remaining deathly quiet or telling us only what we want to hear.
When I think back to when I turned 18 and could vote for the first time, I realize that my conscience was not well-formed. All I did was ask my dad who to vote for, he told me, and I pulled the lever. But, "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Cor 13:11). As adults, we need to be more thoughtful and more prayerful. No longer can we vote a certain way simply because "that's what I've always done” or “that’s what my parents and grandparents always did or what all my coworkers do." Neither can it be simply about whether a candidate is black or white, a woman or a man, an insider or an outsider, or even from the Republican, Democrat, or American Solidarity Party.
A well-formed conscience knows that the morality of the vote, of the issues, and even of the candidates is what is most important. A well-formed conscience also speaks with the Church even in the most challenging situations, like, for example, when then-Cardinal Ratzinger taught in 2004 that a particular vote could even be a mortal sin. He 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 and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons... [this] can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons (footnote).
This begs the question: Are there other reasons or issues as serious or as urgent as abortion which kills 4000 people every day in our country? That is the equivalent of a 9-11 every day. It adds up to more than 50 million since 1973, more than the Jewish Holocaust.
It is a scandal that so many Catholics vote for candidates that not only permit, but support, advance, and enrich the abortion industry. Even when local politicians don't press the abortion issue, they still provide the votes themselves and the grassroots support that higher level politicians need. If it were four-year-olds we were talking about... if we could take our toddlers to abortion clinics, everyone would be beside themselves to make that illegal tomorrow! But instead, because they aren't born yet, so many Catholics feel free to say, "eh... that doesn't concern me." Where is our moral outrage, our righteous indignation!?
This is a good place to pause and see what the Church teaches about the other reasons one may have for voting for a pro-abortion candidate. We've already concluded that reasons of family custom, peer pressure, color, gender, and even party are too superficial to be taken seriously.
The bishops of North America, in a 1998 statement called, “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics,” helped us put all of this in context. They said:
Adopting a consistent ethic of life, the Catholic Church promotes a broad spectrum of issues... Opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice… But being 'right' in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the 'rightness' of positions in other matters... (L.G.L. #22)
Ten years before this teaching, in 1988, our beloved Holy Father, Pope St. John Paul II, writing about the vocation and mission of the laity, made a similar point. He said,
Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights… is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition of all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination. (C.L. #38)
From this teaching, we understand that the absence of any other proportionately serious reasons or issues effectively eliminates the most egregious pro-abortion candidate as an option for a faithful, well-formed Catholic.
Many more questions follow from this:
- What is a faithful Catholic to do if the other major party candidate is only partially right on abortion, for example? Suppose he supports other grave moral evils like torture, which the Church teaches is also a serious offense against human dignity?
- Are we morally obligated - is it morally possible - to vote for the so-called "lesser of two evils”?
- Is it acceptable for character to enter the equation for either candidate?
- Can one morally vote for a pro-life third party candidate of worthy character but no electability?
This is where the rubber hits the road. Let's look at these questions in a summary fashion.
For this election, here’s how I see the process. First, one must identify the morally disqualified candidate – the one who most egregiously supports the grave moral evils that Catholics are obligated to oppose. These are, for example, abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, torture, the targeting of non-combatants in war, the abuse of the poor, the worker, and minorities, and the redefinition of marriage. Once this candidate has been disqualified then one can in good conscience choose between two approaches. I call these the "Maximum Determination Approach" and the "Character Approach."
First, the "Maximum Determination Approach." This approach comes from what St. John Paul II taught in 1988, that the common outcry for human rights is false and illusory if the right to life is not defended with maximum determination. This approach leads a voter to put a lower priority on a candidate’s character flaws or imperfect compliance with the Church’s teachings, because this voter rightly holds that the issues that directly affect the sanctity of life are most important and he has “maximum determination” to defend life by choosing the candidate most likely to advance this priority. For this voter, electability and the defense of life are the high priorities. Let's look at what the Church teaches.
Every four years the bishops of North America produce a teaching document called "Faithful Citizenship" that helps Catholics to live out their faith in the political sphere. They said:
When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter… 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… The moral obligation to oppose policies promoting intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions. (F.C. #36-37).
So this is not a question of voting for the “lesser of two evils”; one may never choose evil. Rather, one is choosing the candidate that is more likely to limit intrinsic moral evils. This is choosing a good. [See deleted section 1]
Before we move on, we should note that the Maximum Determination Approach is also supported by Scripture. The Book of Proverbs says,
Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work? (Prov 24:11-12)
And the Prophet Nehemiah said, “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” (Neh 4:14)
We now can look at the Character Approach, which, again, like the Maximum Determination Approach, can also be chosen in good conscience. The Character Approach answers our remaining questions. It reasons that it is indeed acceptable to allow character to enter the equation. After all, the bishops also taught that, "These decisions should take into account a candidate's commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue" (F.C. #36-37). Therefore, this voter would be inclined to vote for a pro-life third party candidate of worthy character if both major party candidates had deplorable character.
Scripture also supports this approach:
The Book of Proverbs again says, "When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked rule, the people groan” (Prov 29:2).
In Matthew's Gospel, our Lord said,
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit... (Mt 7: 15-17)
A voter could have a well-formed conscience in which character is a high priority. This doesn't mean he is careless about the magnitude and urgency of issues like abortion. This voter would reason that he has been put into a terrible dilemma outside of his making or control. He didn't vote for these candidates in the primaries, but he's stuck with them now.
He understands though that he is not responsible for other people's votes. When he receives a lot of venom from his fellows who say, "We have to defeat the other candidate! A vote for a third party candidate, even a pro-life one of worthy character, is worthless and equivalent to voting for the other candidate!" he calmly replies, "No, that's not on me. All those people shouldn't have put forward that candidate to begin with. A vote is a moral act, not only a political one. I'm only responsible for the morality of my vote and for the consequences of it that can be reasonably foreseen. It is certainly acceptable to make a moral act even if it is deemed a failure in the political sphere." [See deleted section 2]
To ridicule him for this is to commit the same evil that secular politicians do when, for example, they insist that the Little Sisters of the Poor should set aside their silly conscience and provide coverage for abortion-inducing drugs to their employees. [See deleted section 3]
Let us not fall into political despair with this election. There is a way to vote morally and with a good and clear conscience. St. Paul in our second reading reassures us:
Brothers and sisters: May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting encouragement and good hope through his grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed and word (see 2 Thes 2:16-3:5).
God willing, if we form our consciences well, do good, and avoid evil, perhaps even one of the Prophet Isaiah can come true. Perhaps with God’s help, we can even come to a day when:
“Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles,” Memorandum from Cardinal Ratzinger to Cardinal McCarrick, online: https://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/cdfworthycom.HTM
“Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics,” USCCB, online: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/abortion/living-the-gospel-of-life.cfm
Christifideles Laici, On the Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World, Pope St. John Paul II, online: http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_30121988_christifideles-laici.html
“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility,” USCCB, online: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship/
“Explaining Ratzinger’s Proportionate Reasons,” by Jimmy Akin, online: http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/explaining-ratzingers-proportionate-reasons
“Is Voting Third Party or a Write-In a Sin of Omission?” by Anthony S. Layne, online: http://impracticalcatholic.blogspot.com/2016/10/ask-tony-is-voting-third-party-or-write.html
“In Response to Fr. Frank Pavone” by Anthony S. Layne, online: http://impracticalcatholic.blogspot.com/2016/10/in-response-to-fr-frank-pavone.html
“Voting and Living As Good Citizens,” by Bishop Conley, online: http://www.lincolndiocese.org/op-ed/bishop-s-column/6841-voting-and-living-as-good-citizens
“Dirty Hands and Political Despair,” by Brandon McGinley, First Things, online: https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2016/10/dirty-hands-and-political-despair
“Changing the Game,” by George Weigel, First Things, online: https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2016/10/changing-the-game
Sections Removed in the Interest of Time:
1. The Maximum Determination voter must be careful though to make sure his motives are pure. He must care more about his morality than his party. He should not vote with the intention of showing support for a candidate’s bad character or problematic views. He must remember that he can only in good conscience support this candidate because he is more right on the non-negotiable issues than the morally disqualified candidate and he is the only viable option left.
This voter must also be sensitive to the fact that character means a lot to a lot of people. This voter must be diligent to be of high moral character himself. He should be involved in restoring the credibility of his convictions in the eyes of the public wherever it has been wounded and in promoting politicians of upstanding character. We must not usher in a new era of politics in which character is of no concern.
2. For the Character voter, credibility and integrity are important. He is loathe to hitch the chariot of his most noble convictions to the wildest horse in the stable, even if that means he loses the race. He’ll love to race another day.
3. To disobey a well-formed conscience is to suffer spiritually what we saw suffered physically in this weekend’s first reading. The seven Jewish brothers and their mother would rather accept physical violence from their pagan persecutors than inflict spiritual violence on their own souls by violating their consciences and the laws of their ancestors (cf. 2 Mac 7). Would that we had such resolve!
Where the “Character” voter should be careful is in not rashly judging his “Maximum Determination” brother as one who doesn’t care about character or who is going against his better judgment and getting his hands dirty by voting the way he is. Both of them, with proper intention, can vote the way they are with good and clear conscience.