Every election we seem to be given far too simplistic “rules” by others on how to decide our vote. Bumper stickers tell us “you can’t be Catholic and vote for (insert candidate’s name here).” Rarely, if ever, is this true. Something else that needs to be said is that, contrary to the political ads, polls, pundits, and your next door neighbor, jobs and the economy is not, and cannot be, the most important issue in an election when we face the options that we have been presented in the candidates this time around. This is going to be a long post, so bear with me. If you do, I hope that it will help you make your decision this election and future elections; just as important, I hope it helps to prevent us from automatically demonizing others for their vote or claim that to vote for this or that person is necessarily a “mortal sin.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has provided us a document that is meant to assist in determining how to vote without telling the Catholic voter for whom to vote. There are those who will point out that this document does not carry with it official Magisterial authority because it was not unanimously approved as per JPII’s Motu Proprio, Apostolos Suos. This is true and therefore, assent of intellect and will is not obliged upon the Catholic voter to accept everything within the document (except those parts that are direct references of Magisterial documents). However, a Catholic voter who does choose to follow such a document in charity and reverence for the grace that comes with the office of the Bishop, is well within Church teaching. That document is: “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” Each Catholic would do well to at least consider reading this document in preparation for voting.
In general, with each new election cycle, there is the potential to have three options provided us from the candidates we are offered.
Option #1 – Both candidates universally support human dignity
Option #2 – One candidate universally respects human dignity, the other candidate does not.
Option #3 – Neither candidate universally respects human dignity (double effect; cooperation with evil)
With Option #1 there would appear to be no “grave” conflict that exists and so the faithful Catholic can safely vote for either person based on applying prudential judgment in discerning which candidates’ policies will be most effective. Morally, this may be the only situation in which one could argue that “jobs” is the most important issue in an election.
Option #2 provides a pretty clear-cut choice for the Catholic voter since one candidate universally supports the dignity of the human person. Since the other candidate does not, and we have a universally pro-life alternative, it would seem that nothing would be grave enough to allow us to vote for the candidate that is not universally pro-life.
Unfortunately, in most elections, including our current presidential election, we are being presented with Option #3. Neither President Obama, nor Governor Romney, universally respects the intrinsic dignity of the human person. Both candidates propose policies that are direct attacks on human dignity. The faithful Catholic is faced with a challenge. Does the faithful Catholic vote for the candidate that supports intrinsic evil or vote for the candidate that supports intrinsic evil? Does the faithful Catholic choose not to vote at all? What is a faithful Catholic to do? The following will be an attempt to help provide Catholic principles and teachings to apply in making a decision.
Many Catholics have asked me, “If both candidates support an intrinsic evil won’t I be guilty of “mortal sin” if I vote for either one?” Not necessarily and here is a little foundation to help you decide how to vote.
- The intrinsic dignity of the human person
- Principle of Double Effect
- Cooperation with Evil
Intrinsic Dignity of the Human Person
A succinct expression of issues we face in elections that are non-negotiable since they are intrinsically evil and are direct attacks on human dignity can be found in a document from the Second Vatican Council. This excerpt from Gaudium Et Spes was oft repeated in documents by Blessed John Paul II:
“27. Coming down to practical and particularly urgent consequences, this council lays stress on reverence for man; everyone must consider his every neighbor without exception as another self, taking into account first of all His life and the means necessary to living it with dignity,(8) so as not to imitate the rich man who had no concern for the poor man Lazarus.(9)
In our times a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception and of actively helping him when he comes across our path, whether he be an old person abandoned by all, a foreign laborer unjustly looked down upon, a refugee, a child born of an unlawful union and wrongly suffering for a sin he did not commit, or a hungry person who disturbs our conscience by recalling the voice of the Lord, “As long as you did it for one of these the least of my brethren, you did it for me” (Matt. 25:40).
Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.”
Opposed to life itself
Murder (unjust use of death penalty, unjust war would fall into this category); Genocide
Abortion (includes embryonic stem cell research and IVF); Euthanasia ; Willful self-destruction
Violates the integrity of the human person
Mutilation; Torments inflicted on body or mind (torture, “enhanced interrogation techniques); Attempts to coerce the will itself
Insults to human dignity
Subhuman living conditions; Arbitrary imprisonment (ex. Guantanimo); Deportation (immigration policy); Slavery; Prostitution; Selling of women and children; Disgraceful working conditions; people treated as mere tools for profit (sweat shop labor)
The Council Fathers also include the example of the rich man and Lazarus, introducing care for the poor and vulnerable, the poor as a necessary obligation for society. Blessed John Paul II also includes the poor in the opening of his Encyclical “Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life)” and, we find a very direct admonition from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the document “Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation” which states: “Injustice to the little ones and the poor is a grave sin and one which destroys communion with God.” CDF Instruction on Xn Freedom and Liberation, p.46
It is no coincidence that “The Gospel of Life” by JPII spoke about poverty prior to speaking about abortion, IVF, euthanasia, eugenics, and embryonic stem cell research. It is not to say that caring for the poor is more important or a greater obligation, but rather to stress the importance of fulfilling positive commands of the Gospel and not allowing us to think that negative commands (thou shall not) take precedence over positive commands (thou shall) as we find in Bl. JPII’s encyclical letter “Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth)”: “The fact that only the negative commandments oblige always and under all circumstances does not mean that in the moral life prohibitions are more important than the obligation to do good indicated by the positive commandment” (Veritatis Splendor, no. 52). We find no clearer example of this obligation in Scripture than Christ’s speech in Matthew 25, “whatever you do to the least of these…whatever you fail to do to the least of these…”
We have been reminded of this obligation to not only oppose evil but the obligation to do good by the Magisterium, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, but also by persons like Sister Simone Campbell. Unfortunately, Sister Campbell, at the Democratic National Convention gave a narrow and impoverished definition and explanation of this principle.
What Sister Campbell left out is that persons can legitimately disagree on the means to help the poor as long as they have, as their goal, aiding the poor. Hatred or apathy toward the poor by a candidate is not acceptable, but disagreeing on whether or not Federal resources should be used to aid the poor may be a morally acceptable policy disagreement. It is also problematic for one to approach the issue of poverty by appearing to demonize those who have an abundance, or even a superabundance, of wealth. We find in scripture, as Bl. John Paul II is clear to point out in Veritatis Splendor that the Rich Young Man is not evil because he is rich, however, he risks his own salvation because he puts his wealth, the material world, above love of God and the poor. He goes away “sad” for he had much wealth. Simply because a person has abundance or superabundance of wealth does not mean they are necessarily committing injustice against the poor. But, if their motives and policies are guided by greed, apathy or even denigration of the poor, then they are guilty of grave offense (potentially mortal sin) against their neighbor and against God. These distinctions are important and should not be oversimplified as I fear that Sister Campbell did in her address to the Democratic National Convention.
More on this as we approach the specific policies and positions of the candidates. If the phrase “arguable” is placed in connection with the particular issues that follow, that means that there seems to be evidence in which one could make the claim that the person fails to uphold that particular tenet of human dignity. However, since such arguments cannot be held with 100% certainty, the onus of proof is on the voter who would choose to use fallible assertions in their decision. One must be wary of claiming certitude on whether or not a particular candidate is guilty of formal cooperation with evil if the evidence is not objective or clear. The following is not an exhaustive list of issues regarding human dignity, nor are they exhaustive assessments of each candidate but they do provide evidence that we are facing a choice between two candidates who are both culpable in formal cooperation with intrinsic evils that attack human dignity. (most policy positions can be found at http://www.ontheissues.org/.
President Obama on the issues:
Supports abortion (almost universally)
Supports embryonic stem cell research
Unjust war (arguable with regards to the means he has continued the war in Afghanistan and Iraq)
Rejects torture – (Army field manual prohibits torture and all government agencies are to apply the Army Field Manual)
Supports unjust use of death penalty
Deportation of Immigrants highest ever
Religious freedom – HHS Mandate
Arguable – Arbitrary imprisonment (Guantanimo)
Governor Romney on the issues:
Supports limited exceptions for abortion (rape, health of mother)
Supports torture (maybe not “legal” torture but definitely supports means by which a Catholic would morally find to be torture)- “We’ll use enhanced interrogation techniques which go beyond those that are in the military handbook right now,” he said at a news conference in Charleston, S.C., in December
Supports Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Supports unjust war (continues to say that going into Iraq was a good idea although the Church has said that Just War was not fulfilled). Although there can be disagreements on how to move forward, the war itself has been determined to be unjust by JPII and Benedict XVI.
Arguable –Injustice to the poor (47% comment, “I’m not concerned about the poor.”) One does have some evidence to be skeptical that Romney is at the very least apathetic about the poor, if not some disdain. However, as Romney claims, his policies are not because of apathy or hatred for the poor but he believes his policies will be more effective at helping the poor. As has been stated earlier, one can disagree on the means as long as their goal is to help the poor.
2005 testified Supporting Unjust Use of the Death Penalty
Arguable – Persons as tools of profit– could be argued with deregulation and attack on unions
Arguable – Arbitrary Imprisonment – mandatory minimums for crimes, Gauntanimo
Religious Freedom – “wire tap” Mosques
Now that we have discussed many of the “non-negotiables” and where the two candidates stand on these issues let us consider the means by which we can vote for either person. If one would argue that to support, for example, a pro-abortion candidate is never under any circumstance permissible because that person supports an intrinsic evil that directly attacks life they would also be prohibited from voting for a candidate that supports torture, the unjust use of the death penalty, limited abortion and the likes. This simply is not the case. So how can one decide if both candidates support direct attacks on life and human dignity? The Church has long taught the Principle of Double Effect and Cooperation with evil for just such a situation.
If you would like a little background on some Magisterial sources that discuss The Principle of Double Effect consider reviewing some of the following documents:
“Attempt on Innocent Human Life” (Nov. 26, 1951) Pope Pius XII; “The Prolongation of Life” (Nov. 24, 1957), Pope Pius XII; Pope Pius XII’s speech to The Seventh International Congress on Hematology (September 12, 1958); The encyclical Humanae Vitae (July 25, 1968) issued by Paul VI (implied, not directly stated); Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faithful “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation” (February 22, 1987) approved by Pope John Paul II (implied); CC Paragraph 2263 justifying self-defense; CC Paragraph 2309 just war.
The following four principles must be met for one to claim their decision is in line with the Principle of Double Effect:
“1. The action to be performed must be morally good in itself or at least morally indifferent or neutral.
2. The good effect must not come about as a result of the evil effect, but must come directly from the action itself.
3. The good must be willed, and the evil merely allowed or tolerated.
4. The good effect must be at least equivalent in importance to the evil effect. In other words, there must be a sufficient reason for permitting the evil effect to occur.” (Hayes, Rev. Edward J., Rev. Msgr. Paul J. Hayes, Dorothy Ellen Kelly, James J. Drummey. Catholicism and Ethics. C.R. Publications Inc: Norwood, MA, 1997. Pg. 54-55.)”
What do we do with this principle and how do we apply it? First, it must be said that in deciding between the candidates we have available to us we are not voting for the lesser of two evils (as the USCCB points out in their document on Faithful Citizenship); doing so would mean we are voting for evil, which is never permissible. Instead, we are voting in spite of evil.
Let’s look at some examples of what I mean. A person is morally prohibited from voting for a candidate who supports a direct attack on human dignity BECAUSE of that candidate’s position. A person cannot morally vote for President Obama because they agree with him on abortion. Doing so would make them participating in formal cooperation with evil. The third point of the Principle of Double Effect tells us that the evil must be tolerated, not willed. Voting for President Obama because the voter supports legalized abortion does not fulfill the principle of double effect because the evil (abortion) is directly willed by the voter. Regardless of why a person supports that evil position or whatever justification they give, their act is morally unacceptable. The same goes for someone who believes that some torture is permissible and agrees with Governor Romney on going beyond the Army Field Manual in interrogation techniques; such an act would be morally impermissible because such policy is a direct violation on the dignity of the person being tortured. Again, one cannot will the evil (attempt to coerce the will, torments inflicted on the mind or body) but simply tolerate it.
So, in order to vote for either candidate, the voter must be voting in spite of the intrinsically evil policies/attacks on human dignity that the candidate supports. We do have another option, we can refuse to vote for either candidate and either vote third party or write in a candidate.
Something needs to be said about “single issue” voting. As the bishops remind us, we are not single issue voters (Faithful Citizenship, 42). However, this has been taken out of context far too many times. To review, let’s look quickly at the topic in bullet point.
Catholics cannot be single issue voters
A single issue, if grave, may disqualify a candidate from our vote. If a candidate supports an intrinsic evil we can automatically withhold our vote from that candidate. For example, a candidate who supports abortion, unjust war, euthanasia can disqualify them from getting our vote on that single issue.
However it does not mean we automatically vote for the other candidate, especially if the other candidate supports an intrinsic evil.
All issues are not equal
Ex. Gun rights do not trump human dignity
The next question someone might ask is, “If I don’t support those policies that attack human dignity, but just tolerate them, am I then permitted to vote for the candidate?”
The answer is “Maybe.” Let’s go through the 4 steps of the principle of Double Effect.
- Participating in the political sphere of society is our moral obligation according to Magisterial teaching. (CC 1913-1915). Voting, being a part of that practice, is morally acceptable. Step one is met.
- Electing a President who supports many goods but also supports evils is done through a process that is itself good, peaceful voting. The person who is elected is not done so by way of their support for evils. The person elected to the Office of the Presidency does not torture their way in, abort their way in, murder their way in, etc. The good effect, a president that opposes abortion, does not come about by way of an evil effect, their support for embryonic stem cell research. Step two is met.
- The evil must only be tolerated. The Catholic voter cannot support the evil positions held by the candidate, but must oppose them and vote in spite of the evil positions. If this is the case, the step three is met.
- The good effect must be equivalent to the evil effect. Here is the trickiest step for others to assert with certitude on whether or not it is being met. Since both candidates support direct attacks on innocent life, both support embryonic stem cell research, both support permitting at least some abortions, both promote attacks on religious freedom. President Obama supports greater expansion of abortion while Governor Romney would like to limit it to rape and health of mother. President Obama banned torture, Governor Romney would permit torture. There are other issues that could be argued that each candidate supports further attacks on human life. So, should we use a numbers approach? This is certainly one way to help determine one’s vote but, if the sole means, it risks leading people into a utilitarian approach to moral equivalence. The greatest good for the greatest amount. One could consider that more abortions occur than acts of torture? What if someone is concerned that a President Romney would engage in an unjust war (equivalent of murder) that would cost hundreds of thousands of lives? Would that make it equivalent to abortion? What about the tens of millions of people living in poverty in our nation and the hundreds of millions that suffer poverty throughout the world? Does Governor Romney really not care about the poor? Is he apathetic to the poor? Or, does he truly care about the poor, here and abroad and honestly believes his policies will help the poor more than President Obama’s policies? Don’t some of President Obama’s policies with regards to the poor also have the risk of denigrating human dignity? This is a legitimate criticism for both men. Do the billions of people who could be affected by one candidate’s policies outweigh the hundreds of thousands of unborn who lose their life? This is why the “numbers game” should only be one factor.
Another factor to figure in is how successful will that candidate be in promoting and enacting the intrinsically evil policies (Faithful Citizenship, 36, 37) President Obama has already shown that he has had success in directly attacking human dignity and religious freedom with his HHS Mandate. However, what if a person considers the reality that President Obama’s track record in the courts has not been in great favor of this mandate holding up (though it could still hold up in future court decisions). President Obama has also assassinated an American citizen without due process of law using a predator drone.
On abortion, “pro-life” Republicans held both houses of congress and the White House for 4.5 years and did not end abortion; though they did end partial birth abortion. President Obama has not given any evidence that he would seek to overturn this ban; nor could he without holding both houses of Congress. Since it is expected that the Republicans will hold on to at least on house and perhaps gain the Senate, the possibility of partial birth abortion ban from being overturned by President Obama is nearly impossible.
Governor Romney, if elected President could easily enact policies of torture without many obstacles. As Commander in Chief, he could also engage in unjust war/use of military without congressional approval or formal declaration of war(within the parameters of the War Powers Act. One could also consider that President Obama himself does not perform the abortions (though his cooperation with the evil act is still formal) while some of the issues that Governor Romney supports that are direct attacks on human dignity are direct orders to engage in the evil act. I believe that it is possible that one could come to the conclusion that, if the person is voting for the correct reasons, and has the evidence to back up their position regarding “equivalent” effects they could be permitted to vote for either candidate. However, once again, we must assert that you will be morally responsible for whichever vote you cast. Making a decision based on too much speculation, hearsay, rumors, lack of concerted study of the issues, solely on political ads, or any other subjective criteria, is flawed and risks making an immoral choice.
If all four criteria are met a person commits material, mediate cooperation with evil, and not formal cooperation.
The following diagram comes from the USCCB ethical and religious directives for Catholic healthcare of 1994 that helps explain licit and illicit cooperation with evil.
Clear as mud, right?