Roman Catholic Voting Ethics Revisited

I’ve written on this topic before, but with the elections in the U.S. Presidential primary drawing nearer, I thought it would be good to revisit Catholic teaching on voting.

Does the Catholic Church have any definitive teachings on voting? Yes. For She teaches that we are all bound by certain basic principles of ethics. Those principles of ethics apply to all knowingly chosen acts. Even the act of voting.

I think that most Catholics, even devout believing and practicing Catholics, give little thought to voting as a ethical decision. They might consider that they should vote against abortion. They might allow their faith to have influence over their voting on certain few issues. But that is not sufficient. The basic principles of ethics taught definitively by the Magisterium apply to every area of human endeavor, even politics, and to every act of voting.

There are three fonts (sources) of morality. To be moral, each and every knowingly chosen act must have three good fonts. If any one or more fonts is bad, the act is immoral; it is a sin. The morality of each and all of the three fonts of morality is judged by the love of God and the love of neighbor as self.

1. intention — everything intended by the subject (the person who commits the act) must be good; any bad intention makes any act immoral.

{24:8} Whoever intends to do evil shall be called foolish.
{24:9} The intention of the foolish is sin.

{55:6} All day long, they curse my words. All their intentions are for evil against me.
{118:118} You have despised all those who fell away from your judgments. For their intention is unjust.

Even praying or giving alms with a bad intention is a sin:

{6:2} Therefore, when you give alms, do not choose to sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the towns, so that they may be honored by men. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.

{6:5} And when you pray, you should not be like the hypocrites, who love standing in the synagogues and at the corners of the streets to pray, so that they may be seen by men. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.

This font applies also to voting. No matter what voting choices you make, if your intention is selfish, or includes callous disregard for your neighbor, or intentionally ignores the teachings of the Church, then that act of voting is a sin, due to bad intention.

2. moral object — the moral object is the end toward which the chosen act is inherently directed. An act with an evil moral object is an intrinsically evil act. The intrinsic ordering of such an act toward an evil end makes the act immoral by its very nature. Regardless of whether the moral object is ultimately attained or not, the choice of an intrinsically disordered act is always a sin.

Typically, voting for a person is not intrinsically evil. However, the act of voting for an inherently unjust law, such as a law that authorizes abortion or euthanasia, is an intrinsically evil act. Voting for a candidate who supports abortion to some extent — despite his support for abortion — would not be an intrinsically evil act, because the moral object of your act is (typically) not the authorization of abortion. However, voting for a pro-abortion candidate with the intention of making or keeping abortion legal would be a grave sin due to a gravely disordered intention.

It is possible for the act of voting for a pro-abortion candidate (or a pro-euthanasia candidate, or a pro-gay-marriage candidate) to be an intrinsically evil act, if the vote is a type of formal cooperation with a candidate’s efforts to enact an intrinsically unjust law. Any type of formal cooperation with an intrinsically evil act is itself intrinsically evil. An act of formal cooperation has, as its moral object, to assist the act of another person in attaining its evil moral object. But even if that moral object is never achieved, any acts inherently directed toward it remain intrinsically evil and always immoral.

3. circumstances – the morality of this font is determined by weighing the totality of the reasonably anticipated good and bad consequences for all persons affected by the act. As with all the fonts, an ordered love of God, neighbor, self is the basis for this moral evaluation. It is always a sin to commit an act if you reasonably anticipate that the consequences of your act will do more harm than good.

{12:17} Render to no one harm for harm. Provide good things, not only in the sight of God, but also in the sight of all men.

{13:10} The love of neighbor does no harm.

In politics and voting, the evaluation of this font is difficult. There are many factors to be weighed in voting for one candidate versus another, which will effect the consequences of the vote, including: the likelihood that a candidate will be elected, the likelihood that the candidate will act in one way or another in office, the possible good and bad consequences of such an election and the moral weight of each consequence. A judgment of the prudential order is used to evaluate the circumstances.

It is not moral to vote with no regard for intention, moral object, and circumstances, and instead merely to vote for all of the candidates from whichever party you favor. Nor is it moral to vote based solely or mainly on what will benefit you economically, without regard for the common good.

On the abortion issue, even most pro-life candidates have a position on abortion that is not in full agreement with Catholic teaching. Most pro-life politicians are only pro-life to a certain degree. The pro-abortion candidates also vary from the Church’s teaching to different degrees. It is overly simplistic to categorize politicians as either pro-life or pro-abortion, and to say that we must always vote for the one, and not the other.

Also, very unfortunately, many pro-life politicians have, in their long and illustrious careers in public office, done little or nothing for the pro-life cause, except offer it lip service in order to obtain votes. We certainly are not morally obligated to vote for a candidate who says that he is pro-life, but who refuses to act in accord with the value of life.

It is important to realize that the evaluation of the third font of morality requires us to consider ALL of the good and bad consequences of our act of voting. We cannot morally ignore other issues, and vote solely based on the abortion issue. Suppose that a vote for a pro-life candidate is not likely to have any substantial impact on that issue, but a vote for a pro-abortion candidate who is against a war is likely to benefit many persons (and perhaps save many lives). If voting for the pro-life candidate will do more harm than good, and if voting for the pro-abortion candidate will do more good than harm, the voter must vote for the latter, not the former.

However, setting hypotheticals aside, I must admit that, in many political contests, in the current set of circumstances in the U.S., the pro-life issue carries much weight in the third font of morality.

It is always true in morality that a more likely good or bad consequence has greater moral weight than the same consequence if it is less likely. An increase in likelihood increases the moral weight of a consequence. If it is very unlikely that you will get into a serious car accident if you drive to the store, then you may do so, despite that weighty but unlikely bad consequence. If the same bad consequence were very likely, it would not be moral.

The number of lives affected, and the extent to which they benefit or are harmed, and the likelihood of this benefit or harm, must be weighed in the third font of morality.

Then, if an act of voting has three good fonts, a good intention, a good moral object (the common good), and if the good consequences morally outweigh the bad consequences, then the act is moral. But if any one or more fonts is bad, then that act of voting is immoral; it is a sin.

The voting booth is not a morality-free zone. The same basic principles of ethics apply to voting as to any other area of human life.

See my book The Catechism of Catholic Ethics for further instruction on the basic principles of ethics and on voting ethics.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

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