In Roman Catholic moral theology, an act is a knowing choice; it is an exercise of intellect and free will. Every knowingly chosen act is either good or evil; every knowingly chosen act is subject to conscience and to the judgment of God. Morality concerns the knowingly chosen acts of human persons. There is no such thing as a morally-neutral act.
An intrinsically evil act is any act that is wrong by the very nature of the act. Intrinsically evil acts are inherently immoral because the act, in and of itself, independently of intention and circumstances, is ordered toward an evil proximate end (morally-immediate end). The end, in terms of morality, toward which an act is intrinsically ordered, is called the moral object. Every act with an evil moral object is an intrinsically evil act. And every intrinsically evil is always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstance. Neither a good intention, nor a dire circumstance, can justify an intrinsically evil act. Neither intention, nor circumstances, can change an intrinsically evil act into another type of act, one that is no longer inherently immoral.
It is therefore always immoral to knowingly choose to commit an intrinsically evil act. But how does this teaching of the Roman Catholic Magisterium on ethics apply to the act of voting? The ethics of any knowingly chosen act is based on three fonts of morality:
1. intention (the reason or purpose for choosing the act)
2. moral object (the type of act chosen by the will, as determined by the inherent ordering of the act toward its moral object)
3. circumstances (the reasonably anticipated good and bad consequences)
If all three fonts are good, the act is moral; it is at least morally permissible. If any one or more fonts is bad, the act is a sin; it is immoral to knowingly choose that act. This basic principle of ethics is true for all knowingly chosen acts without exception. And that includes voting.
If a particular act of voting has a bad intention, or an evil moral object, or if the reasonably anticipated bad consequences morally outweigh the reasonably anticipated good consequences, then the act of voting is a sin. If the particular act of voting has only good in the intention, and only good in the moral object, and the act is not reasonably anticipated to do more harm (by the bad consequences) than good, then the act is moral.
However, there is much confusion among the faithful about voting and intrinsic evil. It is the moral object of the act of voting that determines whether that act is intrinsically evil or not.
A law that legalizes abortion is an intrinsically evil law. It is inherently unjust for governmental authorities to authorize, pay for, or even merely permit abortion because direct abortion is a type of murder. The same is true for euthanasia and assisted suicide. The government has a responsibility to protect the common good, and this includes protecting the lives of innocents from murder of every kind. But the government does not have the responsibility to outlaw every type of intrinsically evil act.
Suppose that a law is passed that makes blasphemy illegal. Such a law was passed in Ireland a few years ago. Blasphemy is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. But is a Catholic legislator obligated to vote to make every intrinsically evil act illegal? Making blasphemy illegal gives the secular government in a pluralistic society authority over the decision as to what is and is not blasphemy. Such a law gives the secular government authority over a spiritual matter, an authority which belongs to the Church and has not been delegated to the secular government. Morally, a Catholic legislator should vote against a law that would make blasphemy illegal. Or, if blasphemy is already illegal, the legislator should vote to make blasphemy legal. The fact that blasphemy is intrinsically evil does not imply that it must be illegal.
Suppose that a law is proposed that makes lying illegal in all cases (not merely in cases of perjury). Should the Catholic legislator vote to make lying illegal in all cases, simply because lying is intrinsically evil and always immoral? No, he should not. For it is not the place of the government to decide and punish every sin. Only God has the role of judging and punishing every sin. The fact that lying is intrinsically evil does not imply that it must be illegal. Therefore, a legislator may vote to make, or to keep, some intrinsically evil acts legal.
Now we come to the question of voting for a person, rather than for a law. Generally speaking, voting for a person is not intrinsically evil. Human persons are more or less sinful, but we are not intrinsically evil. Human nature itself is a good, created by God. Even when a human person knowingly chooses to do evil, his or her nature remains good. The term intrinsically evil refers to knowingly chosen acts, not persons. Unless a vote for a person is simply a legislative device equivalent to voting for an intrinsically unjust law, the vote for a person, who will have a range of responsibilities over a range of issues once in office, is not inherently immoral.
It is not true, under the basic principles of ethics taught infallibly by the Roman Catholic Church, that a vote for a person, who supports making or keeping an intrinsically evil act legal, is an intrinsically evil vote. The Magisterium teaches that the morality of each and every act, without exception, is determined by the three fonts of morality — as they spring up from, and apply to, that same act. For an act of voting, the morality of the act depends on the three fonts of morality for that act of voting, not on the three fonts of morality of a later act that may or may not be committed by the candidate if he is elected.
Can a Catholic morally vote for someone who clearly, consistently, persistently promotes that which is intrinsically evil? Possibly. Not every intrinsically evil act should be illegal. Even if an intrinsically evil act should be illegal, the vote for a candidate who supports making or keeping that intrinsically evil act legal is not necessarily immoral. The voter must have only good in his or her intention, and must weigh the reasonably anticipated good and bad consequences of the act of voting. But a vote for a person is generally not intrinsically evil. So the act of voting for a person would then be moral.
Suppose that Candidate A is pro-abortion and wants to broaden the legality of, and access to, abortion, if elected. Candidate B is pro-life and wants to restrict abortion substantially from its present legality. But Candidate B also clearly, consistently, persistently promotes embryonic stem cell research — which is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral due to the direct destruction of the innocent human being (the human embryo). Can you vote for Candidate B because of his generally pro-life position, despite his support for an intrinsically evil and gravely immoral act? Yes, you can.
Suppose the pro-abortion candidate’s party is generally pro-life, and electing him would give his party a majority in the Senate. The party in the majority has a lot more power to pass legislation and block legislation. If you vote for the pro-life candidate in a situation in which a party that is generally pro-abortion would take power, they can block all pro-life bills, even if the bill has enough votes to pass. In this case, the vote for the pro-abortion candidate (who belongs to the generally pro-life party) is moral.
Suppose the election is for an office which has no influence over the abortion issue, e.g. a position on the school board. You would then be morally obligated to vote for whichever candidate will do the most good and the least harm. The pro-abortion candidate would do little or no harm on that issue, since his office has no influence over the issue. Candidate A is pro-abortion, but wants to make a series of reasonable improvements to the school. Candidate B is pro-life, but wants to make a series of harmful changes to the school system. You may morally vote for Candidate A.
Suppose the pro-abortion candidate nevertheless favors additional restrictions on abortion, which have a chance of passing, and this candidate has a track-record of being able to pass bills. The pro-life candidate has no track-record of passing (or even voting for) pro-life bills, and his proposed legislation (e.g. banning all abortion) has no chance of passing. You may morally vote for the pro-abortion candidate, in this circumstance.
Suppose the pro-abortion candidate would not change current laws on abortion. The pro-life candidate would not be able to change current laws on abortion. The pro-abortion candidate has the better position on other weighty issues, such as war, health care, and immigration. You many morally vote for the pro-abortion candidate.
Suppose that Candidate A is pro-life, but supports keeping direct abortion legal in cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother. Candidate B is pro-life, and wants to make all direct abortion illegal. Direct abortion is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, so Candidate A is supporting the legalization of an intrinsically evil act. But in the current political circumstance, neither candidate would be able to change the current abortion laws. And Candidate A is considered by the voter to do more good and less harm in office than Candidate B. So the voter may morally vote for Candidate A, despite his position on legalization of an intrinsically evil act.
The Magisterium infallibly teaches that every act with one or more bad fonts of morality is always a sin, for as long as that font is bad. The font called circumstances is bad if the act is reasonably anticipated to do more harm than good. Therefore, we are morally obligated NOT to vote for a pro-life candidate IF the vote would to more harm than good. And although every intrinsically evil act is always immoral, the act of voting for a candidate who supports legalization of an intrinsic evil is not an intrinsically evil act.
Now it may be — in my judgment it is the case — that in most cases a vote for a pro-life candidate does more good and less harm (despite the failings of that candidate) than a vote for a pro-abortion candidate. I almost always vote pro-life (when such a candidate is running). But it simply is not true that we can never morally vote for a pro-abortion candidate. And it is also not true that we can never morally vote for a candidate who supports the legalization of an intrinsically evil act.
In all cases whatsoever, an act of voting is moral if it has three good fonts, and is immoral if it has one or more bad fonts:
2. moral object