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Father, Forgive Me–I Voted for Obama

I know, I know–you thought with the election being over, the politics posts would stop. But when I woke up a few weeks ago to discover Obama had been reelected–with considerable help from Mass-going Catholics–I realized the issue of Catholics supporting pro-abortion/pro-gay marriage/pro-insert-objective-evil-here isn’t going away. Obama v. Romney won’t be the last time we have to choose between less-than-ideal candidates, so in anticipation of the next round of political undesirables, let’s prepare ourselves to explore exactly what our Church teaches about moral voting practices. (It is the Year of Faith, after all.)

Whether Catholics can vote for pro-abortion politicians without sinning themselves originated in a six-point memo from then-Cardinal Ratzinger, published online years ago by L’Espresso, an Italian magazine. The memo outlined that Catholics can’t vote for a pro-abortion candidate without incurring mortal sin–except for “proportionate reasons,” but the future pope didn’t clarify what those justifiable reasons would be. Though the memo mentioned pro-abortion politicians specifically, civil leaders who support other intrinsically evil acts such as euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, or legalizing gay “marriage” create a similar quandary for Catholics.

The best guidance I’ve found that attempts to clarify what proportionate reasons would justify these votes for Catholics was put out by Bishop Emeritus Rene Henry Gracida of Corpus Christi, Texas:

When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons strictly defined.

Since abortion and euthanasia have been defined by the Church as the most serious sins prevalent in our society, what kind of reasons could possibly be considered proportionate enough to justify a Catholic voting for a candidate who is known to be pro-abortion? None of the reasons commonly suggested could even begin to be proportionate enough to justify a Catholic voting for such a candidate. Reasons such as the candidate’s position on war, or taxes, or the death penalty, or immigration, or a national health plan, or social security, or aids, or homosexuality, or marriage, or any similar burning societal issues of our time are simply lacking in proportionality.

There is only one thing that could be considered proportionate enough to justify a Catholic voting for a candidate who is known to be pro-abortion, and that is the protection of innocent human life. That may seem to be contradictory, but it is not.

Consider the case of a Catholic voter who must choose between three candidates: Candidate A, who is completely for abortion-on-demand; Candidate B, who is in favor of greatly restricting abortion; and Candidate C, who is completely against abortion, but universally recognized as being unelectable. The Catholic voter cannot vote for Candidate A because that would be formal cooperation in the sin of abortion if that candidate were to be elected and assist in passing legislation which would remove restrictions on abortion-on-demand. The Catholic can vote for Candidate C, but that will probably only help ensure the election of Candidate A. Therefore, the Catholic voter has a proportionate reason to vote for Candidate B, since his vote may help ensure the defeat of Candidate A and may result in the saving of some innocent human lives if Candidate B is elected and votes for legislation restricting abortion-on-demand. In such a case, the Catholic voter would have chosen the lesser of two evils which is morally permissible under these circumstances.

What this bishop says is common sense. If you’re voting for a pro-abortion/euthanasia/gay marriage candidate because that candidate supports those things, you’re complicit in the evil and committing a mortal sin, too. Duh.

But what if you disagree with the candidate on abortion or gay marriage, but think his position on issues such as war, welfare, or the environment justify overlooking the first two? No again. Prior to the last election, Catholic Answers put out a great guide titled, “Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics,” which outlined the five major moral issues declared by the Church to be objectively and absolutely immoral: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, and same-sex “marriage.” As Catholics, we’re morally obligated to vote against all five and–with only rare exceptions–to vote against politicians who support any of them.

Despite the confusion promulgated by those who subscribe to the “seamless garment” or “consistent life ethic” philosophies, which aim to present all life-related issues as equally important, the fact remains that some issues are simply more critical than others and must be considered first. Abortion is always wrong, whereas war may sometimes be justified. Euthanasia is always wrong, but capital punishment may not be. Yes, we’re called to support policies that respect the sacredness of all human life, but when forced to choose, there’s a hierarchy of moral issues and some (those five non-negotiables, for example) rank more important than others. (Incidentally, you can download a great lecture by apologist Tim Staples here that more fully explains our moral obligations on these life issues.)

But there’s a third category of voter, that I first encountered five years ago. As a professional writer, I used to contact strangers for interviews every day, so it’s nothing for me to contact public figures via e-mail. I’ve lauded and upbraided many celebrities and what’s shocked me is how many of them actually write back. I’ve conversed with actress Carol Drinkwater, Some Girls author Jillian Lauren, and editor-in-chief of the American Medical Journal, to name a few. Once I even got a phone call back from the former editor of Our Sunday Visitor, after I sent a letter in criticizing Ted Kennedy’s bishop for cozying up to the late politician despite his pro-abortion stance.

Perhaps the most surprising response I ever received, however, was from writer Anne Rice, famed author of The Vampire Chronicles series. Rice had publicly confirmed her return to Catholicism a few years earlier after decades as an atheist. I wrote to her via e-mail expressing my disappointment that despite claiming to desire full union with the Catholic Church, she was nonetheless stumping for presidential hopeful John Kerry, a pro-abortion Catholic.

Rice wrote me a lengthy letter back, explaining that she was voting for Kerry because she believed his social policies would actually do more to reduce abortions than John McCain’s would. In other words, Rice claimed to have “proportionate reasons” to licitly vote for a pro-abortion candidate. (Not that Rice has to worry about being in union with the Church anymore, having decided she no longer wants to associate with any institution that upholds the traditional teachings of Christianity. But I digress.)

Rice’s justification surprised me at the time, but in the past month, I’ve heard that same reasoning offered by several practicing Catholics who voted for Obama (again). In their opinion, whether Romney or Obama say they’re pro-life or pro-choice is meaningless; we have to look to their proposed economic and social policies to determine which candidate is truly “for life.” And in their opinion, Obama’s record and policies are simply more “pro-life” than Romney’s, which makes it morally permissible for them to vote for him. The HHS Mandate (which will force Catholic institutions to violate the faith), as well as Obama’s record in promoting Planned Parenthood, as well as his public stances against all five of the non-negotiable life issues…none of these override the actual, practical good that will come from having him as president over the other candidates, they say.

Readers, what do you say? Does the logic of Rice and other prObama Catholics hold water? And if not, why not? What reasons, if any, would constitute legitimate “proportionate reasons” for voting for similar candidates in the future? I look forward to your answers.

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About Misty

Misty converted to Catholicism from atheism 13 years ago, just a week after becoming a mother to her first child. Prior to becoming a stay-at-home mom, she worked full-time as a magazine writer and editor. She has been married to her best friend for nearly 20 years and looks forward to many more decades by his side. Her days are now spent cooking, doing laundry, freelance writing, and homeschooling her five children. After spending so much of her life in spiritual darkness, she revels in the joy of being Catholic. Without a doubt, the Lord’s greatest gift to her has been saving her from a life without Him.

  • Ellen - I’m not buying it. I understand folks not believing that Romney is really prolife, that he flip-flopped for political reasons. However, I don’t believe, if he were elected, he would have flip flopped again, funded Planned Parenthood, pushed forth the HHS Mandate (even if he kept Obamacare, since we have ample reason to believe-Romneycare in Mass.-he’s not opposed to something like this), vetoed legislation that would have restricted abortion, and appointed SC Justices that wouldn’t vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. But Obama is *proudly* proabortion, believes unplanned children are *punishments*, believes if a baby has the audacity to survive and abortion, he shouldn’t be saved *outside* the womb, and is totally in the pocket of Planned Parenthood. There is no flipping way abortions will go down under this man’s reign. If Romney were president, abortion on demand, what would likely happen is that more women in crisis pregnancies would have to seek out *private* organizations for help (and there are many-despite the false accusation that pro-life folks only care about the baby before he’s born), rather the government (although government safety nets would still be there, welfare would not disappear under Romney/Ryan, again, despite the accusations of the pro-Obama crowd).November 29, 2012 – 8:13 amReplyCancel

  • Ellen - Oops. That “abortion on demand” after “If Romney were president” should have been deleted.November 29, 2012 – 8:15 amReplyCancel

  • JoAnna - Absolutely not. First of all, Obama is not just pro-choice, he is pro-abortion. He enthusiastically supports abortion on demand without apology paid for by tax dollars, he thinks babies are punishments, and he’s joined at the hip with Planned Parenthood. He is also an active persecutor of the Catholic Church with the HHS mandate.

    There is absolutely no justification for a Catholic to vote for Obama – and the assertion that the Democratic plan to reduce abortion by pouring money into welfare and food stamps is more effective is patently false: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2010/04/1250/

    That being said, Republicans could do a lot MORE to help the pro-life cause, but Semocrats are wholly dedicated to advancing the pro-abortion cause at any cost.November 29, 2012 – 8:44 amReplyCancel

  • Karen - Nope. Obama is a pro-abort. While I do not think Romney is much better–I feel he flipped to the pro-life side for the sake of the Republican ticket, and he was pretty clear that he wouldn’t even address anything abortion related in office (which doesn’t indicate to me that he is pro-life, and was simply avoiding the issue the way that Governor Snyder in MI has).

    And I ABSOLUTELY think the Republican party could clean up their act with regards to the pro-life cause. As it is, National Right to Life, for all the good they do, endorses candidates in favor of rape and incest exceptions OVER those who are against exceptions. This is to the point that the Right to Life group in Colorado that takes the Catholic “no exceptions” stance regarding abortion has been excluded from the National Right to Life (who instituted a weak and ineffective “towing the party line” group in the state).

    All this to say, that while a vote for Obama is probably not justifiable, the alternatives are*terrible*. And sadly, so many Americans have a twisted view of the validity of human life that a candidate who does not believe in rape/incest/life of the mother exceptions simply cannot get support. Sad country we live in.November 29, 2012 – 9:58 amReplyCancel

  • C - If you really and truly believe that there should never, ever be any case for abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, or any reason to end a life other than “natural” causes, then you will never have any candidate that meets criteria on moral grounds. This hierarchy of life issues (it’s ok to be pro-death penalty as long as you are against abortion) is really just political pandering on the part of the church.November 29, 2012 – 10:31 amReplyCancel

  • BirgitJ - Excellent post! I found myself nodding my head in agreement throughout. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how my fellow Catholics continue to justify their votes for this man. He is a cheerleader for every intrinsic evil listed as the five non-negotiable issues. That he would somehow do more to prevent abortions by his social justice policies (which has morphed to mean anything *except* pro-life) is absurd. We have gotten ourselves into this mess because we have lost our moral compass. Too long we have happily plodded along, going with the flow, and simply shaking our heads at *those* people. Until we get our own priorities straight in our own lives, there will be no hope. This situation calls for total conversion back to the Kingship of Christ – one person at a time – starting with *me*.November 29, 2012 – 11:25 amReplyCancel

  • WSquared - “Does the logic of Rice and other prObama Catholics hold water?”

    Two words re confining pro-life to some very truncated “social-justice” logic (wherein social justice tends to get separated out from the dignity due the human person as its basic non-negotiable): “Rerum Novarum.”

    …whereupon anyone who has read that encyclical can’t really say in retrospect that they can’t have seen “Humanae Vitae” coming.

    “we have to look to their proposed economic and social policies”

    If we don’t know what a human being is and what that definition is truly rooted in (especially when we think that this is mostly a “cultural construct” that changes over time), then the very definition of being human is open to manipulation– and truncation– at will, and whatever human beings will cook up on their own, no matter how well-meaning they are, will always be limited. Therefore those policies will always fall short. The human person cannot serve economic and social policies; economic and social policies must serve human beings, whereby what we understand about the human person must be rooted in the Truth about Man. Therein lies our responsibility: whether or not we understand Man in light of the Truth will have a serious impact on the way we love our neighbor, whether we like or not, or how much lip service we pay to it. Man can achieve and accomplish great things, but presuming that he can’t and won’t run himself off the rails, thereby limiting his greatness, is blind faith, indeed.November 29, 2012 – 4:50 pmReplyCancel

  • David - Great article. Thanks for writing it. I agree with all of the above commentators besides C, who seems to have gone astray, cognitively speaking.

    @C, the point of having a moral hierarchy is precisely because of the reasons you just mentioned, ie., BECAUSE no political candidate adequately embraces pro-life teachings, we must have a way to stratify the most important–“non-negotiables”–in order to faithfully execute our duty as Catholics and as Americans. I’d call that assistance rather than political pandering.

    Just prior to the election, George Weigel wrote the following:

    “Catholics who are still pondering their presidential vote will have heard, endlessly, that no political party fully embodies the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. That is certainly true. And it is also largely irrelevant. For the choice in 2012 is not between two parties that, in relative degrees, inadequately embody the Catholic vision of the free and virtuous society. The choice is between a party that inadequately embodies that vision and a party that holds that vision in contempt.”

    Looks like the h8rs (contemptors) won… again! 🙁November 30, 2012 – 1:45 pmReplyCancel

  • Anita - “Abortion is always wrong, whereas war may sometimes be justified. Euthanasia is always wrong, but capital punishment may not be.”

    Sincere question – when is the death penalty ok?

    My understanding is that the Church taught that only God gives life and only He can take it away?May 26, 2013 – 7:18 amReplyCancel

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