Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Arnobius' Maxim of Voting Revised for 2012

Preliminary Note: I never claim binding authority for myself.  I believe my original maxim and this updated one reasonably follow from Church teaching and reflect things we are called by the Magisterium to keep in mind when forming our decisions.  Of course this article mainly applies to a situation like America's (effectively) two-party system.  A nation with multiple parties and coalitions would probably have a different set of criteria to consider.


Back in the 2008 elections, I wrote an article dealing with an attitude among some Catholics which invoked conscience to vote for the party they preferred even though that party promoted policies explicitly condemned by the Catholic Church.  That maxim was, I believe, what reasonably followed from the Catholic obligation to obey the Church and the Catholic obligation to never disobey our conscience when it condemns something.  To sum up, I had said that if one political party holds a view which the Church condemns and the other holds views which an individual's conscience cannot allow them to vote for the other, then in order to reconcile these views, one could vote for a third party or decline to vote but could not vote for the party promoting views the Church condemned.

It made sense for the time.  In 2008, the dispute was essentially based on whether or not the Catholic could vote for the pro-abortion, fetal stem cell research, gay "marriage" party.  I think it still applies for voters who are choosing between these two parties.

A New Situation

However, in 2011, we see a few Catholic bloggers who oppose both parties as equally rotten and argue that the proper attitude is to vote for a third party or not at all.  We also see some opponents of these bloggers who claim that to act this way is to throw the election over to those who support the greater evil by taking away votes from the only party with a chance to oppose them.

It was this new perspective which leads me to reconsider the former maxim I drafted to take into account this new dispute.

The Issue of Double Effect

In considering the two sides of this dispute, we need to consider the principle of Double Effect.

Briefly, Double Effect deals with the situation where an action intends a good result but has an unintended and undesired negative effect which cannot be avoided.  Catholic teaching holds that the negative effect must be unintended and that the intended good must outweigh the unintended bad.  This is why the Church permits a hysterectomy (removing a diseased or damaged uterus which cannot safely undergo pregnancy) with the unintended bad effect of removing the woman's fertility but condemns the sterilization of the woman (directly intending to remove the woman's fertility).  The first views the loss of fertility as an undesired effect which would be avoided if possible.  The second directly intends the loss of fertility.

In terms of the debate of not voting for one of the major parties vs. the risk of allowing the greater evil to become elected is essentially a dispute over Double Effect.


  1. The intended good is to obey conscience by not voting for candidates who are considered to have immoral positions.
  2. The unintended bad effect is that the greater of two evils may benefit from a split votes.

The moral dilemma is then to balance out the obligation to follow conscience vs. the preventing the greater evil from taking effect.

Voting and Morality

Voting is not a neutral act.  It is a moral act in which we are obligated to use to achieve a greater good or oppose a greater evil.  We need to consider the ends our vote is intended to achieve and whether the unintended negative consequence outweighs that intended good.  Certain actions are intrinsically (by their very nature) evil and can never be done.  The Church authoritatively teaches abortion is a grave evil:

The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end. It is in fact a grave act of disobedience to the moral law, and indeed to God himself, the author and guarantor of that law; it contradicts the fundamental virtues of justice and charity. 'Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying. Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. Nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action' (Evangelium vitae #57)

So it seems to follow that not only are we never to vote for a candidate who supports this grave evil, we cannot permit the grave evil to become possible by our inaction either.

On the other hand, since we are never to support evil actions, what are we to do if the other party also seems to support evil?  Especially since they seem lukewarm on the issues of Life?  After all, Blessed John Paul II also pointed out:

Christians, like all people of good will, are called upon under grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God's law. (ibid #74).

An Attempt to Find a Solution to the Impasse

Conscience is not infallible.  It must be formed with the teaching of the Church in mind and it requires us to inform ourselves to the facts to avoid making an error by wrongly interpreting the situation or how the Church teaching is to be applied.

There are times when Catholics must vote for a lesser evil to avoid the greater evil.  Blessed John Paul II gave an example:

A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favouring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations-particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation-there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects. (ibid #73)

In this case, we can see that voting with the intent of limiting the evil of abortion is not a cooperation with evil.  If we can't abrogate an abortion law, we can certainly vote to limit its effects.  Lukewarm opposition to abortion is superior to no opposition.

Finding the Least Evil

So it seems to follow that when it comes to voting for a third party or not voting, we are obligated to consider the consequences of such an action.  Is it, in fact, the least evil?

That is the hard decision to be made.  Since we may never do what our conscience condemns and may never refuse to do what our conscience commands, we are obligated to inform our conscience through the teachings of the Church and to educate ourselves on the consequences of our action or inaction.  Conscience is not sentiment.  It is not a matter of like and dislike.  Conscience is the interior voice which says I must or must not do.

The Arnobius' Maxim of Voting Revised

So with these points in mind, I would reformulate the maxim on voting as follows:

  1. We must never vote for a candidate who openly supports a position condemned by the Church if an alternative exists.
  2. We must never vote in violation of our conscience.
  3. We must always form our conscience to be in line with the teaching of the Church.
  4. We must be informed so as to recognize the greatest evil and the least evil and act accordingly in casting our vote.
  5. Finally, whomever is elected, we must not ignore their lesser evils but instead make it known to them the importance of rejecting those evils.

Final Caveat

Again, I do not claim binding religious authority for this maxim.  Rather I write this as what I believe is a summary of Church obligation on this subject.  I certainly submit to the authority of the Magisterium of the Church and nothing I write should be given an interpretation against the lawful teaching authority of the Church.

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