The probable candidates for the 2016 presidential elections are dismal enough that many Catholics are deeply divided over what choice best fits the Church teaching on voting. Some are certain that Donald Trump is the only reasonable choice. Others are certain they must oppose him. I’m not going to rehash those arguments here. (See my January 18 article on what we have to consider with each choice). Nor am I going to give support to one side or the other in these arguments.
But I do think some proponents of each group are using bad arguments—usually in good faith—that show a misunderstanding of the Catholic obligation. I’d like to examine these arguments in the hope of exposing what we should be looking for in the search for the best course of action in a series of bad choices. Please keep in mind that this article is not about debunking one side of the debate. Rather it is about things I think get overlooked as Catholics grow more intense about the election.
The Importance of Respecting a Properly Formed Conscience
First, we must remember the primary role of conscience in a situation where there is more than one licit response to a bad situation. To put it into a syllogism:
- We cannot do evil so good may come of it
- Violating our properly formed conscience is doing evil
- Therefore we cannot violate our properly formed conscience so good may come of it
From this, we can see that any debate between Catholics on how to vote must be aware of the conscience of the person one tries to persuade. If the person has misunderstood the teaching of the Church and has a conscience not properly formed, we can enlighten him on that error. But we cannot bully or accuse the other of being a bad Catholic simply because his conscience does not let him make the same decision you do. So, arguments made in this debate must recognize and respect conscience.
Defending Life is Key
Properly formed is a key term. We need to keep in mind is that the Church affirms that the right to life is the primary right, and we cannot sacrifice this to advance other topics. We can only justify a vote for an openly pro-abortion candidate if there is a more serious danger present. We can’t tally up a number of lesser points and say that the total outweighs abortion. We also can’t say that an openly pro-abortion candidate is “more pro-life” because of stands on other concerns (as some Catholics claimed in 2008). St. John Paul II made that clear:
 The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fínds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.
John Paul II, Christifideles Laici (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988).
So, we can’t use arguments sacrificing the fight against abortion. That means conservatives hoping for a better candidate in 2020 and liberals thinking other social justice concerns outweigh abortion are both arguing wrongly. That doesn’t mean other issues are unimportant. We must challenge the candidates to address these other problems. But we cannot sacrifice the opposition to abortion in doing so.
As a first step: since the dispute is over the sincerity of one candidate’s claimed conversion on abortion, I believe we need to investigate here. But that means being open to evidence, even if it means we have to reevaluate what we hold. We need to seek and shape our opinions on what is true and apply Christian moral teaching to that truth. That’s simply part of living the Christian life.
Confusing Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils with Choosing to do Evil
This one is popular on Social Media. While phrased in varying ways, it goes like this: I’m not going to choose the lesser of two evils because it’s still choosing evil. That claim shows ignorance about what the lesser of two evils means and some go so far as accusing a person, who says they’re voting for the lesser evil, of violating Church teaching. That has to stop.
Catholic teaching recognizes choosing the lesser evil as discerning which choice will cause less harm when there are no good choices and one of those choices will happen even if one does not choose. At the same time, the Church forbids us from choosing an evil act even if it means less personal harm. That’s why we have to choose martyrdom over apostasy done in order to save our life. But at the same time, we’re not obliged to actively seek martyrdom. If evil will come regardless, we can strive to lessen the impact. St. John Paul II made this clear:
 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.
John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1995).
This is an example of seeking to limit evil when we cannot stop it outright. Many people view the 2016 election as another case of limiting evil when we cannot stop it. So long as the person has properly formed their conscience by the teaching of the Catholic Church and has not chosen to do something they believe to be evil, we cannot condemn them for ‘choosing evil.'
Personal Interpretation is not the same as Truth
I think the problem in these cases involves people confusing their personal interpretations about events with the facts of these events. Facts tell us happened. Interpretation tells us the meaning of these facts. But if we make a mistake in interpreting facts, we can reach false conclusions—even in good faith. To avoid this, we must constantly examine what we assume to see if it is true and compatible with our Catholic faith. If it turns out to be false, we must abandon it. Christianity neither condones useful lies nor vincible ignorance.
In this election many assume they have reached the only valid choice and, if they find another person who reaches a different decision, they assume either blindness to reality or bad will. But sometimes two Catholics can obey the Church and yet find two different ways on how to best apply that teaching.
Conclusion: Charity in Debate
When these two Catholics meet, they can have strong feelings that their own view is the best way to do things. That is not wrong behavior, so long as they are open to constantly seeking whether their political views are compatible with Church teaching. They can debate which of their views better fits Church teaching, but that debate must be charitable. Assuming that the other must be wrong in this case because he disagrees—especially if that assumption involves accusations of being a bad Catholic—is acting without charity.