1 He said to his disciples, “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. (Luke 17:1–2).
As Christians, we can’t lose sight of our ultimate end when living in the world. Therefore, we must approach what we do in this world with that end in mind. That doesn’t mean we should be so spiritual that we deny we have anything to do good in the world. After all, there are corporal works of mercy which involve helping a person’s physical needs. Our Lord warned us of Hell if we ignore helping people with these things.
However, when we do good in the world, we must not stop at considering the worldly benefits or worldly losses might come from our actions. Because we believe that our life ultimately has a supernatural end which involves being eternally with God or being eternally separated from Him, we cannot do things which put us in opposition to God and risk damnation. If an action is evil, we cannot do it—even if we want to do it to achieve a good result.
As we count down the final days of this election, Catholics seem to lose sight of this obligation. With two fatally flawed candidates running for President, and the knowledge that one of them will be elected, we are scrambling to find a choice that will limit evil or, failing that, finding a candidate who we believe will not be morally wrong to vote for, even if he has no chance of winning. The problem is, the two major party candidates are so loathed by large portions of the voters that those trying to block one perceived as a greater evil have staged their opposition to that candidate in apocalyptic terms. If we don’t stop Candidate X, we will be forced to suffer all sorts of evils.
From there, it’s a short step to arguing that the only way to stop Candidate X is to vote for Candidate Y, who is also unsavory but promises to oppose X on certain issues that concern us. Because of that, we must support Candidate Y and overlook the moral faults of that candidate because they are “not as important” as what Candidate X will do.
How Far Do We Go In Defending Our Beliefs Before We Betray What Truly Matters?
The problem I see in the above scenario is people have stopped thinking of the election in terms of “What must I do to be faithful to God” and replaced it with “If you don’t vote for my candidate, whatever evils happen are your fault!” That’s hijacking the authority of the Catholic Church in the name of promoting a candidate . . . something that makes us into the false teachers the Bible warned us about.
Our primary mission, given us by Our Lord, tells us we must baptize, preach the Gospel and tell them what God has commanded (Matthew 20:18-19). This is something we must do regardless of whether we are treated well or mistreated. We can’t sacrifice an eternal truth in the name of a political candidate whom we think it is vital to be elected to avoid mistreatment.
Think of Henry VIII demanding an annulment of his marriage. Think of Pope Clement VII considering the consequences of this decision. If he refuses the annulment, England is lost to the Church to the Protestant Reformation, and endangering many souls. All he has to do to avoid this is to consent to the annulment. It should be an easy decision, except for one thing. The investigation shows that the marriage was indeed valid and unbreakable. To protect the Church from hardship, he has to give his assent to what is morally wrong.
The easy decision was the one which was impossible to make if Pope Clement VII would be faithful to Our Lord. So he made a decision which seemed foolish from a worldly perspective. He denied the annulment. Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church in England, leading to the martyrdom of many faithful, persecution for about 300 years for many more, and the abandonment of the Catholic faith by more still.
I’m not trying to equate any candidate with the historical players in this event. I’m trying to show that what seems like a commonsensical approach to defend the Church from persecution might actually betray what we believe.
Bullying Fellow Catholics in the Name of God
1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.
Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 435.
One of the more appalling things I have seen in 2016 is the bullying of some Catholics by others to vote in a certain way. This is not limited to one political party or ideology. This has been done by Catholics who are conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, or even the “None of the above” faction emerging. The bullying involves telling Catholics they disagree with that if they don’t vote a certain way, they are responsible for the evil. They especially target Catholic voters who live in swing states. They claim these voters must vote for Candidate X or Y, to avoid sin because of the evils associated with the other side. I’ve seen accusations like “sins of omission” thrown around recklessly.
Such Catholics have no right to make such a demand and, if the bullied Catholic believes it is wrong to vote for this candidate, the bullying Catholic is actually trying to coerce the other into violating his conscience, which falls under the sin of scandal, trying to lead someone into sin. Remember, Our Lord said it was better for such a person to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around their neck than it would be to face the consequences of leading someone into sin. They forget that when the Pope himself says, “I’ll just say a word: Study the proposals well, pray and choose in conscience” in response to a question about the American elections, they cannot demand a person forsake his conscience to vote for their candidate.
The Teaching is “Limit Evil,” Not “Ignore Evils We Think Are Less Important”
22 You who forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You who detest idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast of the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 For, as it is written, “Because of you the name of God is reviled among the Gentiles.” (Romans 2:22–24).
The Catholic obligation is learning for ourselves or informing others about the moral teachings we must follow so we might all understand our obligations and why we must follow them. The Church does not endorse candidates. Nor does she demand we vote for a certain platform. What she does do is teach (which requires assent—agreement) the teachings we must follow. In following we must promote good, and limit evil. The problem is many Catholics are redefining this in a way which benefits their candidate. Evils their candidate supports are considered “less important” and explained away through the “special pleading” fallacy. Evils the other candidate supports are portrayed as unforgivable.
This results in making our Catholic faith look hypocritical. Some Catholics insist on people being sexually moral, and give our support for a candidate who boasted of sexual immorality. Others insist on defending the oppressed and give support to a candidate who supports abortion as a right. This kind of “witness” leads people to think our values are to be set aside as we wish. No, we aren’t “electing a saint,” (a popular retort when the moral failings of a preferred candidate are pointed out). But the evils a candidate refuses to be sorry for can be huge warning signs about how he or she will behave in office.
Yes, Some Evils Are Worse Than Others . . .
We do need to acknowledge some evils are worse. The Church is quite clear that the right to life is the primary right from which all others depend. So a candidate who will violate this right is unfit for office. The Church names abortion and euthanasia “unspeakable crimes” (Gaudium et Spes #51) St. John Paul II says that trying to defend other rights without defending the right to life is “false and illusory” (Christifideles Laici #38). Even the Ratzinger Memorandum, which some people try to pass off as permission to vote for a pro-abortion candidate, is actually a strict limitation on when it is permissible. It condemns voting for such a candidate because they are pro-abortion as a mortal sin, and it places voting for such a candidate for other reasons under the obligations of double effect—the evil effect cannot be willed and must be less than the good sought.
But, in 2016, there is no situation where we have to tolerate of the evil of abortion in order to stop a worse evil. So the remote cooperation cannot be justified in this case. An informed Catholic cannot vote for a pro-abortion candidate or party in 2016. Nor can such a Catholic appeal to “conscience” in opposition to the Church. The Church is the measure by which our consciences are properly formed. As the CDF put it,
38. Finally, argumentation appealing to the obligation to follow one’s own conscience cannot legitimate dissent. This is true, first of all, because conscience illumines the practical judgment about a decision to make, while here we are concerned with the truth of a doctrinal pronouncement. This is furthermore the case because while the theologian, like every believer, must follow his conscience, he is also obliged to form it. Conscience is not an independent and infallible faculty. It is an act of moral judgement regarding a responsible choice. A right conscience is one duly illumined by faith and by the objective moral law and it presupposes, as well, the uprightness of the will in the pursuit of the true good.
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian (Donum Veritatis) (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1990).
So, the Catholic who votes for a pro-abortion candidate in the name of “conscience” has a malformed conscience that cannot be justified. The Church has made it clear we cannot rebel against her teachings, and we cannot pretend she has concealed her teaching. Ignorance is not an excuse for us.
. . . But Just Because One Candidate is Disqualified Does Not Make the Other Candidate Good
However, some Catholics who rightly oppose pro-abortion candidates and parties commit the either-or fallacy. They assume that because one candidate is in direct opposition to Catholic teaching, we must support the other. But that is not necessarily the case. It is quite possible for both major party candidates of being unworthy of our support, and Catholics can say, “I will not vote for either one” without being responsible if the candidate who supports the greater evil gets elected. This is a case of refusing to do what one believes is evil so good may (hopefully) come from it.
What the political bullies forget is this:
- We may not do evil so good may come of it (CCC #1756)
- Doing what our conscience condemns is evil
- Therefore we may not do what our conscience condemns so good may come of it.
If a Catholic’s conscience is properly formed by Church teaching, and the Catholic reaches a conclusion different from yours on what must be done, you cannot coerce him into doing what he thinks is wrong just because you are afraid of the consequences of your preferred candidate losing. If you think he has gotten something wrong, you can politely and charitably (two things lacking this campaign) dialogue with the aim of understanding why he thinks this way and offering another perspective.
But accusing that person of willful ignorance or bad will, or of disobeying the teaching that leads him to his conclusion in the first place is unjust. It is rash judgment at best, and calumny at worst.
I think many in 2016 have lost sight of what we are obligated to do as Catholics. There is a trend of downplaying real evils as if they were unimportant if acknowledging them means harming a candidate. Yes, sometimes Double Effect can permit us to tolerate an unwilled evil if the good is greater. But that does not mean we can ignore or downplay the evil we see as lesser. Nor can we play the hypocrite, defending a candidate from the evils we denounced when committed by another candidate. We have to acknowledge them as evils, not make excuses for them.
Even if one decides that such a candidate is a lesser evil they may vote for, they must be able to demonstrate that they are not holding a double standard. They must show why their candidate’s evil is less than the evil of the candidate they oppose in such a way that does not excuse the evil of their candidate. They must recognize that some faithful Catholics can question whether either candidate can be trusted to lead morally.
Finally, we must remember that two faithful Catholics who properly formed their consciences (that is—they’re not voting for a candidate who supports intrinsic evil) can reach different decisions of the fitness of a candidate. In such a case, we must respect their properly formed conscience even though our prudential judgment leads us to a different conclusion. If the shepherds of the Church will not condemn their decision, we cannot condemn it as going against the Church.