A Case of Missing Integrity: Why Catholics Can Not Vote for Barack Obama

Lord Peter Wimsey, that aristocratic and debonair sleuth, remarked that “The first thing a principle does is to get someone killed.” He said so in the middle of Dorothy Sayer’s delightful book Gaudy Night, which, aside from being an entertaining mystery story is a book about intellectual integrity. What he meant was this: the moment you take up and hold an absolute truth, you have chosen one side of an irrevocable divide—you have stepped over a line in the sand. If they should kill you for it, it does not make the principle any less true. All things contradicting this truth are seen to be necessarily wrong, by that fundamental rule of reason that no one yet has ever successfully gotten around: “A thing cannot both be and not be, in the same respect and at the same time.” It’s called the Principle of Non-contradiction, if you want to be formal, but it is a thing so monumentally simple that children know it from the dawn of reason. Daddy has either got jelly-beans in his coat pocket or he has not, and it is of vital importance to know the truth of the matter, because there are no two ways about it.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether holding principles will necessarily cause the melancholy consequence that Lord Peter asserts, it is surely clear that it will cause one thing: the drawing of conclusions that follow from them. That is to say, it will necessarily follow upon the slightest attempt to reason about the subject.

For example, if one holds (as a Catholic must, for the Church has always infallibly taught it) that abortion is a grave and intrinsic evil, and simultaneously recognizes the well-known and incontrovertible fact that a certain politician supports abortion, then it surely requires no great exercise of the brain to draw the inescapable conclusion that a certain politician supports a grave and intrinsic evil. So far so good, but there is another fact that Catholics must hold: To vote for a candidate who supports a grave and intrinsic evil is to be complicit in that evil. If we combine this with the conclusion that we just reached, that a certain politician supports a grave and intrinsic evil, one can hardly help concluding that to vote for a certain politician is to be complicit in a grave and intrinsic evil.

Just so we’re all clear on what that means, let us have some jolly old definitions. Complicit means participating in the guilt of the action by tacit consent. Grave means so serious as to place one’s eternal salvation in jeopardy. Intrinsic evil means evil in its very nature, such that it can never be justified at any time or under any circumstances. Therefore, to vote for a certain politician is to share in the guilt of an action which can never be justified at any time or under any circumstances, and which is so grave as to place one’s eternal salvation in jeopardy. Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, has made no bones about stating this, in a refreshingly clear and courageous article in the Catholic Times.

Note well: the Catholic Church does not take sides in politics. The Catholic Church affirms the truth about God and man, and the moral law. If certain politicians are such that cannot be supported by Catholic voters, then it is the politicians who have placed themselves on the far side of a moral divide. The teaching of the Catholic Church is not new, and it is not specific to any particular time or place. It is catholic, which is to say, universal. If the Catholic Church does not specifically condemn the action of voting for Barack Obama by name, well, it should not be necessary to do so. Catholics cannot vote for politicians who support abortion, under pain of grave sin. Therefore, Barack Obama has made it impossible for Catholics to vote for him by choosing to support abortion—to name only one intrinsic evil that he supports. (Lest anyone imagine that abortion is the only issue of grave and intrinsic evil at stake in this election, allow me to refer you to www.PoliticalResponsibility.com. Priests for Life have put together a non-partisan guide to the issues. It states the public positions of the two major political candidates on key issues).

Even if Catholics are too timid to go around stating this conclusion publicly, at least they must hold (if they hold what the Church teaches—a not unreasonable requirement for calling oneself Catholic) the principles that lead up to it. From thence, the laws of reason point so clearly and directly to this conclusion that the silence when it is not stated is like thunder.

Obscuring the Evident and Obfuscating the Obvious
It is most remarkable therefore that Bishop William Medley, of the Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky, recently published an article in The Western Kentucky Catholic entitled VOTE! It is a citizen’s duty! It is a Christian’s duty! His Excellency’s article had the effect of obscuring the evident and obfuscating the obvious to a truly incredible extent. I read it many times over and could not discover any evidence of a logical thought-process in it, let alone any affirmation of Church teaching.

In summary, what the bishop said was this: that the Catholic Church neither endorses nor condemns either of the two major political parties in the United States; that he himself is not entirely happy with either of them—since one of them supports abortion (that’s on their own admission, by the way) and the other supports de-funding programs that help the poor (supposedly—the bishop did not check his facts with the Republican Office, because that’s not how the Republican candidates describe their position); that whichever party we choose to vote for, we Catholics may feel unhappy—may feel we have condoned some evil by our ballot; that he expects that the Catholic vote will be split about fifty-fifty; he prays that Catholics will have prayed and consulted Church teaching before casting their ballots; lastly, he urges us to just vote!!!

A host of questions crowd to mind. Is abortion on par with programs for the poor? Ought we to vote, if we feel that either way we are condoning something evil? If everybody prays sincerely before voting, how is it possible that the Catholic vote be split—are we to imagine that God will tell some people that it’s all right to vote for a candidate who supports abortion, and others that it’s not alright?

All of these questions have very clear and concise answers. First of all, the issues of abortion and federal programs for the poor are not morally on par. Abortion is always wrong, but the poor can be helped in a variety of ways, not necessarily including Federal spending of money that we don’t have. Bishop Robert Morlino of the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, has made that quite clear.

The Catholic Church for the past two thousand years has been firm in its teaching that abortion is a grave and intrinsic evil, whereas it does not teach that the poor must be helped by any particular government program. While there is a moral duty to help the poor, there is plenty of room for dialogue about how best to do that. The right to life is fundamental; the “right” to being provided for by government programs that have been around for less than one hundred years is completely fictitious.  The Catholic voter absolutely does not have the luxury of deciding that programs for the poor and disabled are a more important issue “for me” than the murder of innocent children in their mothers’ wombs. Cardinal-designate Burke is unequivocal in proclaiming this.

Secondly, faced with two evil options, the only possible choice for a Catholic must be the lesser of the two evils. An excellent article which lays out Church teaching on this subject may be found at EWTN.com.

Those who would like to concoct a salve for the consciences of Catholics who wish to vote for President Obama often bring up criticisms of the Republican Party. Some of these criticisms are valid, including the one that Governor Mitt Romney is not one hundred percent pro-life, since he has stated that he does not oppose abortion in the cases of incest and rape. Nevertheless, failing to oppose abortion in every case is clearly far less evil than making it widely available in every case and spending government money on making it so. Remember, faced with two evil options the Catholic must choose the lesser of two evils. Furthermore, he must choose it, not because it is evil, but only in order to prevent greater evil.

Lastly, the idea of everybody praying and then voting “fifty-fifty” is patently absurd, for we know that with God, “there is no change, nor shadow of alteration” (James 1:17). If anyone uses his conscience to justify voting for a candidate who supports abortion, then his conscience is misinformed, and if he is willfully ignorant or defiant of the Church teaching then he is gravely at fault. As stated above, grave means so serious as to place one’s eternal salvation in jeopardy.

The Truth of the Matter
The truth of the matter is that if one holds the moral principles that one must hold to be a Catholic, then he cannot escape the conclusion that his vote in this election has serious moral consequences, and that there is one course of action that cannot in any way be justified. That course of action is to vote for a candidate who supports unrestricted abortion (human cloning, embryonic stem cell research, etc.). The mental gymnastics of those who try to escape this inexorable conclusion bring to mind that sharp phrase that children use: “Don’t pretend to be stupider than you really are.”

As things stand in our beloved and free country now, holding and affirming the moral principles of the Catholic Church does not have the unpleasant consequence that Lord Peter mentions—though the surest way of reaching a place where that is inevitable is to continue to aid and abet the current slide into moral murkiness. And Catholics have always known—from the beginning, when they killed our Master and later many of His friends—what their choice must be, if faced with such a consequence. At any rate, if we’re going to re-elect a president who has already tried to tell the Catholic Church that it must provide insurance plans covering contraceptives and abortifacients to its employees, then the bishops should perhaps start packing their shaving-kits for that prison stay that some of the more heroic have stated they would undergo rather than violate their faith and their consciences.

Our Blessed Lord cried out from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This cry of forgiveness and compassion loses some of its force when re-phrased—as it would have to be in the case of certain people—“Forgive them, for they did such a good job of kidding themselves that in the end they really didn’t know what they were doing anymore.”

Bernadette O'Brien


Bernadette O'Brien writes from Western Kentucky's farm country. She graduated from Thomas Aquinas College in 2009.

  • Kathy

    Amen, Bernadette!!!

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  • Deborah

    Bravo Bernadette!
    This is such a clear and principled defense of Catholic teaching. Is is cogent and well articulated. Your article provides a good demonstration of Catholic colleges can train the mind to think deeply and to be a source of strength for defending the faith in these challenging times.
    Thank you!

  • Mary

    “Secondly, faced with two evil options, the only possible choice for a Catholic must be the lesser of the two evils.”

    Faced with four evil options, the choice is the least of them. remember we have the Republicans, the Democrats, the third-party candidates, and not voting. A prudential judgment is called for.

    • Pro-Live in NH

      Mary – actually, you couldn’t be more wrong – in the real world – where actions have consequences – not voting or voting for a totally non-competitive candidate – is a vote for the pro-abortionist.

      Grow up.

      • Grow up. All actions have consequences.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Not if one lives in an area where one’s vote could have no conceivable effect on the result and so one’s vote has only symbolic importance

  • Uncle Patrick

    Bernadette: Very well stated.

  • Becky

    Lovely article and well written! The question I have is, what about the fact that Romney supports abortion in the case of rape and incest (I heard Ryan state this in the VP debate)? Then voting for him is only “the lesser of two evils.” There is no viable candidate who stands completely with the Church on abortion. I still plan to vote for Romney, I just ask how we apply your very articulate argument to this problem? Thanks!

    • Bernadette O’Brien

      Becky, you’re right, of course, that there is no viable candidate who stands completely with the church on abortion. In voting for a candidate who supports abortion in some cases, however, one may prevent the election of a candidate who supports abortion in all cases. Since only one of these two has even a chance of being elected, we’re trying to make sure it’s the one who will do the least harm.

  • Good Article

  • zebbart

    I think you need to read the Church’s statements a little more carefully. The churches teaches that abortion is an intrinsic evil, but it does not teach that civil authorities declining to criminally sanction abortion is an intrinsic evil. Nor does it teach that declining to decriminalize a grave and intrinsic evil is morally equivalent to support of the evil. And the Church does not teach that voting for a politician who flies support grave and intrinsic evil makes one complicit in the evil. To the contrary, the Church teaches that one may vote for such a candidate as long as it is not for the purpose of spring the candidate’s evil position or agenda, but for some other sufficiently grave reason.

    • James 2:15 comes to mind “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear, and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well’ ….” Are people any less responsible for doing what is in their power to prevent abortion than they are to prevent someone from starving or freezIng? Why should a doctor who terminates the life of an unborn human being be treated any differently than one who terminates the life of a mature human being? Are we supposed to infer that decriminalizing abortion is a prudential matter like government programs for the poor? (If so, is there any moral decision that cannot be framed as prudential?) And while you are correct that you can vote for a candidate that supports abortion for a some other sufficiently grave reason, I would be grateful for an example of any other policy that could be reasonably expected to be implemented in this country that has more moral impact than abortion, and less counterbalancing justification.

      • zebbart

        First, and needless to say, it is obviously true that the Church teaches infallibly that abortion is always and everywhere gravely wrong. It is an intrinsic evil. It is true also that the Church teaches that the state has a duty to defend all human life from conception to natural death. The Church also teaches that the state has a duty to protect the poor, ensure the just distribution of wealth, and ensure an economy that serves the human person and common good and respects the rights of individuals, families, and organizations. It is a matter of prudential judgment how the government does these things, but it is not valid for the government to leave either protection of human life or the care of the poor and just distribution of wealth up to the conscience and free action of individuals and private organizations.That said, it is not clear to me, and I don’t think you’ll find in official Church teaching, that opposition to criminal sanction on abortion is morally equivalent to support for abortion and therefore is gravely and intrinsically evil. And so I think it is important to not say “supports abortion” when we mean “opposes criminalizing abortion.” Still, I think you are right that abortion is one of the most grave and harmful evils plaguing our country today, and certainly the Church does strongly support criminalizing it under current circumstances. If it were conceivable that electoral politics this year could lead to a strong criminalization of abortion that would in turn likely lower the rate of abortion to a significant extent, I would agree that it would be hard to come up with a counterbalancing justification for not voting in such a way. But that itself is a prudential judgment, and I see very little reason to believe that any politician running for office this year, especially running for president, is going to make any significant change to the level of criminal sanction on abortion that would in turn make a significant change to abortion rates. What I do see in play is that America currently has a higher abortion rate and a higher infant mortality rate than almost every western European nation. Why? They have a much more liberal culture there and for the most part more liberal laws. The only explanation I can think of is that they have a much more robust social welfare system, which provides universal healthcare at no cost at service, much greater maternity and paternity benefits, much cheaper education, and much more extensive unemployment and low income assistance. They remove much of the impetus for women to seek abortion regardless of the woman’s moral and religious commitments, and they also remove much of the conditions of poverty that lead to the higher infant mortality (and presumably miscarriage) rates in America. So just on the consideration of pursuing fewer death of innocent babies, born and unborn, I think one could make the prudential judgment to vote for the politicians who will move us more toward a more European social welfare system even if those politicians are opposed to criminalizing abortion, at least so long as the real prospects of criminalizing abortion remain so low.

        • Thanks for your response. We all attempt to resolve problems the best way we can. At this point, all I can do is consider and research questions such as the following: What exactly does the Church say, speaking within the bounds of its moral authority, about the responsibility of the state to provide more than protection and civil order? Does and should the Church focus more on group activity via “the state” or via “the community”? How should the principles of subsidiarity and federalism be applied? Should we try to realize moral outcomes and individual character via coercion, instilling virtue, or making it easy not to sin? Are there circumstances where it is better for the individual (and his family and community) to face suffering and hard moral choices? Does the welfare state in fact improve the life and morals of its citizens? Can it be more successful than earlier forms of socialism? Does it work better when managed locally rather than nationally?

          • zebbart

            I agree those are all important questions and ones that don’t have simple answers. I think it is clear that the Church demands some exercise of state power in the service of economic justice and amelioration of poverty, especially clearly stated in Rerum Novarum, Quadrigesimo Anno, and Centisimus Annus and echoed in Veritatis Splendor, Gaudium et Spes, and the Doctrinal Note on the Participation of Catholics in Political Life. But it is also clear that state intervention should be as mild and possible and as local as possible according to the principal of subsidiarity, and there can be valid disagreement about specific policies and plans. The only thing the state cannot do is say “We’re going to leave it up to individuals and private organizations, period.” One thing I will not is the Libertarian distinction between “community” and “state” is completely foreign to Catholic understanding. The state is a natural and good manifestation of families living in community. Of course if it becomes unbalanced by sin, ignorance, or misunderstanding then it does harm, but it cannot be treated like a foreign entity, separate from the people. The last thing I’ll say is that “making it easy not to sin” is exactly the approach to abortion that I think offers more hope than criminal sanction. Whatever your opinions of other government policies, on which you might be totally correct, if adopting a social welfare system like Great Britain or Germany has would be the most likely way to reduce abortion and infant mortality, would you vote for that system even though you object to it on so many other points? (Thank you very much for your well reasoned, civil, and thought provoking responses too.)

            • Thanks again for your response. You have given me much to think about, and I am enjoying the conversation. Your last question is a good one. From my perspective, would I subject my society to a socialist state (or the next generation to a debtor nation) if it would significantly reduce the number of abortions? I’ll have to give some thought to that, but my first impression is that it’s a Devil’s bargain. Are you giving up a part of your God given humanity to save another’s God given life? Another question I want to ponder is whether there could be conflict between the method of saving the babies’ lives and the saving of the souls of the parents. I think that was in the back of my mind when I added “instilling virtue” as an alternative or adjunct to coercion and “making it easy not to sin”.

  • Josh

    For the most part, the article is correct. However, it cannot be said that one always must support the lesser of two evils. It is general teaching that one was a light obligation, under venial sin, to support a worthy candidate over an unworthy one. This obligation becomes grave when the unworthy candidate would forseeably cause grave harm to the common good, public morals or the Church (cf. Jone, Moral Theology). It seems very clear that the case can strongly be made about Obama. One is permitted to support a candidate, or a law, that is in some respect evil, in order to prevent a graver evil or to secure some proportionate good that justifies the material cooperation in evil (such is clear from the statements of the Holy See). So it is also clear that voting for Romney can at least have a plausible argument. Whether it is obligatory to support the lesser evil, when there is the option of a conscience vote (third party) or abstention is, however, very much a question of prudence. In itself, there is not an obligation to support an unworthy candidate or law. In some cases prudence may demand such action, as when voting on a law that restricts abortion, though including some bad aspects, instead of voting against it, when doing so does not harm the prospects of even better law in the future. Sometimes prudence may demand not supporting the lesser evil, as when the difference is not so great as to justify the support (imagine an election between someone who wanted to kill all Jews, and someone who want to kill all Jews and blacks to use hyperbole). Or when there is a reasonable chance of better action succeeding (say there are two bills restricting abortion, and one is better, and by supporting the lesser you weaken the chances of the better).

    But in cases of politics it is not always easy to discern long term effects of voting. One may prevent or lessen evil done voting one way, but by abstaining perhaps a signal is sent that the “less evil candidate” is unacceptable, and better candidates may run in the future. When weighing obligation, one must also consider the utility of their vote. A vote in New York for a conscience candidate or abstention is a different matter than a vote in Virginia, where supporting Romney may make a difference. The moral obligation we have to civic life gives a presumption of a duty to vote, so the burden of moral proof is on the choice to abstain. But it remains, in general, a valid option if circumstances deem it prudent. So it is better to say that one has a moral obligation to support the lesser evil if a)by doing so a grave evil is prevented that is proportionate to the lesser evil and b)it is the only reasonable course to prevent such evil and c) as far as is forseeable the good achieved is greater, even in the long run, than another course of action.


    Way to go, Bernadette! Great article!

  • GrahamCombs

    Unlike Ms. O’Brien I come from the far less Catholic Eastern Kentucky — or at least my parents did. But I spent most of my boyhood in the blue collar suburbs of Detroit. I didn’t become a Catholic until three years ago. But I have observed this. They used to say that the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer. And I think it is fair to say that for decades the Catholic Church in America has been the Democratic Party at prayer. Now of course no one with a sense of humor would call the Church of England a Tory constituency. I was raised Episcopalian mostly and it has been years since that church was considered green Republican links. The fact is that the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party have been bound together like those famous entangled sub atomic particles whose actions Einstein described as “spooky action at a distance.” Suddenly in the last few elections the Catholic Church has become fair and balanced, isn’t taking sides, is fastidious about endorsement.
    I’m not disagreeing with the above moral arguments, merely that the historical context is missing. So it shouldn’t be a mystery that so many Catholics are making the historical relationship argument for continued support — the party of the unions, the party of the working man, the party of public servants, the party for the working poor (no longer working sadly), the party of government benefits etc.
    Which raises a question. How do distinguish between selfish Republican self interest and a constant stream of compassionate Democratic government largesse that benefits a lot of middle class civil servants?
    Graham Combs/Royal Oak, MI

  • Paul Becke

    God help the Church in the US! Oppression of the poor, and withholding of the labourer’s wages are crimes that the Church has traditionally taught cry to heaven for vengeance.

    Chance would be a fine thing, to find a job that paid a living wage, or indeed any wage, for most Americans, as a direct result of the criminality of the system favoured by Ms O’Brien and the monied Americans, which has brought the world economy to the edge of the abyss. But instead of their being terminally discredited, they are shamelessly consolidating their ill-gotten gains. Shame on you, Ms O’Brien.

    It all reminds me of James’ so-called ‘epistle of straw’. Faith in the right to life of the unseen unborn, but an airy dismissal of the dire needs of the living all around us; and in favour of what? Shameless materialism – consumerism and the endness accumuation of wealth that doesn’t belong to them.


    • Bernadette

      Actually, Paul, I’m not a monied American. Last year the government nearly taxed me out of existence–taking my money away to pay for social security, which will not be around when I’m old enough to collect it.

      I am very sorry for the poor–especially because I know exactly what it is like not to have enough to live on. I merely deny that social security and medicare are programs that actually help people. Also, I do not understand how it is possible to talk about helping people live better lives when you deny them the right to live in the first place.

  • Karen Mcclung

    by Guy McClung

    The answer below is on Wiki.answers..has been for a few days [will no doubt
    > with this publicity be yanked or changed] …you all in swing states, esp
    > Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Virginia….get this to every
    > Catholic you know:
    > Wiki.Answers:
    > “Question: Is it a mortal sin to vote for Obama?
    > Answer:
    > It is a mortal sin for a Catholic with a well-formed conscience, ie a
    > conscience formed in accord with Church teaching and the Church’s
    > magisterium, to vote for Obama and to vote for any pro-abortion Democrat, no
    > matter who else is running.”

  • Mrs. Walther

    Wow, Bernadette! Glad to see your excellent writing skills put to use for the service of God.