I Was Right for the Wrong Reason

It would be both dishonest and absurdly ironic (since my October 17 article in Crisis was about intellectual integrity) if I were to fail to point out and correct a rather serious oversight that it contained. I stated that the Church teaches that to vote for a candidate who supports abortion is to be complicit in grave and intrinsic evil. This is not unqualifiedly so.

The document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship put out by the USCCB states:

A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil.

Then-Cardinal Ratzinger stated, in a letter which may be found on the website of Priests for Life:

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.

This statement might seem like an opening for a justification of voting for Obama, but it is not. I bring it up, not to confuse the issue, but to clarify it. It is extremely important to understand this teaching, and that for three reasons. Firstly (and fundamentally) because truth matters. Secondly, because it is this very point which is used as a loophole by sophists to “justify” voting for Obama, and it is never wise to overlook the stratagems of the opposition—rather, one ought to expose them. Thirdly, it is important because the logical conclusion of my inaccurate premise might very well lead one to the misguided view that one may not ever vote for a politician who is not entirely in line with Church teaching on abortion.

I do not propose to defend my first point…since anyone who does not agree with it will have to contend that the opposite is true and that it matters…but I will address the next two briefly and in order.

It’s pretty easy to see how the sophists can use the perceived loophole contained in the statement quoted from Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. According to an article in the Detroit Free Press they’re already doing it. According to some Catholics, one may vote for a candidate who “backs abortion rights” (such as Barack Obama, maybe?) as long as one does not agree with the candidate’s stand, but for other grave reasons, such as concern for the poor. This is rather a subtle argument, but it is false. Here is why: Cardinal Ratzinger says in the quote above that the reasons must be “grave and proportionate.” (italics mine)  It is perfectly clear (and Cardinal-designate Burke has stated it in so many words) that “programs for the poor” are not proportionate to abortion. The crucial point—the one that it is absolutely imperative to understand—is that one is never permitted to choose the greater of two evils. This is the point that the Liberal Catholics’ smoothly sophistical argument slides right over.

One may well scratch one’s head and ask: “Well, all right then! What is the point of the qualification? Under what possible circumstances might it be permissible to vote for a candidate who fails to stand fully with the Church on the issue of abortion?” To quote once again from Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship:

Sometimes morally flawed laws already exist. In this situation, the process of framing legislation to protect life is subject to prudential judgment and “the art of the possible.” At times this process may restore justice only partially or gradually.

This brings me to my third point. Mitt Romney’s platform is not to oppose the current legal status of abortion in the cases of rape, incest, and life of the mother. We know that the Church makes no exception in condemning abortion in every case. Thus, Mitt Romney’s stand is not in line with Church teaching, and one might argue (from my inaccurate premise) that a Catholic cannot vote for him.

Since, however, what the Church actually teaches is that a Catholic must 1) not share the candidate’s stand on abortion; and 2) must have grave and proportionate reasons to vote for him, let us apply those standards to the question. A Catholic who does not hold that abortion is permissible in the cases of rape, incest, and life of the mother, may nevertheless vote for Mitt Romney for this grave and proportionate reason: the evil of unrestricted abortion, funded by taxpayer money (to say nothing of the other serious and intrinsic evils not only unopposed but actually vigorously pursued by our current president) is incomparably worse than the evil of merely being willing to allow abortion to remain legal in some cases. This is, of course, keeping in mind that there are only two candidates who have a chance of winning this election. We do not have a chance of electing a president who is opposed to abortion in every case. We do have a chance of making sure that president we get will work to restrict it.

This brings me to clarify one thing more: that while we are absolutely bound not to vote for the greater evil, we are not bound to vote for the lesser evil, but merely allowed to do so. It remains a matter of prudential judgment. When making a prudential judgment in an election, however, it is well to keep in mind that voting third-party, or abstaining from voting, may very well have the effect of allowing the worst man to win.

I hope that this serves to correct the error and clarify the issue. The bottom line is that, although I reached it by way of a faulty premise, the conclusion that a Catholic cannot in any way justify voting for Barack Obama remains absolutely firm.

Thank God that the truth does not depend on our faulty human reasoning.

Bernadette O'Brien


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

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  • Uncle Patrick

    Very well done Bernadette. Uncle Patrick

  • Dan Mckenzie

    I suppose I’ll have to agree. But I have a problem with your thinking that we must vote for only the two major parties. I suppose I will have to vote for Romney, being a Catholic, but I’d rather vote for the Constitution Party. Their platform follows Catholic teaching much closer than any other. If we accept your reasoning that only the two major parties have any chance to win, and voting for a third party is growing away our vote, we’re forever condemning ourselves to the status-quo. I can’t accept that. But I can’t see a way out of it.

    Perhaps the only way out is evangelization, converting the minds and hearts of the American people; no easy task. For now, I guess Romney will have to do.

    • Bernadette

      Dan, I couldn’t agree with you more–note that I was very clear on the fact that voting for Romney is a prudential judgment, and we are not bound to do it. The Republican party stinks, and it’s an absolute travesty that a third party candidate can’t win. Our country is not SUPPOSED to run on a two party system! Still, we can’t fix it overnight. I believe we’re in damage control mode right now. Another four years of Obama would be disastrous, in my opinion.

      • But if enough of us threw up our hands in disgust and *do* vote for a third party (as I plan to do), we could change. If just one state somewhere were thrown into confusion by having a third-party candidate receive significant votes, it would be a statement to the two major parties: we’re tired of you smugly deciding that you need only concern yourself with half of morality and can safely ignore the other half.

        • T


      • Tout

        We vote for the candidate with a program that’s closest to God’s teaching. It is hard to believe that a non-Catholic would have a better program than a Catholic. But you decide which leader you trust most.

    • Nicholas Escalona

      The Constitution Party’s candidate, Virgil Goode, supports torture. The candidate for America’s Party, Tom Hoefling, is the only one up there who’s anywhere near Catholic teaching.

  • Howard Kainz

    The two party system is important for our democracy, since we don’t have a parliamentary system, in which two or more like-minded parties could combine to form a new government. In our system, a third party could contribute to what Lewis Carroll called the “voters’ paradox” — that you subtract votes from the party that you like second-best, and end up with the party you like least.

  • Kris

    What a crazy GOP reason to promote voting for Romney. Seriously?

    • Augustus

      Your alinskyesque use of ridicule in place of argument won’t work here. This is a Catholic site. The Church has always been the defender of reason and it expects its members to think. If you are not prepared to use your mind, don’t waste our time.

  • Gregory

    But having said that, many still make simple mistakes about formal co-operation Intention can be implicit and the effect of someone’s “signing up” to do something, rather than express and always prior to the action done. If you will, one’s intention can be an effect of an action rather than an antecedent cause. http://thomistica.net/news/2012/10/1/some-simple-mistakes-about-formal-cooperation.html

  • Lee Malatesta

    If I understand the argument correctly, it means that any Catholic who believes that the Democratic social program will reduce the number of abortions more than the Republican plan to ban abortions can vote for a pro-choice Democratic candidate with a clear conscience. The argument would be thus:

    “Just as Prohibition failed to curb alcohol consumption and largely only serviced to empower organized crime, an absolute ban on abortion would fail to curb abortions and largely only service to further the reach of organized crime.”

    It seems to this argument would be proportionate to the gravity of allowing abortion to remain legal and any Catholic who fully believed that this was the case could vote for a pro-choice politician with a clear conscience.

    One might object that the argument is not founded in fact. But such a determination is grounded in prudential judgment. So the Catholic voter who has investigated the situation with an appropriate level of seriousness and has judged that the argument is correct can vote for a pro-choice candidate whether or not the argument actually is correct.

    • Bernadette

      The idea that the Democratic social program will ultimately result in fewer abortions is either true or it is not true. If it is true, it deserves serious consideration–but let’s not kid ourselves. One would have to be seriously misinformed concerning the history of the progressive movement and the Democratic party to really believe that. http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/democratic-platform-endorses-taxpayer-funded-abortions_651589.html
      Free abortions, anyone? (And don’t forget, that abortion is only ONE grave and intrinsic evil pushed by the Democratic party and our current president. Human cloning…embryonic stem cell research…gay “marriage”….all of these things are as serious.)

      Furthermore, everybody ought to know that the Republican party platform has absolutely nothing to do with “an absolute ban on abortion”. That is a liberal scare tactic. The fact is, they probably couldn’t do it if they tried. Not even overturning Roe vs. Wade would amount to a criminalization of abortion–it would simply allow the power to make laws about abortion to return to the States, where it belongs.

      No one who is unaware of these facts can possibly have “investigated the situation with the appropriate level of seriousness.” The appropriate level of seriousness involves actually going and finding out the truth. We are reasonable human beings, and we are responsible for the stuff we think. The information is out there, and it is easy to find. In such circumstances, and concerning such very serious issues, one can be gravely culpable for one’s ignorance.

      Any Catholic so out of touch with history and reality as to truly and sincerely believe that the liberal are going to curb abortions would, as you say, not be culpable, but it’s a question whether he ought to be allowed outside without a keeper.

      • Lee Malatesta

        There is plenty of evidence out there that might make a reasonable person conclude that a legal ban on abortion would not reduce the number of abortions being performed.

        “A comprehensive global study of abortion has concluded that abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal and those where it is not, suggesting that outlawing the procedure does little to deter women seeking it.”


        We should also note that the abortion rate has been falling almost every year since the early 90’s. As abortion has been legal all the while, there must be some driver other than legal bans that account for that fall in abortion rates.

        • Bernadette

          Nobody is talking about banning abortion. The question is whether it should be aggressively pushed, as President Obama has done, or merely tolerated, as Governor Romney says he would.

          • Lee Malatesta

            For the record both Romney and Ryan have both spoken plainly about their desire to ban all abortions. Romney does not think it likely that the US is in a place where a sitting president would likely get such a bill from Congress but he’s gone on record as saying that he’d be delighted to sign such a bill if he was president.

            The legislation Romney would push, presuming that Roe v. Wade were overturned, is a legal ban on abortions with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. Granted, that’s not a total ban, but it is a ban nonetheless.

            David Frum has some thoughts concerning the causes of abortion and concludes that `Abortion is a product of poverty and maternal distress.’


            It seems to me that his argument is not unreasonable and that a person could believe it to be true without being deluded or somehow detached from reality.

  • Mrs. Walther

    Very nice.