May a Catholic Support a Political Candidate Who is Not Completely Pro-Life?

In the current presidential campaign, I have heard some serious Catholics express reservations about voting for Mitt Romney because of the abortion issue. True, they are aware of how rabidly pro-abortion Barack Obama is. They may even consider him—correctly—the most pro-abortion president the U.S. has ever had. He has a consistent track record of embracing every position the hard-core pro-abortion movement favors, including the Freedom of Choice Act, public funding of abortion, overturning the Mexico City Policy (one of his first acts as president), permitting partial-birth abortion, and even allowing abortion-survivor babies to die. This does not even take into account his other positions at odds with Catholic moral teaching such as supporting same-sex “marriage” and the rest of the homosexualist agenda. Still, Mitt Romney permits abortion exceptions—“hard-case” abortions—so there is really no difference between the two candidates. A Catholic, they say, cannot vote for either of them because this shows that both are pro-abortion.

Romney’s position on abortion is that he would permit it to save the life of the mother and in cases of rape and incest. That is actually a position that is more restrictive than that of his Mormon Church, which despite its reputation as pro-life permits abortion also for reasons of maternal health and fetal deformity. Romney’s position also is the same as was George H.W. Bush’s when he ran for president in 1988. Like the senior Bush, Romney’s public position on abortion has evolved—essentially from favoring legalized abortion on-demand to favoring it only in limited circumstances. Romney also now says he opposes embryonic stem-cell research, although it’s not so clear that that was his position in the past. His church does not oppose that; it has not taken a position one way or the other about it. Obama not only supports it, but has expanded federal funding of it.

It is not so clear that Romney’s current position has not been shaped, at least in part, by political considerations. An out-and-out proponent of elective abortion could probably not secure the Republican presidential nomination. Still, that does not mean that he’s not sincere about it, or that he would not uphold it and shape policies consistent with it once in office. Indeed, that was what George H.W. Bush did.

The central question for Catholics is this: Is it morally acceptable to vote for a candidate like Romney who supports abortion rights in some cases when his opponent is a supporter of sweeping abortion rights? After all, didn’t both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and the U.S. bishops in their documents on Catholic citizenship and political participation say that, “a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals?”

The answer can be discerned from a statement in John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (#73), which is repeated in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (#570), about the moral obligations and restraints on legislators. Since legislators are the ones who are most directly involved in lawmaking, what is said about them applies a fortiori to the voters selecting them and other public decisionmakers: “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…” In other words, if legal abortion cannot be outright overturned—which, barring a major confrontation between the political branches and the Supreme Court that the former clearly have no will to initiate, could happen in the U.S. only with the judicial overturning of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton—a legislator can support lesser initiatives or partial correctives even though they leave the norm of permissive legal abortion intact.

In his 2004 pastoral letter when he was Archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond L. Cardinal Burke—who is now the Prefect of Apostolic Signatura (the Church’s equivalent of the Supreme Court)—directly addressed the question of the moral obligations of the Catholic voter. He said that a Catholic who “is clear in his or her opposition to the moral evil of procured abortion could vote for a candidate who supports the limitation of the legality of procured abortion, even though the candidate does not oppose all use of procured abortion, if the other candidate(s) do not support the limitation of the evil of procured abortion”(#41). This is exactly the situation in the Romney-Obama contest. In fact, Cardinal Burke also affirmed explicitly what I have suggested: the standard of Evangelium Vitae for the legislator is applicable to the voter.

Some might ask, given the fact that neither candidate in an election like the current presidential one is against all abortion, whether Catholics should just refuse to vote. They might consider the fact that few U.S. political candidates say they are against all abortion (they will at least claim the life of the mother exception). That means that such Catholic voters would probably have to sit out every election, or at least all the ones for federal offices. I can hardly think of a better way to minimize the influence of faithful Catholic citizens in American politics.

Cardinal Burke framed the decision to not vote in a circumstance where there is a less than ideal pro-life candidate in moral terms: “the Catholic who chooses not to vote at all, when there is a viable candidate who will advance the common good, although not perfectly, fails to fulfill his or her moral duty”(#43).  The CDF document emphasizes that Catholics may not delegate their political responsibilities to others, which is effectively what happens when one chooses not to vote.

Those who try to resolve this putative dilemma in the current election by not casting a vote for the top of the ticket and maybe also in a Congressional race, and instead just voting for state and local offices, should also ponder these words of Cardinal Burke. They should also note his further point that the Catholic voter must “make a prudent decision regarding what best serves the common good”(#44). Additionally, those thinking about voting for an obscure third-party candidate should consider whether, under the circumstances, it is a prudent choice (actually, I’m not sure there is a pro-life third-party presidential candidate on many state ballots this year). The same thing obviously applies to write-ins.

Moreover, while all procured abortion is a moral abomination, we have to be realistic on a practical level about drawing an equivalency between an abortion-on-demand candidate or public policy and a hard-cases one. Even the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which was previously the research arm of Planned Parenthood, reports that only .3% of all U.S. abortions are done for reasons of rape, .03% because of incest, .1% because of a threat to the mother’s life, and 98% for mostly reasons of preference. So, the Romney-Obama election is between a man who favors that fewer than .5% of the 1.2 million abortions in the U.S. each year should be legal and one who favors that 100% of them should be.

Perhaps the prudence that Cardinal Burke spoke of is the political application of the old aphorism that the perfect must not become the enemy of the good. It seems to be particularly applicable this election year.

Stephen M. Krason


Stephen M. Krason's "Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic" column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He is the author, most recently, of The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and editor of three volumes: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and The Crisis of Religious Liberty (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and most recently, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians (Franciscan University Press). His latest book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (Hamilton Books). He is also the author of a new novel, American Cincinnatus.

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  • No one is looking for perfect, we are looking for true compassion for the lives of all people from conception to natural death – even if that life is only offered for 1 second according to God’s will. If people understood that RvW is based on the premise of “rape, incest and life of the mother”, they wouldn’t accept this as a valid pro life position. Life of the mother means whatever inconvenience or discomfort the mother feels – it does not mean life threatening. Although it sounds compassionate, Life of the mother is the loophole that allows ALL abortions without limit.

    • Ford Oxaal

      Except for Bernard who commented here. If your vote helps put Obama the Aborter back in office, that might not be good.

      • Rich

        Obama is NOT an abortionist. Some medical personnel are abortionists. Catholics are not single issue voters. Abortion is not the only issue in front of me when I vote. It is there, sure…but we live in a post-Christian nation. Abortion is not going away. Obama gets my vote again, as he is the least worst of these two candidates. Go ahead, pray for me, etc….I am well informed and glad to vote for him.

        • Ford Oxaal

          Abortion is going away, just like slavery went away. Obama just won’t be the one to help that process along. In my opinion, he is selling out the black race which has a disproportionately high percentage of abortions. I’m on the side of Those guys get this.

        • John200

          If you are Catholic, you know that murdering children IS INDEED a single issue that will put you in grave difficulties with your Maker and with the Church.

          So when you support abortion you should pray for yourself, and follow such prayers with repentance and reconciliation. You have need, and God wants the effort to come from you.

          We will save interesting arguments about how abortion will suddenly go away, and how much of your information comes from darkness, for another time. If you are Catholic, you have a more pressing need.

        • Mark

          Still stuck on delusional:

        • Adam_Baum

          Obama is NOT an abortionist.

          No, but he wants to be their bill collector, and exact payment from those who have neither sought their “services” and never would.

        • WSquared

          Catholics may not be single-issue voters but they know or should know that some issues cut right to the heart of what is Man and what true freedom is than others. It’s not just “the economy, stupid,” and neither, therefore, is having a preferential option for the poor.

    • Katie van Schaijik

      Rosalinada, I’ll say the same thing to you I said to Bernard: The concrete prudential judgment in front of us on Tuesday is not between evil and the ideal; it’s between a mostly good and a thoroughly bad (in terms of policy) candidate. Every pro-lifer who declines to vote for Romney is helping re-elect a President who is aggressively advancing the culture of death in our society. Romney may not be as completely pro-life as we could wish, but he is the only hope have right now of stopping the clear and present evil of the Obama Administration. Catholics who don’t vote for him are (sorry!) playing the role of useful idiot to the anti-life forces.

      • Matthew

        Don’t drink the Kool-Aid, Katie van Schaijik! A vote for Romney is a vote to kill more of the unborn. He will take away every safety net for the poor and plunge more women into having abortions. He has no immediate plans to prevent abortion. Obamacare is what will actually reduce abortions in this country by about 50%. Voters for Romney are baby-killers.

        • Adam_Baum

          Good grief, you shills are so into the Kool-Aid you don’t even realize you rants are as easily disassembled as a cheap Happy Meal Toy.

          What “safety net” for the poor are you talking about? The 16T deficit, The 7.9% unemployment? The 3.50 /gallon gas? Solyndra? Cash for Clunkers? We’ve had a “safety net” for decades and it did NOTHING to stop the slaughter of tens of millions. I know two women who had abortions, both killed their child because the child was the product of hook-up.

          I really have to strain to withhold my desired characterization of the mind that writes “Obamacare is what will actually reduce abortions in this country by about 50%”. Beyond the utter absence of any provision to do so, not even the most ardent supporter of Obamacare thinks it will reduce abortions by any amount as an indirect consequence. This simply isn’t credible and can only be a disordered or disingenuous assertion. Planned Parenthood/NARAL/the other usual suspects aren’t supporting Obama full force because it thinks they think they are going to suffer the loss of one thin dime.

          Well, it’ll be back to your “occupy” tent after the election, I’m sure.

  • Bernard

    I disagree … as a Catholic I will vote for a third party that matches my faith .. I will. not vote for the lesser of two intrinsically evil candidates.. Also our faith goes beyond the innocent lives within the womb but also the innocent lives on foreign soil.
    I will not sacrifice the integrity of my vote and faith for this insane concept that there are only two viable candidates. If all Catholics would vote their faith our country and maybe a good portion of the world would not be in this mess.

    • Ford Oxaal

      So you have a third party candidate on your ballot? Who is that?

      • Bernard

        I will write in RP

        • Ford Oxaal

          I can see RP’s appeal. I would say your stance is more rational than to vote for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil (abortion) as part of the solution to society’s ills.

        • Adam_Baum

          Ron Paul is NOT a third party candidate. Well this time he’s not.

          He is of course a thirty-some year member of Congress with no record of legislative success. I am not of the school that judges a legislator by the number of his bills that become law-God knows we are a nation of Laws-rather than of law-but he should have moved the ball on something in three decades. Extremism in defense of principle is no vice-to borrow a phrase-but eccentricity is no virtue.

          Even in his agreeable proposals-such as auditing the Fed-there are thickets. Auditing at a core level means-is it reasonable to express the financial assertions made an entity in a monetary unit-how does that work when the Fed is the creator and definer of the currency. Worse, you can’t audit judgment.

          • Bernard

            The FED policy is destroying our currency. Historically fiat has a 100% failure rate. QE infinity will kill us economically .
            The only reason the dollar has credibility is because now all countris trade in dollars . That will change. The FED historically is terrible …. why would anyone support it. Also more laws more bills less liberty .
            All of congress takes the same oath it would be nice if more than one congressman truly upheld and believed in the Condition and the brilliance and wisdom of the writers. Take care….
            Also back to the article … Prolife isn’t just about abortion .

            • Bernard

              Condition=Constitution 🙂

      • Michael S

        Tom Hoefling, America’s Party is on the ballot in I believe 40 states.

    • Katie van Schaijik

      Mitt Romney is not “intrinsically evil.” He is a manifestly decent and capable human being with policy proposals that—imperfect as they are—will move the country in a decidedly pro-life direction. The choice before us Tuesday is not between evil and ideal. It’s between mostly good and thoroughly bad. Shame on every Catholic who doesn’t do his part.

    • Richard

      Go ahead and throw your vote away, as long as it allows you to demonstrate your exquisite moral purity.

      • Bernard

        Trust me I am far from perfect and pure.
        But someone who compromises their faith and integrity is a terrible waste. We no Obama is bad by his record.. Romnney has no record to prove his worth. If you were listening to the debates.. especially the last one..war is inevitable especially with Republicans. Prolife means prolife.

        • John200

          Of course you are far from perfect and pure. But let that pass.

          You are also far from clear and cogent, as in, “Romney has no record to prove his worth.”

          If you don’t know Mr. Romney’s extensive record, you have made an act of will and don’t want to know. He has been fully vetted, and was also vetted in 2008 for the purpose of running for President.

          Bernard! Bernard! Where have you been?

    • ODriscoll

      Bernard is correct. Where there is a pro-life candidate, it is morally righteous to vote for the most pro-life candidate. Since neither of the main party candidates are pro-life, then a pro-life third party candidate is best.

      Romney claims he is pro-life. He is not. This is why we are required to vet a candidate before voting for him. He can say anything he wants, but we must determine whether he is believable.

      I think it would be madness to believe anything Romney says about this issue, given his history.

    • Tout

      BERNARD You are so right. I pray that Amarica, Canada and other countries will not continue to sink in ‘never mind’, but realize one must support the truth.

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  • Lt. William J. Lawler II, M.Ed

    The arguments presented by Mr. Karson in favor of the “less pro-abortion” candidate seem persuasive. He also seems persuasive when he argues against refusing to vote and voting for candidates “unlikely” to win. However:

    1. The lesser of two or more evils, is still evil. As cliché as it sounds, this truism warns us against dancing with the devil by negotiating with our values. I for one have no interest in dealing with Faust.

    2. In many regards it can be easily argued that the reason the United States is such a moral cesspool is because of moral equivocation on the part of all Americans, and especially American Roman Catholics. What is that saying about insanity and doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting a different outcome each time? More of the same toxic medicine will not make things better.

    3. Voting for morally and constitutionally acceptable “third party” candidates, or by writing them in, actually accomplishes three goals. -It allows individuals to participate in the electoral process without compromising on their values. -Regardless of the chances of these candidates actually winning, the mere casting of such votes is a “protest vote” that makes a huge moral/political statement, and the more people that do this, the larger and more impactful the statement. -Significant percentages of write in votes and votes for third party candidates may scare the two-party republicrat/demopublican establishment into making substantive changes.

    4. Refusing to vote also accomplishes three goals: -By refusing to vote, the citizen fails to legitimize a corrupt and illegitimate system. -The individual refuses to deal with the devil. -significant percentages of citizens refusing to vote puts the establishment on notice that their rule is illegitimate and therefore they must either change course or face expulsion: Remember that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it; and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.”

    5. Any argument that the likelihood of taking and fighting for the ideal situation/candidate is a losing battle is as unchristian an argument as any.

    6. “He who does not bellow out the truth when he knows the truth makes himself the accomplice of liars and forgers. -Charles Peguy

    • Katie van Schaijik

      The choice is not between two evils. Mitt Romney is not evil. We are not being asked to choose to commit either a later term abortion or an early abortion. We are being asked to choose between two men, one of whom is utterly committed to advancing an evil agenda, the other being committed to advancing the pro-life cause. The American system is not illegitimate. It is about as legitimate as earthly governments get. There is no reason why we can’t BOTH vote Romney AND “bellow out the truth.”

      • Rich

        Obama is NOT EVIL either. Period.

        • Katie van Schaijik

          Rich, his aggressive pro-abortion and pro-“same sex marriage” policies are evil. So is the HHS mandate. I also think his redistributionist, tax-and-spend, cronyist way of governing is irreconcilable with Catholic Social Teaching.

        • John200

          Obama pursues evil with enthusiasm and insane energy.

          You can monkey around with semantics and conclude that he himself is perhaps not evil, but he is heavily tainted by his choices.

        • Adam_Baum

          Obama represents a three-fold attack on good that is unprecedented in scope and scale.

          1.) He aggressively represents the anti-life forces, as do many in his party, and is using his healthcare takeover to institutionalize institutional financing of abortion and contraception.

          2.) He is pursuing the “gay marriage” agenda. He is using the military to proselytize for the acceptance of homosexuality as normal, (I have friends who were treated to “training” on the matter after the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”.) and refused to support the Defense of Marriage Act-which is both a philosophical statement and a violation of his oath of office.

          3.) In a myriad of ways that would try the patience of readers not familiar with the workings of bureaucracy, but conspicuously through the HHS mandate “compromise”, where an organization would have to minister only its own flock, Obama has attempted to suppress the voluntary charitable sector. By circumscribing the activities of the religious and charitable sectors, he not only drives them into the shadows, but exposes the individual to the “vicissitudes of fortune” and society at large without recourse to anything but the state, creating a new form of economic feudalism where people, in their natural risk aversion, will surrender ever more and more personal rights and responsibilities.

          Obama may not be evil, but his positions and policies are evil. Period.

          I expect that with a Romney administration-there will be frequent and serious disappointments and days when it will be necessary to carpet-call the White House switchboard. I do not expect a full-scale strategic war on the individual and their rights, or the religious and voluntary sector that are so much more effective and efficient at providing assistance to people in need, without encouraging the dependency that characterizes so many government programs and is such an affront to human dignity.

          • Adam_Baum

            Viewer discretion advised:


          • Ford Oxaal

            And these negatives are so pronounced, the way I see it without going to far into the anathemas and Denziger references, the play here is for Catholics to keep Obama out of office. That means vote for the other guy.

          • Tout

            ADAMBAUMM Wel said. Thanks.

        • Tout

          RICH His policies are evil, regardless of the number of Periods you put on.

      • Bernard

        Is war good? You heard the debates.

    • Bernard

      Very well written

    • Tout

      I got the impression that there are less real Catholics in America than I thought. Or, how Catholic are the Catholics ?

    • Lt. William J. Lawler II, M.Ed

      “McCain to pro-lifers: State your position, then ‘leave the issue alone’” ( Gee wiz, it’s a good thing so many pro-lifer’s vote/voted for the “less pro-abortion” Republican Party Ticket… Where would we be without the Republican Party-besides dropping even more bombs on the men, women, and children of third world country villages?…

  • Ed Hummel

    Mr. Krason is blurring the distinction (equivocating) between object and intention. “There are acts, which and in themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object. . . . One may not do evil so that good may result from it.” (CCC # 1756) Also, “Circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act subjectively good or defensible as a choice.” (Veritatis Splendor n. 81) The subject of Evangelium Vitae # 73 is the very pro-life elected official, not the voter and not the candidate with exceptions, unless you have the authority to change magisterial teaching!

    • Ford Oxaal

      So you are not buying Mr. Krason’s “a fortiori” argument? Seems reasonable to me.

  • bobbert jones

    He’s a Mormon! That’s worse than being a black!

  • givelifeachance2

    Your interpretation of Cardinal Burkes position does not take into account third party possibilities. Google “2012 election procon presidential candidates” to find candidate position summaries of Obama, Romney, and Goode side by side. People once had to vote third party to start the Republican party – so there’s always a first time, maybe it’s time for the Constitution party. Republicans’ time is up when they allow their presidential candidate to categorically reject their platform on abortion. And Romney, for the record, has said (recently) that he favors abortions for the “health” of the mother, which means virtually all. He weasels around on his position on gay marriage, is father of Obamacare, despite his claim to repeal Obamacare, he’ll replace it with Romneycare, brags about test-tube conception of his grandkids, for the NDAA. He is a Rockefeller Republican and that ilk has been silent backstage enabler of many totalitarian eugenic regimes and schemes around the world. Yes, Obama is bad, and Romney is bad with a hairdo. Get ready for the gulag either way.

  • Bernard

    Fully vested by whom, the neocon RNC leadership ?
    I have seen how they work being a delegate at our state convention and reading and watching Tampa Bay… they did everything possible to silent one of the f ew Ciceros in the party. Bottom line in regards to Prolife and voting Catholic . ..abortion is evil and unjust wars and the death of innocent civilians through neocon foreign policy is evil … Once again if everyone voted on principles and not on what the 2 parties give us we would not be in
    this mess … Take care

  • Matthew

    Because I am pro-life, I will vote Obama. He may want to keep abortion legal, but he will also do more than Romney to reduce abortion rates. The ONLY think Romney has said he will do that is pro-life is to nominate pro-life supreme court justices. This does nothing to address the root causes of abortion. Obama’s health care plan goes a long way toward actually reducing abortion rates. See: . The Republicans are profoundly dishonest about this issue. A vote for them is a vote against life

    • annedanielson

      The root cause of abortion is the lack of respect for the Sanctity of Human Life. Let no one deceive you.

  • hombre111

    For me, to be totally pro-life means to be anti-abortion, anti-big capacity gun magazines, anti-war, anti-death penalty, anti-poverty, and so on. So, everybody sins.

    • Adam_Baum


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  • Ed Hummel

    Each of us, from the moment of conception, is a singular, independent human being endowed with intellect and free will, and made in the image and likeness of God. Tell me how, by your voting, you are willing to materially cooperate in the abortion of even one of God’s children. To do so, is almost the same as doing the dirty deed itself.

    The best article I’ve seen on voting is Judy Brown’s of A.L.L. in the Sept/Oct issue of “We Celebrate” entitled: “For Whom Should I Vote in the November 2012 Election?” Please google it.

  • MIchael S

    Vote Tom Hoefling, America’s Party as a 3rd party pro-life choice. I believe he is on the ballot in 40 states.

  • annedanielson

    According to Cardinal Dolan, The Catholic Church is a “big tent” that despite Catholic Canon 750, can accommodate those who do not respect the Sanctity of every Human Life, and those who do not respect the Sanctity of Marriage and The Family, so I would guess, even if it may appear that Cardinal Dolan agrees with The Bishops in regards to voting one’s conscience in communion with The Catholic Church, he believes both candidates who are running for office are Catholics, and thus one can be Catholic while denying The Word of God Is The Word of God, simultaneously.