Today, I'm going to address a question that has been asked by a number of readers in a lot of different ways, both in comments here on the website and in e-mails. Rather than pick out any one version of the question, I'll offer one that I think sums up all of them: When deciding whom to vote for, must Catholics consider each candidate's position on abortion above all else?
Before getting to the answer, we need to establish one point. Church teaching is clear: A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate or a policy that is pro-abortion in order to advance abortion. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes (para. 2271):
Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable.
Abortion is, in the language of the Church, intrinsically evil, and no Catholic can engage in it or even cooperate in it (including by supporting it politically) without committing a grave sin.
In other words, the only question Catholics face is whether we can vote for a candidate who is pro-abortion despite that candidate's pro-abortion stand. Are there any circumstances under which a Catholic can vote for a pro-abortion candidate? The short answer is yes, but only under the most limited of circumstances--circumstances in which the issue of abortion is essentially irrelevant.
If all candidates in a particular race are pro-abortion, the Catholic voter does not necessarily need to abstain; as long as he is not voting with the intention to advance abortion, he can vote for the candidate who otherwise better reflects the Church's understanding of the proper political and social order.
Likewise, if all candidates for a particular race are opposed to abortion, the voter can make his decision on the basis of other issues.
The problem comes in races where there is at least one pro-life and one pro-abortion candidate. We could vote for the pro-life candidate, although we are not obliged to do so. We could legitimately abstain from voting altogether if, for instance, the pro-life candidate is in favor of certain exceptions (such as in cases of rape or incest) or supports other immoral policies, such as embryonic stem-cell research or a war that two consecutive popes have opposed.
But is there any situation in which it is acceptable to cast our vote for the pro-abortion candidate? Considered abstractly, the answer is yes, but in most circumstances, the answer is no. If there is a "proportionate reason" that outweighs the candidate's support for abortion, then we can vote for the pro-abortion candidate, while disagreeing with his support for abortion.
What might such a situation be? Well, if a candidate supported abortion but the office that he is trying to win has no authority over any matters related to abortion, then we could vote for him on the basis of issues over which he would have authority, because they would take on a much larger role.
The flip side, however, is that when a candidate is running for an office that does have a great deal of authority over abortion--such as President of the United States--it is essentially impossible to think of a "proportionate reason" that outweighs the destruction of approximately 1.3 million unborn children every year.
So what's a Catholic to do? We need to become familiar with the candidates' positions on such intrinsic evils as abortion and embryonic stem-cell research. Then, if we are dissatisfied with the overall positions of both major-party candidates, we have to consider our alternatives, which include not voting in a particular race and voting for a third-party candidate who is pro-life.
Catholics who vote for pro-abortion candidates in order to support abortion are cooperating in grave evil--but so are pro-life Catholics who vote for pro-abortion candidates without a proportionate reason. If, for whatever reason, we cannot vote for a pro-life candidate, then it would be better to abstain. We gain nothing by casting our votes if we put our own souls at risk.