1. Religion & Spirituality
Scott P. Richert

Reader Question: The Election and Abortion

By November 6, 2012

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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.

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October 28, 2008 at 9:02 am
(1) Tom Piatak says:

An excellent analysis of the issue.

October 29, 2008 at 1:20 am
(2) Doug says:

Are Catholics permitted to vote for those politicians that support the death penalty? Those who support fertility practices that result in embryos being frozen, not forever, but until they are tossed into the daily trash?

October 29, 2008 at 7:12 am
(3) Scott P. Richert says:

Doug, those are both good questions.

While the death penalty has been opposed by many bishops and by popes (most famously John Paul II and Pius IX), their opposition has been to its practical use. The Church does not regard the death penalty as intrinsically evil. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states (para. 2267): “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

Therefore, Catholics can vote for a candidate who supports the death penalty, though they might well take into account whether such a candidate takes a restrictive view of the death penalty or wishes to expand its use beyond traditional capital crimes, such as murder and rape.

As for fertility practices such as in vitro fertilization, the Catholic Church regards them as intrinsically evil, since they separate procreation from the natural sexual act. It is wrong to produce embryos in a lab; it is wrong to implant them in a woman (either the biological mother or another); and it is wrong to destroy them, because they are alive. The only way to avoid this conundrum is not to engage in such practices at all.

On a practical level, however, IVF is not likely to be a campaign issue in the United States, since the procedure is already allowed by law, and it’s hard to think of circumstances under which a politician would call either for restricting it or expanding it.

Where it does have a great deal of political relevance today is in the issue of embryonic stem-cell research. Barack Obama, John McCain, and Joe Biden have all voted in favor of destroying embryos “left over” from IVF for use in ESCR.

October 29, 2008 at 3:47 pm
(4) Chris says:

without blatently saying so, this commentary practically attempts to intimidate cathoic voters into supporting the republican ticket. In a time when catholic leadership has lost so much credibility, I implore all fellow catholics to decide for themselves the moral questions that surround this upcoming election. Please remember that you make up the church and not the bishops who elect themselves into that office. They act as if they alone can profess God’s message and in that prideful folly, they have forgotten the core of our faith, that we learn to accept our neighbors and not marginalize those who are different from us. You have all practiced and observed the core of our faith for years, let that guide you.

October 29, 2008 at 4:07 pm
(5) Scott P. Richert says:

Chris, if you think that “this commentary practically attempts to intimidate cathoic voters into supporting the republican ticket,” you haven’t read it closely, nor have you read the other material that I have posted on the election. In fact, I have stated in a comment on another thread that I find John McCain’s support for embryonic stem-cell research (among other things) sufficient reason not to vote for him, either.

On Tuesday, I will cast my vote for president for a third-party candidate whose positions on life issues are consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

That said, this blog post was an attempt, in the most dispassionate way possible, to set forth the Church’s teaching regarding voting for candidates who support intrinsic evils such as abortion and ESCR. You clearly don’t care about such teaching, since you regard it simply as the product of “the bishops who elect themselves into that office” and not moral truth taught by the Church while guided by the Holy Spirit.

Finally, as for your laudable desire “not [to] marginalize those who are different from us,” do you extend that to the unborn? Every year in this country, 1.3 million unborn children are “marginalized” out of existence.

October 29, 2008 at 4:55 pm
(6) Chris says:

Thanks for your response, Mr. Richert, and I absolutely applaud you on your choice to vote on election day. I would like to clarify that I am a very spiritually inclined christian and my engaging you on the topic, I would hope, is evidence that I do care about Chruch teaching, especially the direction that it is taking. With that said, I join you in the belief that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit. Yet, I beleive the church to be the people and not merely church leaders. I am disappointed by the growing trend that only church leaders may speak authoritatively on church doctrine. I am of the opinion that the church doctrine being professed today no longer leaves any room for tolerance. It is why our churches have closed its door to anyone disagreeing with vatican views and why the Church has lost so many of faithful christians as members. Are we to realize this as normal for a church that was built on a universal notion? In the end, I cannot in good conscience simply take the word of our bishops when I see fundamentals of “accept thy neighbors” being abandoned.
I found a great Psalm in one of your threads that i’d like you reiterate here. It read “put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom no help can be found”. This line was applied to politicians in that discussion, I apply it here in the same way to our church leaders. My humble advice to the faithful is no doctrine, but simple to trust God in however manner He chooses to do so with them – not other men, politician or bishop alike.

As for your own laudable statements on the marginalization of the unborn – I fear that discussion will be decided on our respective beleifs on the start of life. For the record, I do not beleive that point to be at the moment of conception as Pope John Paul II (who is a hero of mine) has argued. Perhaps that discussion is for an entirely different thread all together.

November 4, 2008 at 8:43 am
(7) Steve says:

It is apparent that our current president and his party (republican) are pro-war. The war in Iraq was unmerited and this country lost thousands of precious lives. That being said I believe Mccain would make the same kind of decisions regarding war and oil does this not justify voting for Obama?

November 4, 2008 at 10:07 am
(8) Scott P. Richert says:

Steve, as I’ve repeatedly noted on this blog, I have followed two consecutive popes in opposing the war in Iraq. McCain does indeed support it. That is part of the reason why I did not vote for McCain this morning.

But I did not vote for Barack Obama, either, because McCain’s support for the war cannot justify voting for a candidate who supports abortion, which the Catholic Church teaches is an intrinsic evil.

November 6, 2008 at 5:08 pm
(9) Sheila says:

According to the Catechism, there is times for ‘just’ war. What do you think about Darfur? About Russia invading Poland(maybe), Iran nuking Isreal? Isreal nuking Iran? Do we sit back and let people be massacred as S. Hussein did? There is also times that capital punishment is necessary for the good of society. S. Hussein chemicalized people in his own country, his sons had rape and torture rooms, the mass graves were atrocious, S. Hussein killed his own when he feared a possible takeover, just to ensure his authority. Regardless of possible reasons going in…OIL, a horrid dictator was outed and many more lives were saved from the brutal regime. Some innocents lost their lives and that is awful, even if it was just one innocent. But, your reasoning is not justifiable according to our own Catholic teaching. Your votes were thrown away. That is part of the reason why an ultra liberal, radical pro-abort candidate just tip toed right in the white house. You voted for an unelectable candidate, you might as well have not voted at all. Many of us will ask you, and you will ask us to pray, fast, novena, mass and adoration to continue to fight for the most pressing cause of our time…The end to abortion and abortifacients…this genocide that is happening in our country since 1973. But we also have to work and use our heads. You chose an unwinnable candidate over an 90% NRL rating candidate. And a 0% NRL rating candidate just walked right in to the highest office held in our land. Sometimes, it is necessary to vote for a winnable candidate who will most likely cause the least amount of life lost. If you were my sons…, I would be crying more than I am now. I love our Popes and I love our Catholic Church, the war is already here, we didn’t get to vote on it. Now(I am kind of joking here) go to your rooms boys..and think about it, please! What shall we all do when BO signs the freedom of choice act, or the unFairness doctrine. Not only will we lose all of the pro-life laws we have now, but we will lose our free speech to protest it. Sheeesh! I can’t agree w/ you Scott and friends, I just can’t understand it. I’ll keep reading because Catholic teaching, prayers and novena’s are beautiful and reflect God’s love. Just wish you would see that you erred regarding this historical election. Father Frank????Anybody???

November 6, 2008 at 6:22 pm
(10) Scott P. Richert says:

Sheila, both the route that you took and the route that I took were morally acceptable. Your route may be better in the short run; mine may be better in the long run.

If you haven’t yet, please read my latest blog post (“Where Do We Go From Here?”) and Fr. Rob Johansen’s article, which I discuss (and link to) in the post.

I’m in agreement with Father Johansen. It’s long past time for Catholics to quit selling their souls for a mess of pottage. As 25 percent of the electorate, we would have the ability to shape American politics in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church. But we’ll never do that if we keep voting for the lesser of two evils. Because when you vote for the lesser of two evils, evil still wins.

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