Intrinsic Evil and Voting

The USCCB has voted to issue a new Catholic voter’s guide:

“The bishops also voted 217-16-2 in favor of on a new introductory note and 210-21-5 for a limited revision to their quadrennial statement on political responsibility, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” The revised statement, which is reissued the calendar year before a U.S. presidential election, will feature new language around issues of public concern for Catholics.”

It’s not out yet. But they chose not to rewrite the document from the ground up. They opted instead for “a limited revision”. The previous edition was controversial in its treatment of intrinsically evil acts and voting.

There are two schools of thought among Catholics on intrinsic evil and voting.

1. One position forbids the Catholic voter from supporting or voting for any politician who supports certain intrinsically evil gravely immoral acts, such as abortion and euthanasia. In this view, no other issue can have sufficient moral weight to justify voting for the offending politician.

The position varies from one person to another. Some say that any intrinsically evil act, whose legalization is supported by a politician, disqualifies him or her from your vote. Others list only certain so-called “non-negotiables”, and forbid voting for any politician who supports the evil that has been labeled non-negotiable.

2. The other position permits the Catholic voter to weigh all of the issues, and all of the consequences of an intended vote, to do the most good and the least harm. Abortion and euthanasia, as well as same-sex marriage, would certainly be weighty issues. But no one issue or short list of issues would necessarily determine a voting decision.

See my previous post: Voting Ethics: USCCB versus Cardinal Burke

My Position

The three fonts of morality always apply. Your act of voting must have:
1. you must intend only good

If you intend to support same-sex marriage, or abortion, or if you vote with entirely selfish motives, then your intention is bad and the act of voting would be a sin. If you intend to do the will of God, and to safeguard the common good, while taking into account your own concerns and needs, then your intention is good because it is in accord with the love of God, neighbor, self.

2. your own act of voting must not be intrinsically evil

If you are voting for a law or constitutional amendment that has as its sole or main purpose to widen the legalization of abortion, or to legalize euthanasia, or to legalize same-sex marriage, then your vote is intrinsically evil. You have knowingly chosen an act that is inherently ordered toward an evil end. Such a choice is always morally wrong.

However, persons are not intrinsically evil, and so voting for a person is not intrinsically evil — unless the vote is a type of proxy for the approval of some grave evil. Politicians hold a number of different positions on various issues affecting the common good. We are not morally obligated to exclude all politicians who unfortunately favor legalization or promotion of a grave evil. However, such a position by the politician certainly weighs in our overall judgment of possible voting choices.

3. you must weigh the totality of the foreseeable consequences of your vote for all persons concerned.

The consequences of the vote include the likelihood that the person will be elected, the effect on the balance of power (e.g. between parties), and the likelihood that the elected candidate will have a substantial influence on any issue.

Suppose three candidates are in the running for U.S. President: a democrat, a republican, and an independent candidate.

By all accounts, the independent candidate is very unlikely to be elected. So even if he has the idea set of positions on important moral issues, you know that a vote for that candidate will be very unlikely to help any human persons sufferings because of those issues. If the other two candidates are so far astray from truth and the common good that you are unwilling to vote for them, you might vote for this candidate as an expression of the need to support the right position on these issues. But you are not absolutely required to vote for him, since the vote will not actually have much effect on any of the issues.

Suppose that the democratic candidate is for abortion and for gay marriage, but against entering a dangerous unjust war. But the republican candidate is against abortion, for gay marriage, and against the particular unjust war. The decision to vote for one or the other is NOT based solely on the weight of each issue, but on the reasonably anticipated consequences of the vote on each issue. In the current circumstances, you judge that a pro-life President will be unable to change the laws on abortion, and so a vote for him will have no substantial effect on that issue. If a pro-abortion politician is elected, again, the abortion situation is not likely to change. This factor gives the weighty issue of abortion less weight in the moral judgment of the particular voting decision.

On the other hand, you judge that the choice of candidates will be crucial to whether the nation enters an unjust war or not. The one candidate is very likely to go to war unjustly, and the other candidate is not at all likely to do so. Since a vote based on this issue does affect the common good, and to a much greater extent than the other issue, it has the greater weight.

Are you prohibited from voting for the pro-life candidate above, because he is also for gay marriage? In other words, does any wrong position on a weighty moral issue necessarily disqualify that politician from your vote? You are not prohibited in voting for him. For your vote is not intrinsically evil, you have only good in your intention, and you judge the circumstances to weigh in favor of his election, which would do the most good and the least harm.

In the above hypothetical, I would vote for the candidate who is pro-life, but who unfortunately supports same-sex marriage, on the basis of the weight (in the consequences of the vote) of the unjust war.

Please note that the above example is not based on the current U.S. election (2016). It is truly hypothetical.

In the current 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the choices are grim. At this point, well before the primary elections, the better candidates seem to have very little support in the polls, and so little chance of being elected. And the major candidates each may do substantial harm to the common good. I think that Hillary Clinton will end up getting elected. But I can’t vote for a Republican who says he’s pro-life, but has really accomplished nothing in the realm of politics on that issue. It is merely a stated position, unlikely to affect the candidate’s behavior if he is elected.

I’m hoping that the Warning on Good Friday of 2016 will improve the political situation.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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