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Can a Catholic vote for a Democrat? Guided by your conscience


This is the first part of a two part series dealing with the question of abortion, conscience, and a Catholic’s vote for president. You can read Part 2 here.

“Father, you need to tell people that they can’t be Catholic and vote for a Democrat for President! And you need to tell them that from the pulpit! People need to be told!” About every four years, I hear something along these lines from some well-meaning Catholic.

More surprisingly, I periodically run across Catholic commentaries—either online or in print—that more or less say the same thing. Although these people at times offer a blanket condemnation of the entire Democratic Party, they usually confine their criticism to a specific Democratic and pro-choice presidential candidate.

But is it true that no Catholic may ever in good conscience vote for a presidential candidate who wants to keep abortion legal?

During the last few presidential election cycles, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has put out a voter guide addressing the various issues Catholics should consider when discerning how to cast their vote. The document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility, is excellent, as I have previously commented upon.

In this guide, the bishops make clear that they “do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote.” While the bishops offer guidelines to help each individual Catholic form his or her conscience, they also explain that “the Church’s leaders are to avoid endorsing or opposing candidates or telling people how to vote.”

While the bishops and other church leaders may certainly challenge your political beliefs, it is not their place to tell you to vote for any particular candidate.  And what is true for church leaders is certainly true for media commentators and the person who sits next to you at Mass. “In the end,” the bishops tell us, “This is a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching.”

But even given the teachings of Faithful Citizenship, many Catholics question the morality of voting for any politician who does not actively support criminalizing abortion. After all, isn’t abortion a serious intrinsic evil?

Yes, it is. Recognizing the inherent dignity of human life from the moment of conception to natural death is the fundamental principle guiding all Catholic morality. If as the bishops explain, not all moral issues are created equal, how can there be any consideration more important in determining one’s vote than the issue of abortion?

But Faithful Citizenship complicates the matter. The bishops explain that no Catholic can vote for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil like abortion or racism if that evil is the reason the person is voting. In other words, you can’t intend to support abortion or racism through your vote. However, the bishops go on to say that:

There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.

Therefore, a Catholic can vote for a candidate who is in favor of an intrinsic evil—think abortion or physical or mental torture—if despite that position there are other “morally grave reasons” that outweigh the intrinsic evil.

Later in Faithful Citizenship we read:

As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet a candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.

A candidate’s policy on abortion—or climate change, economic justice, or any other single issue that Catholics are concerned with—should not necessarily be enough to guarantee a Catholic’s vote. Instead, Catholics must vote with their conscience, whether that means deciding to support a candidate based on their position regarding a single issue, or whether other morally grave considerations result in voting for another candidate. Either way, it's up to the individual voter to decide.

So what should Catholic voters keep in mind when thinking about how to vote? What are the “morally grave reasons” that could justify voting for a presidential candidate who wants abortion to remain legal? In part two of this article, I seek to answer these questions and speculate as to what might be morally coherent and legitimate reasons to vote for a candidate whose policies on abortion diverge from Catholic morality and social teaching.

Father Paul Keller's online column, Smells like sheep, focuses on the places where pastoral ministry, public policy, theology, and ethics converge.

Image: Flickr cc via Daniel Parks

About the author

Father Paul Keller, C.M.F.

Father Paul Keller, C.M.F. is a Catholic priest and a Claretian Missionary. He is currently a doctoral student in theology and the philosophy of religion. Father Paul Keller’s online column, Smells like sheep, focuses on the places where pastoral ministry, public policy, theology, and ethics converge. You can like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @keller_cmf.