Moral Duties Concerning Voting

We encourage all citizens, particularly Catholics, to embrace their citizenship not merely as a duty and privilege, but as an opportunity meaningfully to participate in building the culture of life. Every voice matters in the public forum. Every vote counts. Every act of responsible citizenship is an exercise of significant individual power. We must exercise that power in ways that defend human life, especially those of God's children who are unborn, disabled or otherwise vulnerable. We get the public officials we deserve. Their virtue–or lack thereof–is a judgment not only on them, but on us. Because of this we urge our fellow citizens to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest.

[Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics 34, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 1998]


Our Duty to Vote

With the development of popular government comes the duty of citizens to participate in their own government for the sake of the common good. Not to do so is to abandon the political process to those who do not have the common good in mind. Given the nature of democracies this inevitably leads to unjust laws and an unjust society. These may come about anyway, but they should not come about through the negligence of Christians, who would then share in the guilt.

This duty is chiefly exercised by voting, through which citizens elect their representatives and even determine by referendum the laws which will govern them. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

2239 It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one's country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community.

2240 Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one's country [Rom 13:7]:

Pay to all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. [Christians] reside in their own nations, but as resident aliens. They participate in all things as citizens and endure all things as foreigners.... They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses the laws.... So noble is the position to which God has assigned them that they are not allowed to desert it. [Ad Diognetum 5: 5, 10]

The Apostle exhorts us to offer prayers and thanksgiving for kings and all who exercise authority, "that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way." [1 Tim 2:2]

In their November 1998 pastoral letter Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics the Bishops of the United States speak of a false pluralism which undermines the moral convictions of Catholics and their obligation to be "leaven in society"  through participation in the democratic process.

25. Today, Catholics risk cooperating in a false pluralism. Secular society will allow believers to have whatever moral convictions they please - as long as they keep them on the private preserves of their consciences, in their homes and in their churches, and out of the public arena. Democracy is not a substitute for morality. Its value stands - or falls - with the values which it embodies and promotes. Only tireless promotion of the truth about the human person can infuse democracy with the right values. This is what Jesus meant when he asked us to be a leaven in society. American Catholics have long sought to assimilate into U.S. cultural life. But in assimilating, we have too often been digested. We have been changed by our culture too much, and we have changed it not enough. If we are leaven, we must bring to our culture the whole Gospel, which is a Gospel of life and joy. That is our vocation as believers. And there is no better place to start than promoting the beauty and sanctity of human life. Those who would claim to promote the cause of life through violence or the threat of violence contradict this Gospel at its core.


Who We May Not Vote For

The question arises naturally, therefore, if among a slate of candidates there are those for whom we may not vote, without sinning gravely. Catholic moral theology recognizes, in the writings of approved authors who faithfully represent the theological tradition of the Church, sound guides for forming a Catholic conscience. Two such authors are Fathers Heribert Jone, OFM Cap. and Henry Davis, SJ. Speaking of the duty to vote and when it could be sinful not to, Fr. Jone writes:

205. Voting is a civic duty which would seem to bind at least under venial sin whenever a good candidate has an unworthy opponent. It might even be a mortal sin if one's refusal to vote would result in the election of an unworthy candidate. [Moral Theology (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1929, 1955)]

Similarly, Fr. Davis writes,

It is the duty of all citizens who have the right to vote, to exercise that right when the common good of the State or the good of religion and morals require their votes, and when their voting is useful. It is sinful to vote for the enemies of religion or liberty... [Moral and Pastoral Theology, vol. 2, Chapter V, 4th Commandment, p. 90 (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1935, 1959)]

Who, then, are the enemies of religion or liberty for whom it would be sinful to vote? Reasonably, it would be those who attack the most basic rights in a society, since all rights depend on those which are logically or actually prior. Among the enumerated inalienable rights recognized by the Declaration of Independence is the right to life. The right to life is both logically and actually prior to all other rights since liberty is meaningless to those who have been unjustly killed. The protection of innocent human life is thus the first obligation of society. This is why protection against foreign enemies is the first duty of the federal government and protection against domestic enemies (criminals) is the first obligation of local government.

They are also enemies of religion and liberty who attack the most basic cell of society, marriage and family. A society that doesn't foster the life-long commitment of a man and a woman to each other and their children is self-destructing. Granting that we have already reaped the fruit of easy divorce laws, the most pernicious attacks against the family today are by those who favor homosexual unions and the granting of marital status to homosexual unions. It is also undermined by an unjust tax system which penalizes marriage in favor of fornication.

What then of other important issues, such as social policy? If a party or a candidate has a better vision from the perspective of Catholic teaching, is it not possible to overlook his views on life and marriage? First of all, most political policies represent a multitude of choices, budgetary, practical, and as well as principled. The two major parties approach these issues differently, but it would be wrong to infer that one or the other is THE Catholic position. However, when a policy touches a principle itself, as it does in the abortion and homosexual debates, then a clear moral choice exists, devoid of the policy debate of how we accomplish the common good in a particular case. The common good can never involve killing the unborn or the approval of homosexuality. These issues touch directly on the most basic goods of all (life and family) - and thus are of unique and paramount importance. It is not possible, therefore, to claim an equal weight between a candidate's position on these principles and policy positions on how to achieve certain good ends. Sadly, many have inverted the priority of principle over means. The Holy Father, speaking of the inversion of priorities with respect to life, has stated,

All this is causing a profound change in the way in which life and relationships between people are considered. The fact that legislation in many countries, perhaps even departing from basic principles of their Constitutions, has determined not to punish these practices against life, and even to make them altogether legal, is both a disturbing symptom and a significant cause of grave moral decline. Choices once unanimously considered criminal and rejected by the common moral sense are gradually becoming socially acceptable.  ... The end result of this is tragic: not only is the fact of the destruction of so many human lives still to be born or in their final stage extremely grave and disturbing, but no less grave and disturbing is the fact that conscience itself, darkened as it were by such widespread conditioning, is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of human life. [Gospel of Life 3]

To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law, means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others. This is the death of true freedom: "Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin" (John 8:34). [Gospel of Life 20]

Those who are anti-life and anti-family manifest this darkening of conscience, a darkening which makes their other political decisions inherently untrustworthy. No Catholic can reasonable say "this candidate is anti-life and anti-family, but his social policies are in keeping with Catholic principles." Catholics should look carefully to discover what in his policy views manifests the same will to power over others manifested by his anti-life principles. More than one tyrant in history has used panem et circenses (bread and circuses) to mollify the masses. The mere appearance of social justice is not the same as social justice, which can only occur when everything in society is properly ordered, beginning with the most basic realities - life and the family.

Who We Must Vote For

As noted by Fathers Jone and Davis, a Catholic can have an obligation to vote so as to prevent an unworthy candidate, an enemy of religion, liberty and morals, from coming into office.

205. Voting is a civic duty which would seem to bind at least under venial sin whenever a good candidate has an unworthy opponent. It might even be a mortal sin if one's refusal to vote would result in the election of an unworthy candidate. [Jone, Moral Theology (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1929, 1955)]

Davis states it differently, but with the same implications, one may even vote for an enemy of religion or liberty in order to exclude an even greater enemy of religion, liberty and morals. Indeed, one can be obliged to in certain circumstances.

It is sinful to vote for the enemies of religion or liberty, except to exclude a worse candidate, or unless compelled by fear of great personal harm, relatively greater than the public harm at stake. [Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology, vol. 2, p. 90 ]

Thus, both authors are suggesting the strong obligation (even until the pain of mortal sin) to vote so as to exclude the electing of the candidate who would injure religion, liberty and morals the most. For such a purpose one may vote even for someone who is an enemy of religion and liberty, as long as he is less of any enemy than the candidate one is voting to preclude being elected. 

The Holy Father enunciated this principle of the lesser evil with respect to legislation,  which while not obtaining the goals which Catholic principles would demand, nonetheless, excludes even worse legislation, or corrects, in part, legislation already in force that is even more opposed to Catholic principles.

A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. ... In a case like the one just mentioned, 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 and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects. [Gospel of Life 73]

This same principle has immediate bearing on choosing among candidates, some or even all of whom may be anti-life and anti-family. Voters should try to minimize the damage done to society by the outcome of an election, even if that outcome is not wholly satisfactory by Catholic principles.


Formal versus Material Cooperation in Evil

Voters are rightly concerned about the degree to which their vote represents cooperation in the evil which a candidate embraces. Obviously, voting for a candidate whose principles exactly coincide with Catholic teaching would eliminate that worry. However, that is a rare, if not non-existent, situation. Even those who embrace Catholic principles may not always apply them correctly. The fact is that most candidates will imperfectly embrace Catholic principles and voting for ANY candidate contains many unknowns about what that candidate believes and will do.
The moral distinction between formal and material cooperation allows Catholics to choose imperfect candidates as the means of limiting evil or preventing the election of a worse candidate. The justification of doing that is described above. Formal cooperation is that degree of cooperation in which my will embraces the evil object of another 's will. Thus, to vote for a candidate because he favors abortion is formal cooperation in his evil political acts. However, to vote for someone in order to limit a greater evil, that is, to restrict in so far as possible the evil that another candidate might do if elected, is to have a good purpose in voting. The voter's will has as its object this limitation of evil and not the evil which the imperfect politician might do in his less than perfect adherence to Catholic moral principles. Such cooperation is called material, and is permitted for a serious reason, such as preventing the election of a worse candidate. [cf. Gospel of Life 74]

The Conscience Vote

Many Catholics are troubled by the idea of a lesser of two evils or material cooperation with evil. They conclude that they can only vote for a person whose position on the gravest issues, such as abortion, coincides exactly with Catholic teaching. To do otherwise is to betray their conscience and God. 

Sometimes this view is based on ignorance of Catholic teaching, a sincere doubt that it is morally permissible to vote for someone who would allow abortion in some circumstances, even if otherwise generally pro-life. It is also perhaps the confusing expression "lesser of two evils," which suggests the choice of evil. As I have explained above, the motive is really the choice of a good, the limitation of evil by a worse candidate. 

Sometimes this view is motivated by scrupulosity - bad judgment on moral matters as to what is sin or not sin. The resulting fear of moral complicity in the defective pro-life position of a politician makes voting for him morally impossible. This situation is different than ignorance, however, in that the person simply can't get past the fear of sinning, even when they know the truth. 

However, I think it is most frequently motivated by a sincere desire to elect someone whose views they believe coincide best with Church teaching. This is certainly praiseworthy. Yet, human judgments in order to be prudent must take into account all the circumstances. Voting, like politics, involves a practical judgment about how to achieve the desired ends - in this case the end of abortion as soon as possible, the end of partial-birth abortion immediately if possible, and other pro-life political objectives. A conscience vote of this type could be justified if the voter reasonably felt that it could achieve the ends of voting. The question must be asked and answered, however, whether it will bring about the opposite of the goal of voting (the common good) through the election of the worst candidate. That, too, is part of the prudential judgment. In the end every voter must weigh all the factors and vote according to their well-informed conscience, their knowledge of the candidates and the foreseeable consequences of the election of each.

Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL

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