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“Ask a Priest: Are We Obliged to Vote for the GOP?”
Q: I am a Catholic college student who is wondering about politics. I have heard people talk about how as a Catholic you must vote for Republicans due in part because of abortion. I agree that abortion is wrong. However, in my opinion I believe that candidates on the Democratic side follow and represent more of the Catholic teaching, other than abortion and gay marriage. This is just my opinion and do not want to start an argument. But, if I vote Democratic, does that make me an immoral Catholic? – B.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: I’m not sure where you heard that Catholics have to vote Republican because of abortion.
The Church doesn’t officially endorse any party. And not all Republicans are pro-life. Indeed, rare is the candidate who perfectly adheres to Church teaching.
So what is a faithful Catholic to do?
A proper answer could fill a book. Suffice it to focus on two points here.
First, a Catholic couldn’t licitly vote for a candidate because of the politician’s pro-abortion views. That would be a kind of formal cooperation in evil.
It would be licit, however, to vote for someone who supports limited access to abortion if the alternative candidate is strongly abortion. But again, we couldn’t vote for the first candidate because of his support of even limited abortion. Here we could vote for an imperfect candidate in order to avoid a greater evil.
The principle underlying this is incrementalism, which can be defined as belief in or advocacy of change by degrees.
Defenders of incrementalism point to a passage in Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).
“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” (No. 73).
Second, we need to recall that not all public issues have the same weight.
Abortion is not on the same level as, say, the minimum wage. There is room for legitimate debate regarding what the minimum wage should be. On the other hand, no one has the right to decide that unborn children can be killed. Human life doesn’t belong to us. Protecting innocent human life is a basic moral obligation of everyone. It’s not just a Catholic issue.
What all this means is that a Catholic has to weigh a number of factors when voting. It is something to take to prayer. It helps, too, to find out what Church leaders actually say in this area.
One resource is a document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” from the U.S. bishops’ conference.
Also worth a look are two books by Archbishop Charles Chaput: Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World and Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life.
If you like accessing materials online, you might want to sign up for our online course Spirituality and Society, which delves into some of the basic principles of Catholic social teaching. I hope some of this helps.
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