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“Ask a Priest: May I Vote for the Lesser Evil?”
Q: I know you cannot tell me for which party to vote, but this is about comparing Catholic moral values and two different political platforms/programs. So, I believe we are at the public policy level, which is legitimate. My first question is, if the two proposed platforms are not in complete agreement with Catholic values, is it better not to vote, or to vote for what one considers the “lesser evil” as referred to the common good? Second question: Does, generally speaking, economic inequalities — including access to basic health care and good education — have a deeper influence on the common good than, for example, the abortion and contraception issues? -A.C.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Your first question touches on the policy of incrementalism. This policy means that it is sometimes OK to accept an imperfect law for the sake of moving closer to an ideal situation.
An example would be a pro-life politician who votes for legislation that limits but doesn’t ban abortion outright. So long as his intention is not to support abortion but to limit it, he can vote for the law, because to vote against it might lead to a worse situation.
The same principle can apply to voting for candidates. Rare is the candidate who perfectly supports Gospel values in legislation. So long as we aren’t supporting politicians for their bad positions (for example, “mildly” pro-abortion stances) but for their good ones, we could vote for them if the alternative would be worse (say, a politician who is radically pro-abortion).
Incrementalism in moral issues is sometimes linked to John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae. A key passage in No. 73 says, “[W]hen 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.”
More succinctly, a U.S. bishops’ conference document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, states, “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position” (No. 34).
So the short answer is: Yes, you could vote for the “lesser evil” if your intention to avoid a worse evil, but not if your intention is to vote for an evil.
The second question has come to the fore in recent times, in part because of Pope Francis’ comments in a famous interview. “We cannot insist,” he said, “only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the Church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
People have interpreted those comments in various ways. The Holy Father isn’t diluting the Church’s stance on abortion – it remains one of the greatest evils of our day. Rather, his tack seems to be to address a broad range of topics.
Maybe the simplest answer to your question is this: Beware of false dilemmas. The debate shouldn’t be, do we focus on providing good education OR do we focus on ending abortion? The Church is not either-or. It is both-and. Yes, good education is important. Yes, health care is important. And yes, abortion is an intrinsic evil that must be fought, an insidious injustice that sends the most innocent to their deaths.
Still, some issues take time to correct. One can take politics into account when trying to choose priorities. A dad, for instance, can have compassion for starving children in Africa, but his more-immediate concern has to be to feed his kids.
As to what has a deeper influence on the common good, I would venture to say that abortion is wreaking far more long-term damage than other problems (see here for an idea of the numbers involved). Whole populations have stagnated, in no small part because of an abortion mentality, and countless women have suffered deep psychological and physical scars because of their abortions.
As an evil, abortion is in a league of its own. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to improve education and health care and the environment. But we should keep the big picture in mind of what abortion is doing to the world.