As we prepare to make the prudential judgment as to how to vote this election season, we must first distinguish between candidates and issues. Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae was very clear when it comes to a law permitting abortion or euthanasia. He said that it is “never licit to obey it, or to take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it.”
Unfortunately for us, the issue is rarely that easy, as typically laws pertaining to abortion are not on the ballot, but rather are left to elected officials and–like it or not–the courts.
As for the public officials themselves, the Church allows for the political reality of incremental improvement or what we call “imperfect legislation.” It may be permissible for a public official under certain circumstances to support a law that allows for abortion. This occurs only when it is not possible to completely overturn or eliminate a pro-abortion law and the public official’s absolute personal opposition to procured abortion is well known. In that case, he or she can, according to Evangelium Vitae, “support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and 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 effects” (no. 73, emphasis added).
But whom do we vote for? This brings into play prudential judgments based on many factors, such that in a given election there could conceivably be markedly different opinions even among devout, pro-life Catholics. But there are enduring principles we need to take to heart. In this regard, perhaps the clearest teaching I’ve come across is a pastoral letter written several years ago by CUF episcopal advisor John J. Myers. He is currently the Archbishop of Newark but was the Bishop of Peoria when he issued this teaching. Click here for the entire text, which is worth reading. Here, however is a key paragraph:
“As voters, Catholics are under an obligation to avoid implicating themselves in abortion. There can be no assurance that voters will invariably have a qualified pro-life candidate to choose. In such a case abstention is a permissible political response. There are also certain limited circumstances (as in an election between two pro-abortion candidates, one of whom is more extreme than the other) in which it is possible for a Catholic legitimately to vote for a pro-abortion candidate. However, a Catholic may never count an office-seeker’s advocacy of legal abortion or public funding of abortion as a reason to favor that person’s candidacy. Indeed, it is wrong not to count such advocacy as a very weighty reason against the candidacy. A Catholic may support the candidacy of someone who would permit unjust killing only when the real alternatives are candidates who would permit even more unjust killing.”
Archbishop Myers does not advocate a policy of “single issue” politics. Issues don’t hold office, people do. But that’s the point! We judge, and rightly so, a candidate’s character and fitness for office, including his or her commitment to justice and to the common good. In making our assessment, we must note that the willingness of an office seeker to permit, and even to fund, the unjust killing of the unborn reveals a shocking lack of commitment to the rights of the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society.
If we actually assist such candidates because of their position on abortion, we are guilty of complicity in the abortions their election would make possible. As the U.S. bishops unanimous declared a few years ago:
“No Catholic can responsibly take a pro-choice stand when the choice in question involves the taking of innocent human life.”
When it comes to a candidate who is a Catholic, we should do everything in our power to help persuade him or her to fully uphold the right to life of the unborn. With respect to Catholic candidates who are clearly and perhaps evenly rabidly outside the pale, though, we absolutely must not harbor them in our parish halls and Catholic meeting centers! We cannot allow such dissident Catholics to”cash in,” so to speak, on their Catholic roots and successfully play the Catholic card in upcoming elections.
But, as important as voting and elections are, what we do the day after the election and the day after that can be even more important. Reducing our participation in public life to voting every other year makes about as much sense as reducing our Christian life solely to our Sunday obligation or our role as parents to the decision as to where to send our children for their education. Rather, our role as citizens–like our roles as Christians and parents–requires an ongoing, practical commitment to the pro-life cause.
The Church teaches that our primary means of social participation is taking personal responsibility for matters within our own direct sphere of influence, such as family concerns and our work. But the Church also calls all the faithful–in keeping with our state in life–to let our light shine through our participation in society, undertaken in a spirit of generosity, solidarity, and solicitude for the poor and marginalized, particularly the unborn.
As we strive as faithful followers of Our Lord Jesus Christ to defend with all our energy the right to life of the unborn, may we obtain the grace to discern the path of prudence and charity, which in this context the Catechism defines as “the often narrow path between the cowardice which gives in to evil, and the violence which under the illusion of fighting evil only makes it worse” (no. 1889).
We are imperfect Catholics, but we strive with God’s grace to be His faithful witnesses amidst the culture of death. May all our efforts be to His greater glory and truly contribute to the building of a civilization of life and love.