How Should Catholics Vote by Fr. Roger J. Landry

by Fr. Roger J. Landry

It is an indisputably positive development that Catholics in general are rediscovering that faith and life go together and that our relationship with God and our desire to please Him should inform all our moral decisions, including how we vote.

Catholics Should Not Be Fooled

After having endured for three decades the scandal of Catholic politicians’ pronouncing that they were “personally opposed [to the evil of abortion], but” would not allow their personal convictions to influence their public service, many Catholics have begun to see and denounce that sophistry for the hypocrisy it is. They want to be people of integrity, whose faith informs all their moral decisions, including what they do at the polling booth.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that in response to this need, Catholic voting guides have become popular to help Catholics make decisions in accordance with their faith. Some of these voting guides — like the Vatican’s 2002 The Participation of Catholics in Political Life, the 2003 document of the US Bishops’ ConferenceFaithful Citizenship, and the recently-reissued Voters' Guide for Serious Catholics by Catholic Answers — focus on the general principles that should guide Catholic voters in weighing the importance of various issues that often come up in the choice between candidates. Other voting guides apply these principles to the specific voting patterns or positions of candidates for public office, to allow Catholic voters to see at a glance how a candidate’s values stack up against truly Catholic values.

As the importance of Catholics voting according to their faith in recent national elections has notably grown, and Catholics became much more sensitive to secularists in Catholic clothing manipulating their baptismal status for political gain, it was only a matter of time until the “personally opposed, but” crowd sought to craft another strategy or slogan. They think they’ve found it, in a new organization and a new, deceptive voters’ guide. But Catholics should not be fooled.

Twisting the Pope’s Words

Voting for the Common Good: A Practical Guide for Conscientious Catholicspublished by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good — which is led by former advisors to Senators John Kerry and Hillary Clinton — is nothing other than a well-funded attempt to try to persuade Catholics that it is morally OK to continue to vote for the “personally opposed” pro-choice candidates who have swindled them in the past.

The guide notes that there can be “no litmus test” for Catholic voters and that there is “no Catholic voting formula.” It adds that “since we seldom, if ever, have the opportunity to vote for a candidate with the right positions on all the issues important to Catholics, we often must vote for candidates who may hold the ‘wrong’ Catholic positions on some issues in order to maximize the good our vote achieves in other areas.” Then it applies these half-truths to the question which is really at the foundation of the guide: “Is it okay to vote for a pro-choice candidate?”

The guide replies:

When confronted with this question in 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) responded that it could be acceptable for a Catholic to vote for a "pro-choice" candidate if "proportionate reasons" exist, and if the voter is voting based on those reasons and not the candidate’s "pro-choice" beliefs. It is never acceptable to vote for a "pro-choice" candidate merely because of that candidate’s position in favor of legal abortion. Here Cardinal Ratzinger is speaking about prudence. Many "prolife" candidates talk a good talk on ending abortion, but don’t produce results. On the other hand, there are candidates who don’t believe in making abortion illegal, but who support effective measures to promote healthy families and reduce abortions by providing help to pregnant women and young children. Catholics must look at a candidate’s position on other life issues. Can one really claim to be "pro-life" and yet support the death penalty, turn a blind eye to poverty, and not take steps to avoid war? Our Church teaches that the answer to this question is "no.”

The guide’s response begins by taking Cardinal Ratzinger’s comments out of context, both specifically and generally.

Specifically, the future pope, writing in 2004, never discussed the “acceptability” of voting for a pro-choice candidate, but described the conditions under which a Catholic who voted for a pro-choice candidate would still be admitted to Holy Communion. He wrote, “A Catholic would be guilty of formal [intentional] cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.” He does not describe what proportionate reasons for participating in the politician’s evil would be, but whatever they were, it would have to be to prevent an evil proportionality greater than that of the destruction of innocent children in the womb.

When Cardinal Ratzinger’s comments are viewed within the general context of all his declarations, it’s clear that he thinks few justifications would suffice to outweigh participation in the evil of the politician’s pro-choice position and votes. In an address to European politicians on March 30th of this year, Pope Benedict stated, “As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable. Among these the following emerge clearly today: the protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death; recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family — as a union between one man and one woman based on marriage…; and the protection of the rights of parents to educate their children.”

What Part of “Non-Negotiable” Do You Not Understand?

To say that there are “not negotiable” principles is to say that there is a “litmus test” as well as a “Catholic voting formula” applicable in all but extreme circumstances to prevent an evil proportionally worse than the evil of abortion.

The guide also charges that pro-life candidates and office-holders “do not produce results,” but conscientious voters need to ask why that is. One obvious reason is because pro-choice legislators, executives and particularly judges have repeatedly thwarted the incremental progress pro-lifers have achieved. Abortions would be far fewer if those who claim to be "personally opposed" to abortion would act that way.

Lastly, the guide attempts to downplay the evil of a pro-choice position by saying that pro-choice candidates may be better in allocating tax dollars to favor pre-natal, family, or other social programs and opposing the death penalty and the war. Pope John Paul II effectively answered this kind of argument in his beautiful 1988 document on the laity, Christifideles Laici:

The common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture — is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.

Christ said in the Gospel that there are “false prophets” and “blind guides.” These terms can be justly predicated, respectively, of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the Voters’ Guide they produced.

Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, ordained in 1999. After receiving a biology degree from Harvard College, Fr. Landry studied for the priesthood in Maryland, Toronto, and for several years in Rome. He speaks widely on the thought of Pope John Paul II and on apologetics, and is presently parochial administrator of St. Anthony of Padua in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Executive Editor of The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River. An archive of his homilies and articles can be found at