Voting with the Heart and Mind of the Church – Part 3: Our Options this Election

Paul Fahey – October 24, 2016

This is the third article in a three-part series I’ve written about voting with the heart and mind of the Catholic Church (Here is Part 1 and Part 2).

In the first article I talked about how Catholics are called to be “salt, light, and leaven” in the political arena, and thus we have the moral obligation to vote. However, if we vote like everyone else, and not like Catholics, then our political participation is worthless.

In my second article I talked about how to vote as a Catholic. We all have political priorities, issues near and dear to us, issues that impact our families and jobs. However, as Catholics we are called to make the Church’s priorities, Christ’s priorities, our own. These priorities that the Church is most concerned with are rooted in the infinite dignity of every human person.

The Church also puts a special weight on issues that are so dramatically opposed to human dignity that they are “intrinsically evil.” These are issues that can never be supported and must always be opposed. The US Bishops list the following issues as intrinsically evil: abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, destructive research on human embryos, genocide, torture, targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, acts of racism, treating workers as mere means to an end, deliberately subjecting workers to subhuman living conditions, treating the poor as disposable, and redefining marriage. Furthermore, the Church says that of these issues abortion and euthanasia have the highest priority. However, the Church also warns us against being “one issue voters.” We cannot focus on just one issue and ignore or dismiss the others (though support for an intrinsic evil “may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support”).

With all of this in mind, it quickly becomes clear that all of the major candidates running for president this year actively champion intrinsic evils. So I want to spend the rest of this article laying out what options Catholics have this presidential election. Based on the US Bishops’ document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, we have three options for this presidential election that won’t violate our consciences.


via Wikimedia Commons

The first option is simple. A Catholic in good conscience can choose not to vote for any of the major party candidates and instead vote for one of the few third party candidates who do not support any intrinsic evils.

The second option is also pretty simple. A Catholic in good conscience can choose to be a conscientious objector to this presidential election and just vote down ballot. The bishops say, “When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate…” So while this is an “extraordinary” thing to do, a Catholic can simply choose not to caste a vote for any presidential candidate.

The third option is a little more complicated. A Catholic in good conscience can vote for either one of the major party presidential candidates in spite of their support for intrinsic evils. However, this is not an option that Catholics can choose lightly. The USCCB says:

A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.

There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.

When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.


Let’s unpack this teaching. A Catholic in good conscience can vote for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil if the Catholic meets the following narrow criteria:

  1. The Catholic voter recognizes that the candidate supports this grave evil. If we are going to vote for either of the major party candidates we cannot be ignorant of the evil things that they support, nor can we dismiss or downplay those evils.
  2. The Catholic voter opposes this evil and votes for this candidate in spite of the candidate’s intrinsically evil position and not because of the candidate’s support of intrinsic evil.
  3. The Catholic is voting this way for truly grave moral reasons and not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences. In other words, if I choose to vote for either of the major party candidates I must be doing so for truly grave moral reasons and not because the candidate is a Democrat, a Republican, a woman, a business leader, etc.
  4. The Catholic is voting for a candidate in an effort to prevent the election of another candidate who the Catholic truly thinks is even more morally flawed than the one they are voting for, and who also supports intrinsic evils that are proportionate to the evils that their candidate supports.

A couple things to keep in mind with all of this. I am not saying that all candidates who support intrinsic evils are morally equal. As I said above, the US Bishops say that abortion and euthanasia are the most important issues to consider. Thus if a Catholic is considering voting for a pro-choice candidate, they need to really pray and discern what evil or evils are proportionate to the evil of abortion.

The Church is not in the business of telling us who we should or shouldn’t vote for, and the US Bishops explicitly say that Church leaders should avoid endorsing or opposing political candidates. Ultimately the bishops present these teachings to us and then let us form our own consciences and make our own decisions. The US Bishops say:

In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose policies promoting intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions. These decisions should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue. In the end, this is a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching.

So what is our responsibility as Catholics this election? First, we must form our own consciences by knowing what the Church teaches and what issues are most important to the Church. Perhaps the best way to do this is to read  the wonderful USCCB document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. There are many Catholic voters guides out there from reputable sources that misrepresent Church teaching, so I would suggest only reading voters guides that come from our bishops. Second, we must do our best to set aside our political priorities and embraces the Church’s priorities. Finally, and most importantly, we must take this decision to prayer and lay everything at the feet of Christ asking for His guidance. If you do this, then you can cast your vote not only in good conscience, but with confidence that God will bless your effort and bring good from your decision.

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles or follow him on Facebook.