Call this essay a slight retraction; call it a modification; call it a codicil or appendix or whatever you think suits best. In any event, I made a serious error in last month’s post, “Casting Your Vote as a Faithful Catholic”; the results of Super Tuesday forced me to face it. That error was in the “proportionate reasons”, or “lesser of two evils”, argument.
Wrecking the Country For a PLINO President
In “Casting Your Vote”, I wrote that “all the Church’s moral doctrines are, as such, non-negotiable. For instance, the Church’s teaching on torture is definitely ‘in play’ when discussing waterboarding and other forms of ‘enhanced interrogation’, which is why it’s such a contentious issue in Catholic circles. By the same token, the principle of subsidiarity ‘is opposed to certain forms of centralization, bureaucratization, and welfare assistance and to the unjustified and excessive presence of the State in public mechanisms’ (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 187), a stumbling block to anyone demanding further Federal intervention in social problems.”
My point here was that separating any five or six grave evils into a list of “non-negotiables” carries with it the implication that all other grave evils are “negotiable”. That is, it implies that we can and should tolerate a candidate’s advocacy of, say, an unjust war, or policies that promote the oppression of foreigners (one of the “sins that cry to Heaven [for vengeance]”; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1867), so long as we can get that candidate’s vote against abortion, fetal stem-cell research, euthanasia, and so forth.
The logical end to single-issue voting, I hinted but didn’t say, is Donald Trump: a narcissistic, authoritarian billionaire whose major life accomplishment seems to be the evasion of the consequences of multiple business failures … but who claims to be “pro-life”. Is that claim worth wrecking the country over, in order to avoid Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders? Fiat iustitia ruat patria?
The only reason, then, for bringing up Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s letter to the late Cdl. Theodore E. McCarrick was to give the faithful Catholic voter an “out” from feeling forced to make a horrible choice based solely on the issue of opposition to abortion. Then-Cdl. Ratzinger predicated the worthiness of a Catholic to present himself for communion on whether the person “deliberately” voted for a candidate “precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia,” which would constitute formal cooperation in evil and therefore a mortal sin. By contrast, a person who voted for a candidate for reasons other than his/her pro-abortion stance could avoid the mistake of choosing a potential dictator who’s a PLINO, because such a vote, in light of the principle of double effect, would be remote material cooperation (and therefore not a mortal sin).
Voting For the Common Good
In this I wasn’t alone. Writes EWTN’s Colin Donovan:
Many Catholics are troubled by the idea of a lesser of two evils or material cooperation with evil. They conclude that they can only vote for a person whose position on the gravest issues, such as abortion, coincides exactly with Catholic teaching. To do otherwise is to betray their conscience and God. …
… I think it is most frequently motivated by a sincere desire to elect someone whose views they believe coincide best with Church teaching. This is certainly praiseworthy. Yet, human judgments in order to be prudent must take into account all the circumstances. Voting, like politics, involves a practical judgment about how to achieve the desired ends — in this case the end of abortion as soon as possible, the end of partial-birth abortion immediately if possible, and other pro-life political objectives. A conscience vote of this type could be justified if the voter reasonably felt that it could achieve the ends of voting. The question must be asked and answered, however, whether it will bring about the opposite of the goal of voting (the common good) through the election of the worst candidate [bold type mine.—ASL]. That, too, is part of the prudential judgment. In the end every voter must weigh all the factors and vote according to their well-informed conscience, their knowledge of the candidates and the foreseeable consequences of the election of each.
The sentence I put in bold type emphasizes a fact that gets lost quite often: The civil act of voting is properly oriented towards the common good, not merely to the achievement of limited objectives.
Says the Catechism, “It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community”. Those obligations include the duty to pay taxes, the duty to defend the country, and the duty to vote (CCC 2239-2240). Single-issue voting, then, fails this obligation when it compels a vote for a visible-from-space bad choice.
No Lesser of Two Evils?
The “proportionate reasons” argument, then, is very strong, very rooted in Catholic theology, and very pragmatic. It’s so obviously strong that, in the past, only one in six voters has required candidates to share their views on abortion (Gallup ).
There’s just one tiny flaw in the argument: it’s predicated on the hidden assumption that we can only vote for one of two candidates. So what if neither candidate is the lesser of two evils?
I need not point out how many times third-party candidates have cost one side or the other an election. I need not point out how the two parties have dominated American politics for 156 years. But I do need to point out that the GOP has used these facts for thirty-six years to buffalo pro-lifers out of going third-party or write-in: “If you vote like that, you’re throwing your vote away. A third-party/write-in vote is a vote for the pro-abortion Democrats.”
One wit encapsulated the argument thus: “Vote Republican or the baby gets it.”
Theologian John Médaille has argued that, in return for the pro-life movement’s increasingly loyal vote, the GOP has gotten the movement very little in the way of victories. This is certainly a debatable contention; however, what is unquestionably true is that, on the national level, when in power the GOP has usually had “bigger fish to fry” than getting Roe v. Wade reversed, or doing anything positive to create a culture that supports life as a choice. As Médaille puts it, “we now have one-and-a-half pro-abortion parties and one-half an anti-abortion party.”
Here’s another consideration: Since at least 1980, and most likely since 1965, American Catholics have been split along party lines, and are suffering from what we could call “ideological capture”. The most obvious result of this is that Catholic understanding of the Church’s social doctrine has been rent into two halves, one half pro-birth and pro-traditional family, the other pro-social justice and pro-economic justice. Both halves suffer by the separation: “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand” (Matthew 12:25).
Neither Barabbas One or Barabbas Two
Here’s the truth: The Republican’s moral gun to the faithful Catholics’ head is loaded with blanks. If we Catholics are to stick to our philosophical and theological guns, then we must realize that everyone who votes for the “wrong candidate”, Catholic or not, does so with some degree of free will. You are only morally responsible for your own vote. The only people culpable for the “wrong candidate” winning are the people who voted for him/her.
Someone recently defined democracy as “the system that picks Barabbas over Jesus.” You should not feel compelled to vote for Barabbas One out of fear that Barabbas Two will win.
The “proportionate reasons” argument, then, doesn’t obtain when it’s possible to write in a better candidate than those presented on the ballot. When it isn’t possible, reference to a list of “non-negotiables” may be handy, even though there is no such formal list proposed by magisterial authority. However, such a list should not compel your vote for a candidate who, if elected to office, would in your best estimation prove a grave detriment to the public good.
* * *
As of this writing, the prospects for the Republican Party look grim; it’s beyond obvious that the GOP needs major reforms if it is to survive to 2020, let alone field a viable candidate for the White House in four years. At the same time, a victory for either Hillary Clinton (most probable) or Bernie Sanders (long shot) promises not only setbacks for the pro-life cause but also probable degradation in the freedoms of speech and religion through ideological capture of the Supreme Court.
Taken all things together, it’s clear the United States is in crisis, in moderate danger of both economic and social collapse in the relatively near future. As Rod Dreher recently wrote, many Americans have “a sense that what is wrong with America is much more deep-seated than any politician’s ability to fix. The rot, the decadence.”
It’s my hope that Catholics and the pro-life movement can either take the lead in reforming the Republican Party or form the nucleus of a true pro-life, pro-family party (just as the GOP was formed around the “free soil” movement one hundred sixty years ago). Perhaps in such a context the two halves of the Church’s social doctrine would be restored to its integrity, in a more complete realization of the “seamless garment” the late Cdl. Joseph Bernardin envisaged over thirty years ago.
In view of this, I can see no reason why Catholics or the pro-life movement should continue to support a faction that for the last thirty-six years has been unable — and somewhat unwilling — to be more than “one-half an anti-abortion party”. The Reagan Revolution is dead; the Republican Party is ideologically shattered, its leadership morally bankrupt. It’s time we stopped letting ourselves be bullied by consequentialist fallacies.
It’s time we stopped settling for the lesser of two evils.
© 2016 Anthony S. Layne.