The claim that “voting for a Democrat is a mortal sin” is one feature of the 2016 presidential election cycle that’s already repeating itself for the 2020 cycle. And as the ideological polarization of the two major American parties continues apace, demanding more conformity of individual candidates to the parties’ platforms, it grows more difficult to disagree with such a broad-brush claim. However, it is a broad-brush claim. As such, the assertion desperately needs correction so we don’t mistake political tribalist stereotyping for religious doctrine.
Before we dive into this, let me make it clear: I am a registered Independent with a personal history of voting mostly Republican. I do not at this time support any particular candidate for any particular office. Nor do I support the Democratic Party or its platform in its current state. Indeed, the strength of the “mortal sin” claim is in the DNC’s ongoing support of intrinsically evil policies, such as abortion on demand. (From here on forward, I’ll refer to members who support those policies as “post-Christian Democrats.”)
But what policies the national or state committees support and what policies the individual candidates support are not always or necessarily the same. Yes, that’s right — in the United States, the parties do not and (at this time) cannot legally require candidates to adhere to their entire platforms. Even if they had the legal power to compel adherence, they would not have the moral right to force candidates to promote intrinsically evil policies or laws. Those members and candidates that support intrinsically evil acts do so of their own free will, whether for ideological or practical reasons.
Nevertheless, here and there you can find affiliated candidates willing and courageous enough to buck the ideologues’ party control. Which is my next point: There are Democrats who are pro-life. There are also Democrats who reject same-sex “marriage” and resist transgender ideology. The latter may not be in as great numbers or as vocal as are pro-life Democrats, but they exist. Where they are present, if they don’t merit your vote, they at least merit your recognition and support for their political courage.
What they don’t deserve is rash judgment or “guilt by association.” Remember Oskar Schindler, who was a Nazi Party member yet risked his life and spent his wealth to save over 1,100 Jews from death in the concentration camps. By the way, there are also pro-abortion Republicans. They’re much fewer in number, but they exist, too. Food for thought.
To support the claim that voting for a Democrat is a mortal sin, you must first prove beyond reasonable doubt that all Democrats—not “many”, not “most”—support the intrinsically evil platform planks of the DNC. Not only do the claimants fail this task, but they also don’t even attempt it; they’re content with stereotypes. The moral of this section is: Do your homework! If you’re reading this essay, you can easily discover a candidate’s stated positions and at least a précis of their voting record on the issues. Don’t settle for knowing only whatever labels political commentators have slapped on them.
The “Proportionate Reasons” Exception
The next issue concerns the “proportionate reasons” exception. This exception stems from a footnote in a letter written to the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., Theodore McCarrick, by the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cdl. Joseph Ratzinger. In this footnote, the man who later became Pope Benedict XVI said:
A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil … 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 favour 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. (Bold type mine)
The exception relies on the principle of double effect, which permits someone to pursue a licit course of action if, as an unavoidable consequence, it causes an outcome one would otherwise be obligated to avoid. It also relies on the concept of remote material cooperation, in which the action is “very far removed from an evil which is done or tolerated.” Both principles assume, let it be noted, that the evil the course of action prevents is greater than the evil the action causes, and that the agent will take all licit and necessary steps possible to minimize or mitigate the evil consequence.
The Twin Ditches
Here’s the problem: What constitutes “proportionate reasons”?
Church leaders have long put an emphasis on the priority of the right to life. As I’ve said elsewhere, the issue is not that the right to life is absolute but rather that taking human life is a drastic measure which requires an equally drastic cause for its justification. However, while abortion is a grave evil, it isn’t the only grave evil, let alone the only grave evil that matters. Likewise, the right to life is the most important right we possess; yet, it’s neither the only good under threat at any given time nor the only right needing protection.
If the ditch on the left is to say that all social, economic, and political evils are of equal gravity, the ditch on the right is to say that no other evil matters, or that no collection of evils can require more immediate attention. The Catholic obligation to participate in the community, which includes participation in the democratic process, must be ordered toward the common good (cf. CCC 1913-6), not merely toward a single (albeit noble) end. If you spend all your manpower on patching one large leak and none on patching the smaller leaks, the ship will still sink.
But while you may vote for a particular candidate for one or two key reasons, the winning candidate will usually interpret their victory as an endorsement of their entire program — including those parts you don’t like. For instance, economic liberals who voted for Pres. Donald Trump in 2016 had to accept his laissez-faire economic policies as the price for getting two more potential pro-life votes on the SCOTUS bench. Likewise, there’s no way you can cast a ballot for a post-Christian Democrat that says, “Hey, I just want your immigration and healthcare policies, not your support for abortion or euthanasia!”
The Crucial Question
Unless and until pro-life, pro-religious freedom Democrats can transform their party in the next 14-15 months, Democrat control of the federal and state governments will most likely result in efforts to roll back such progress as the pro-life movement has made in the last three years, not to mention incite further attacks on freedom of religion. So Catholic voters considering voting for a post-Christian Democrat must ask themselves a single yet crucial question:
Will continued Republican dominance of the government foster evils so grave, proximate, and numerous that voting them out of office is worth risking setbacks in pro-life and religious freedom efforts?
The Zealot’s Fallacy
Let’s not confuse zealotry with zeal. Zeal (meaning “enthusiasm” or “passion”) for a good cause is praiseworthy — within bounds. It transgresses those bounds when the passion becomes obsessive, when “focus” becomes a euphemism for tunnel vision. At that point, the cause risks becoming a golden calf, a false idol to which the devotée sacrifices many worthwhile goods and for which they become more willing to tolerate, even commit, unjust acts. A person need not go so far as to bomb abortion mills to qualify as a zealot. They need merely lose the capacity to accept criticism or engage in self-critique.
The pro-life movement’s goals are noble. However, it doesn’t follow that everything pro-life activists and politicians say or do to advance those goals is by definition good, prudent, or sane. It also doesn’t follow that their actions, behavior, or policies on issues other than the so-called “non-negotiables” are beyond challenge. Writes Evangelical leader Jay Lowder, “In the evangelical community, we have come to incorrectly believe that any critique of Trump only serves to promote the party on the left. But embracing critiques proves we are objective, not blind to the flaws in political parties or our presidents.”
If the faithful Catholic voter isn’t morally certain that removing Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell from power is worth risking setbacks to life and religious freedom, then they must not vote for post-Christian Democrat candidates. Yet we don’t have to agree that the Republican program outside those planks is morally acceptable or delude ourselves that the Trump Administration has been anything less than a disgrace to the American people. Republican Catholics must stop using the “primacy of life” argument to coerce silence and complicity from faithful Catholics who object to the vile aspects of the current government.
In no document or statement from either a pope or the CDF will you find a teaching that literally — that is, specifically — forbids Catholics on pain of mortal sin to vote for a Democrat based solely on the candidate’s party affiliation. Catholics may vote for a pro-life, pro-family Democrat without sin. They should not vote for a post-Christian Democrat unless they’re morally certain that greater harm to the common good would result from the opposing candidate’s victory. But by the same token, Catholics should not vote for a post-Christian Republican candidate except under the same conditions.
The “priority of life” doesn’t nullify our obligation to vote in the manner best serving the common good. Single-issue voting, in my opinion, is civic negligence; it’s a luxury we can no longer afford. Conscientious voting demands that we actively discover what each candidate stand for and consider carefully all the near-term risks and challenges facing our nation, not merely those which affect one or two issues. Above all, we must not fall for the zealot’s fallacy — the belief that noble goals validate everything we think, say, or do.
As with the road to Hell, the path to Dystopia is also paved with good intentions.