Is Voting for a Democrat a Mortal Sin? A Correction

vote, Democrat, Republican

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.”)

Pro-Life 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.

Summary

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.

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13 thoughts on “Is Voting for a Democrat a Mortal Sin? A Correction”

  1. Pingback: Sin Voting: Reasons and Intrinsic Evils - Catholic Stand

  2. IMHO, the time has come to vote on a single issue. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president, he based his campaign on an issue of moral certitude, namely ending the evil institution of slavery. With abortion, we have an even graver evil than slavery: genocide of a most heinous nature: the slaughter of the youngest and most innocent of us all, with all of the negative effects on motherhood, family and society that such an evil causes.

    1. I’m beg to differ that Lincoln was running strictly on a single issue of ending slavery, rather he ran on the issue of keeping the Union intact> Perhaps you could find a reference in the Lincoln – Douglas debates where Lincoln opposes slavery and Douglas supports it? How we forget that a half million Americans died in that war. I hope you can also understand the a life taken in abortion and a life taken in war in Iraq or Syria are both a life taken. I wonder at Christians who think Pro-Life means end to abortion but turn away from murder rates, suicide and unjust wars, and the horrid conditions in some of our nursing homes where the elderly and abandoned die slow deaths. Pro life is never a single issue.

  3. Richard W Comerford

    Mr. Layne:

    The Democrat Party has purged from its ranks all pro-life leaders, Every last one. The Democrat Party has as a plank calling for the unrestricted murder of the unborn. Democrats in VA, PA and NY have proposed legislation allowing the murder of babies post-birth for up to six months.

    The Democrat Party, the party of slavery, the KKK, segregation, Jim Crow and Bull Connors, and is built on a racist abortion that targets black and brown babies. The majority of the 61-million murders via surgical abortion have been babies of color. Jesse Jackson, before he became famous, called this “genocide”.

    In the end you are merely shilling for the abortion establishment. Time to return to Christ.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  4. Pingback: THVRSDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

  5. Anthony-This is going to be a great, beneficial, and timely, discussion. I will try to do an in depth reply. Your “post Christian Democrats” description is spot on. For now, a prelude:

    These are different statements:

    By you, Anthony:
    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.
    The “priority of life” doesn’t nullify our obligation to vote in the manner best serving the common good.

    By me:
    . . . for a Catholic with a well-formed conscience, it is a mortal sin to vote for any Democrat. “Well-formed conscience” means a conscience well-formed as defined by Holy Mother Church.

    Maybe we should meet halfway, e.g. Centerville? to hash this out, at any place with good enchiladas. Guy McClung, Texas

    1. Anthony S. Layne

      Now that my mother is gone and I no longer have caregiver responsibilities, I have to get employed again. But once I start earning, I’d be happy to meet you, whether or not we argue. Do you know someplace in Centerville that offers good enchiladas? Never been there myself, but I’m always up for a good Mexican restaurant that isn’t a chain.

  6. Pingback: Canon212 Update: Francis Should Cease Wearing That Symbolic Celibacy Sash in Solidarity With His Top-Level PervBretheren – The Stumbling Block

  7. Anthony, I agree that characterizing voting for a Democrat as a mortal sin is “over the top.” On the other hand, I am a single issue voter, the right-to-life. As one approaching his 10th decade, the Democrat position on euthanasia affects me personally. I was a liberal, voted for the Democrats (even for Bill Clinton the first time) until I finally became disgusted with a party that supported abortion to the max. Had Joe Manchin (a pro-life Democrat) run for President in 2016, I would have voted for him (it was with great reluctance that I finally cast my vote for Trump–but I’ve been pleasantly surprised, not by his character or tweets but by his presidential actions).
    How many Einsteins, Walt Whitmans, Martin Luther Kings have not been allowed to live because of the 61 million abortions since Roe v. Wade?
    I imagine some unknowledgeable liberal will respond with nonsense about Anthropic Global Warming, supported by fudged data, flawed computer models that don’t predict, and dire warnings from those who know nothing about science, those who neglect history with its past warm periods, those who conveniently ignore water vapor as a source of trapping heat reradiation.

    1. Anthony S. Layne

      Bob, as long as you agree that “characterizing voting for a Democrat as a mortal sin is ‘over the top'”, my article has pretty much done what I wanted it to do. There’s quite a bit of latitude within Church social teaching where two Catholics of equally good formation and conscience can disagree without either one falling into sin. My opinion on single-issue voting is just that — my opinion.

  8. “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.”

    You said a mouthful there.

    1. Anthony S. Layne

      Tell me about it. In my more pessimistic moments, considering my vote next year is like asking myself, “How do you want the United States to end — in a totalitarian nanny state, or would you like to take a quick detour through a kleptocratic dictatorship and a civil war first?”

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