Thursday, October 20, 2016

Ask Tony: Is Voting Third-Party or Write-In a “Sin of Omission”?

This is how political ideology distorts religion.
As the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign staggers toward its finale, Catholic supporters of Donald Trump are going all out to push pro-life voters to cast their ballots for the Republican nominee. Some are even going so far as to engage in what can only be called doctrinal strong-arm tactics. Because Hillary Rodham Clinton is pro-abortion, a strong supporter of Planned Parenthood, and has a restrictive view of religious rights, it’s taken as granted that a vote for her is tantamount to approving her policy choices on these fronts, and therefore formal cooperation in evil.[*] However, the reasoning is extended: by failing to vote for Donald Trump, a third-party/write-in voter is wasting their vote, and therefore committing a sin of omission.

Defining Our Terms

First, let’s define our terms. But before we do, let me remind you: Infallibility applies to the Catholic Church only on matters of faith and morals, and only under specific conditions. Individual Catholics, especially lay bloggers, are not infallible. With that caveat:

In Catholic moral theology, sins can be divided into four categories: sins of thought, sins of word, sins of commission, and sins of omission. A sin of omission, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia, is “the failure to do something one can and ought to do. If this happens advertently and freely a sin is committed. Moralists took pains formerly to show that the inaction implied in an omission was quite compatible with a breach of the moral law, for it is not merely because a person here and now does nothing that he offends, but because he neglects to act under circumstances in which he can and ought to act.”

Sins are also classified according to whether they are venial or mortal. “Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him. Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church § 1855). A mortal sin is committed when the object is grave matter (i.e., a violation of the Decalogue), and when it is committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent (cf. CCC § 1857; see link above).

Material and formal cooperation pertain to the degree that an accomplice actually participates in the sin of the principal agent. Says The Catholic Encyclopedia, “For example, to persuade another to absent himself without reason from Mass on Sunday would be an instance of formal cooperation. To sell a person in an ordinary business transaction a revolver which he presently uses to kill himself is a case of material cooperation.” Formal cooperation pertains, then, when the person assists a person in an evil act freely and in full knowledge of its wrongness. With material cooperation, “the action of the accomplice is assumed to be unexceptionable, his intention is already bespoken to be proper, and he cannot be burdened with the sin of the principal agent since there is supposed to be a commensurately weighty reason for not preventing it.” There is also a distinction between proximate and remote cooperation.

The Two-Party Fallacy

For the purposes of this analysis, we’ll take as granted that Clinton, as well as Gary Johnson and Jill Stein (both of whom are for abortion and restrictions on religious rights), are morally unacceptable, and that to vote for them would constitute formal cooperation in evil. The question before us is whether the voter is then morally obligated to vote for Trump, or whether they may legitimately cast a vote for a third party or write a candidate in.

Here the moral inquisitor argues, “The United States has a de facto two-party system. The state voting laws are largely rigged against third-party success; only very rarely do third-party candidates come within sniffing distance of winning electoral votes. It is imperative that none of the Culture of Death candidates — especially Hillary Clinton! — be allowed to win the election. The only candidate that can prevent that possibility is Donald Trump. To vote for anyone else, then, would be to take votes away from him and damage his chance to prevent Clinton from taking office.” Hence a sin of omission — by not voting for Trump, the voter fails to do what they can and ought to do.

However, this line of reasoning stretches the truth a bit. Any other pro-life candidate might have had a reasonable shot of defeating Clinton had the pro-life movement and anti-Trump Republicans organized in time to agree on such a candidate. Even now, it might barely be possible for said leaders to organize a hail-Mary effort to elect Evan McMullin of Utah. The fact that a third-party candidate has never won before is no proof that a third-party candidate cannot ever win; as the financial commercials say, past performance is no guarantee of future results. In any event, the two-party bias of the system is a pragmatic consideration but not a moral barrier; it isn’t necessary to discern the lesser of two evils if a not-evil option is available.

Five Serious Errors

But the “sin of omission” argument makes more serious errors. First, a sin of omission is a failure to act, not an act that fails. An act may fail to accomplish some good for which the person was striving, or fail to prevent a particular evil. But to say that failure is morally the same as an omission is a false equivalence; it sets up a consequentialist moral condition found nowhere else in traditional Christian moral theology.

Second, there is the issue of principal agency. The principal agents in an election are those who vote for the candidate, not those who vote against them. Candidate A can only win if sufficient citizens vote for them. Cooperation, then, subsists in those who facilitate votes for the candidate. If we grant it morally impermissible to vote for pro-abortion Candidate A, then the sin falls on those who do vote for A; those who persuade others to vote for A for the purpose of continuing or increasing pro-abortion policies would be formally cooperating in sin. However, there’s no legal or moral way to prevent someone from voting for A; therefore, omission doesn’t obtain. The “sin of omission” argument, then, denies Candidate A’s voters and supporters their moral agency by treating them as if they weren’t responsible for A’s victory.

Third, “checking the non-negotiable boxes” is a necessary condition for a candidate’s suitability, but it isn’t a sufficient condition. The “non-negotiables” may take moral priority over the so-called “negotiables”, but they don’t make those negotiables immaterial; both Pope Francis and Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI insist that all moral principles are non-negotiable as such. And, as I argued in my previous post, the candidate’s character is relevant to their ability to fulfill the needs of the office. To fail to take these matters into account and give them due weight when judging a candidate’s suitability is to fail the obligation of due diligence.

Fourth, the “sin of omission” argument becomes utilitarian by setting up “likelihood of beating Candidate A” as the only relevant moral metric by which opposing candidates can be measured (assuming they pass the non-negotiables litmus test).[†] But setting up such a standard distorts the act of voting from its proper end, which is the common good — essentially, our moral inquisitor says the common good can go stuff itself if only Candidate A is kept out of office.

Fifth, the “sin of omission” argument ignores the principle of double effect at best; at worst, it treats the principle inconsistently, if not hypocritically. In brief, the double-effect principle states that an action ordered towards a good outcome is morally permissible even if, as an unintended and undesired secondary consequence, an evil outcome also results from it (e.g., saving a woman’s life by surgically removing an ectopic pregnancy). Essentially, the “sin of omission” argument treats a vote for Candidate B as the only vote protected by double effect: B’s supporters merely intend to prevent A’s victory, not to endorse the havoc B might wreak once in office. But by the same principle, a vote for Candidate C, who is also pro-life and more suited to the office than either A or B, is morally permissible even if Candidate A wins a majority or plurality due to the divided pro-life votes.

Primacy of Conscience

Finally, the argument misuses the concept of the sin of omission by turning it into an instrument of spiritual coercion. Strictly speaking, it might be a sin of omission if a person, faced with all the unenviable choices this election brings, chose not to vote at all, or chose the “Amish vote” (i.e., voting in local but not state or national elections).[‡] However, provided one does not vote in favor of policies that promote intrinsic evils, and votes with the common good in mind, voting is a morally praiseworthy participation in community life. Beyond that proviso — not voting with the intent to promote or support intrinsic evil — the voter himself must be the one who decides which candidate is best suited for office since each person is responsible to their own conscience.

Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. “He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters” (CCC § 1782; cf. Dignitatis Humanae § 3).

By no means am I arguing that the primacy of conscience is a magic wand that turns evil into good according to one’s fancies, or that decisions made in good faith cannot err. However, as St. Thomas Aquinas argued, even when reason errs, the will which varies from reason sins. Therefore, conscience binds us even when its judgment proceeds from an error in reasoning (Summa Theologiae I-II, Q. 19 A. 4).


Few people who will read this are unaware of the intensity of popular opposition to Donald Trump as prospective U.S. President. Using the sort of logic our moral inquisitor employs, one could argue that, by insisting on a candidate who has incurred the odium of the majority of the people, Trump’s supporters have deliberately sabotaged efforts to avoid a Clinton victory and are therefore remote material accomplices in whatever outrages she perpetrates during her administration. I propose no such argument myself because, like the “sin of omission” argument, it’s fatally utilitarian and denies the moral agency of Clinton voters. There’s plenty of blame to go around for the Trump-Clinton debacle; nevertheless, it isn’t a sin to find both candidates unfit for the Oval Office.

In closing, let me state that I’ve not seen the “sin of omission” error made by any person with the moral or ecclesial authority to bind consciences on pain of sin — that is, by a bishop of the Church. I have seen bishops argue that one cannot vote Democrat; however, I respond that candidates’ parties are less important than the candidates themselves since candidates are under no legal obligation to adhere to the party platform. (There are pro-life, pro-family Democrats, y’know.) And, in any event, to argue that one cannot vote Democrat is not the same as to argue that one must vote Republican so long as it’s legally and morally possible to vote for someone who is neither.

Bottom line: A third-party or write-in vote is not a sin of omission.

Postscript: Same day, 9:00pm CDT

Speaking of bishops and their spiritual authority; on Sept. 30, Bp. James D. Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska wrote a column for the Southern Nebraska Register titled “Voting and living as good citizens”. Here is a relevant extract:

In each race, we need to discern whether there is a candidate who can advance human dignity, the right to life, and the common good. When there is, we should feel free to vote for that candidate—whether they are a member of a major party or not. In extraordinary circumstances, some Catholics may decide, in good conscience, there is not a suitable candidate for some particular office and abstain from voting in that particular race.

 We also need to remember that we are not responsible for the votes of other people.  Choosing not to vote for “Candidate A” is not the same as actively voting for “Candidate B.” No Catholic should feel obliged to vote for one candidate just to prevent the election of another [emphasis mine.—ASL].

 In good conscience, some Catholics might choose to vote for a candidate who, with some degree of probability, would be most likely to do some good, and the least amount of harm, on the foundational issues: life, family, conscience rights and religious liberty. Or, in good conscience, some might choose the candidate who best represents a Christian vision of society, regardless of the probability of winning. Or, in good conscience, some might choose not to vote for any candidate at all in a particular office.

 As a matter of conscience, faithful Catholics have to weigh all those pertinent issues, and make the choice that seems most in accord with the common good of our nation: with respect for human dignity, social well-being, and peace. Catholics will make different judgments about those questions, and come to different conclusions—this reflects the fact the Lord has given us free intellects and free wills.

[*] A vote for Clinton for reasons other than her stances on life and religious liberty issues, if those reasons are proportionate, can be considered permissible remote material cooperation (cf. Cdl. Joseph Ratzinger, “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles”, July 2004). However, what constitutes a “proportionate reason”? That’s an issue for another time.
[†] The best description I’ve seen of utilitarian theory was offered in a FuturePundit combox discussion five years ago: “Imagine a perfect world. Do whatever leads to it. Pretend you’re doing math in between.”
[‡] Quid taces consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit ac potuit: “He who is silent, when he is able and ought to speak, must be seen to consent.” But see the Postscript.