Sunday, November 6, 2016

Ask Tony: Is It a Sin to Vote Democrat?

Image source: KFMB CBS8 San Diego.
Doubtless, you’ve heard of the San Diego Catholic church where a flyer inserted in the weekly bulletin asserted that it’s a mortal sin to vote Democrat. The flyer was a cut-and-paste job, reprinting material from Catholic Answers’ “Voters Guide for Serious Catholics”,[1] adding a chart comparing CA’s list of “non-negotiables” to the Democrat and Republican Parties’ platforms. On top of that, the church’s pastor wrote an article which goes beyond to name ten different forms of “enslavement” which “have come from our elected officials, appointed judges, and Catholics who have voted for them and supported them.”

Bp. McElroy Responds

Immaculate Conception’s pastor, Fr. Richard Perozich, claimed, “the flyer was written by an outside group, wasn’t reviewed by him and ‘went a little beyond’ the approved message.” “I would never tell anyone to ‘vote this’ or ‘vote that,” Fr. Perozich said. However, Keith Michael Estrada of Proper Nomenclature notes, “a review of bulletins published online shows that the parish has been sharing questionable material, at odds with the guidance of the US Bishops — even criticizing [San Diego] Bishop [Robert] McElroy on at least one occasion — for quite some time.”

The San Diego chancery finally responded on Friday with a statement by Bp. McElroy, in which His Excellency stated firmly that Immaculate Conception had violated a duty to “participate in discussions about the election with civility and balance.” He continues, “… [Thus] it is essential to make clear: 

  • “It is contrary to Catholic teaching to state that voting for a Democrat or Republican automatically condemns the voter to hell;
  • “It is contrary to Catholic faith to state that gun control legislation is a form of slavery;
  • “It is contrary to Catholic faith to fan the flames of hatred against Muslims or any religious group.”

When Is a Vote a Sin?

Sin enters into the equation when, for the sake of advancing intrinsically evil policies, a voter consciously and deliberately votes for a candidate who supports those policies. This constitutes formal cooperation; if the matter is grave (i.e., a violation of the Decalogue), and when it is committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent, it is a mortal sin (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church § 1857). Invincible ignorance may mitigate the sin (cf. CCC § 1860); however, in the matter of the non-negotiables, it’s difficult to believe any American Catholic voter could have a plausible reason to not know the Church’s teaching about them. By contrast, “Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin” (CCC § 1859).

However, there is no mortal sin that can’t be absolved through the sacrament of Reconciliation (aka Confession or Penance), save final impenitence, which by definition occurs at the hour of one’s death. Only very few delicts under canon law are punished by excommunication reserved to the Holy See;[2] voting for a pro-abortion politician is not one of them. And it may be that, in some situations where a priest is not available to extend absolution, God Himself will forgive the penitent soul at the hour of death. No one should mistake the gravity of mortal sins or presume upon God’s forgiveness by refusing Confession. Nevertheless, neither should anyone attempting the role of moral theologian tell a person they’re going to hell — ultimately, that call belongs to the Just Judge alone.

I’m generally wary of asserting the primacy of the individual conscience. Too often, it’s been used to pretend a dissident position is actually backed by Church teaching; a well-informed conscience is not necessarily the same thing as a well-formed conscience. However, the Church does teach that individuals should be neither forced to act against their consciences nor prevented from acting according to their consciences (CCC § 1782; cf. Dignitatis Humanae § 3). And St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that conscience binds us even when its judgment proceeds from an error in reasoning (Summa Theologiae I-II, Q. 19 A. 4). Pastors and spiritual counselors, therefore, should be wary of misusing their spiritual authority by reading their own sociopolitical judgments into divine law or Church teaching.

Yes, There ARE Pro-Life Democrats

Now, the “sin to vote Democrat” argument rests on the supposition that all Democrat politicians support the DNC national platform. But while this is certainly the case for most if not all the prominent Democrat politicians, it’s not universally true; nor can individual party members be compelled by any law or regulation to vote in support of the platform when in office. At this writing, the number of federal-level whole-life Democrat candidates is slim; I don’t have a count on politicians at the state level. Nevertheless, their existence can’t be pooh-poohed away. A Catholic who votes for individual candidates rather than a straight party ticket is morally justified in voting for a Democrat whose individual platform doesn’t run afoul of Catholic moral teaching.

But what if the candidates of both major parties support different policies at odds with the non-negotiables? I’ve argued repeatedly that no one is morally obligated to vote for “the lesser of two evils” so long as it’s legally permissible to vote for a third-party or write-in candidate. Others argue that life issues take priority, citing Cdl. Joseph Ratzinger’s 2004 letter “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles” (q.v., para. 3). However, in the same letter, the future Benedict XVI added a nota bene in which he said, “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.” Such a statement admits by implication that reasons can exist which are proportionate to the life issues.

What did Papa Bene mean by “proportionate reasons”? I presume he meant a collection of lesser reasons rather than one big reason — a collection such that the damage done to the common good by the one candidate would outweigh any potential damage by the other concerning the life issues. Voting is properly oriented toward the common good, rather than the achievement of limited, specific objectives such as single-issue voters commonly desire. However, assessments of how the common good is best served and which candidate could do the most damage to it are necessarily both speculative and subjective. The point is, the fact that life issues are of primary importance does not mean that no other issues need be considered.


One of my favorite quotes comes from the satirist H.L. Mencken: “Complex issues have answers that are clear, simple, and wrong.” People who are bothered by ambiguity and hate to live in gray areas inevitably demand we “cut to the chase” by reducing matters to the two-dimensional simplicity of a cartoon. However, we’re morally obligated to the truth, even if it’s not as straightforward or as certain as we would like. Oversimplifying issues to get a sin/no-sin answer is a grave abuse of Catholic moral theology, especially when it’s done for the sake of secular politics. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said, “It would be a serious mistake — and one that occurs with regrettable frequency — to use only selected parts of the Church’s teaching to advance partisan political interests or validate ideological biases” (“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”, p. 7; italics mine).

On November 8, the bulk of the votership will step into booths across the country to choose our leaders for the next two to four years. So much has been written on the perils with which this election is fraught that verging on the edge of hysteria is almost the new “normal”. And no previous election has given us such a perfectly lousy choice between two unsatisfactory candidates for the White House; no previous election has demonstrated so well how morally bankrupt and systemically broken our nation has become. However, this portentous situation is no justification for pastors and spiritual counselors to put the fear of hellfire in their congregations for not voting a specific way.

Catholic priests and religious don’t give up their American citizenship, or the freedom of speech that comes with it, when they take the cloth. Nevertheless, they must remember that our faith must inform our politics, not vice versa. They must also remember that they are members of the clergy, not ward captains for either party. They must finally remember that the Church’s proper business is the conversion of souls to Christ. Change souls, and you change the culture; change the culture, and the laws will follow suit.

Bottom line: Within specific parameters, voting for a candidate who promotes intrinsically evil policies can be a mortal sin, regardless of the candidate’s party membership. But by the same token, voting for a candidate who does not support intrinsically evil policies is not a sin, regardless of the candidate’s party membership.

Additional Materials

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Voters Guide, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” (.pdf format)
Catholic Answers, “Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics” (.pdf format)
EWTN, Voter Resource page (.html)

[1] The “Voter’s Guide” is not promulgated by the Holy See, and carries neither a nihil obstat nor an imprimatur. There is no official list of “non-negotiables”; as both Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have said, all moral principles are non-negotiable as such. Having said that, it is nevertheless a useful resource.
[2] That is, only the Pope or his designate can lift the excommunication.