The Quandary for Catholics

A while back I received a question that I have been reluctant to answer. The questioner simply wanted to know if Catholic social teaching and the Divine Mercy message could help her decide whom to vote for in the upcoming presidential election.

She wrote: "McCain seems to be the candidate who cares more about protecting the lives of unborn children, while Obama seems to be the one who cares more about helping the poor. The Church, and St. Faustina, encourages me to care about both. So what's a Catholic to do in these circumstances?"

Great question. Also: scary question, because whatever answer I give is bound to be contentious (which is why I left it for my last two Q-and-A columns before going away for a summer holiday!).

In brief, the Church, with its faith centered in the message of God's merciful love, gives us basic principles to apply to help us see what a more just social order might look like. It's our responsibility, as Catholics living in the world, to apply those principles to the facts and realities "on the ground," so to speak, and think through as best we can how those principles can be "fleshed out" in our particular, national circumstances. With regard to voting for a particular candidate, obviously, the Church is not in the business of endorsing candidates for office (neither is St. Faustina, to the best of my knowledge: but if she tells me who we should vote for, I will certainly let you know!).

To make a prudent judgment, we have to weigh and balance the candidates' stated positions on the issues of the day and see whose policies seem to match the principles of Catholic social teaching more closely.

Here is what I wrote for an article on all this back in January for Catholic Online:

This time around, however, Catholics have been given extra-help in making wise choices at the ballot box. In a recent document entitled "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" (2007), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops provided the faithful with a voter's guide that can help them exercise their democratic responsibilities in accordance with the Church's social teachings.

Of course, the bishops of the Church offer no detailed social program; they claim no expertise in the finer points of economics or foreign policy. What they do provide, however, is an outline of general moral and social principles, clearly laid out and prioritized in a way that can enable Catholics - and, indeed, all people of good will - to apply those principles to the great issues of the day. ...

The Catholic Bishops make it very clear in "Faithful Citizenship" that not all issues facing Americans today are of equal value. In section 37 of their document they write: "In making decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight," and they specifically emphasize "the special claim on our consciences and actions" of "the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts." Section 42 is particularly striking:

As Catholics, we are not single-issue voters. A candidate's position on a single issue is not sufficient grounds for a voter's support. Yet a candidate's position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil such as support for legal abortion or racism may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.

Most of my readers will instantly recognize that, on this reckoning, Barack Obama is definitely a supporter of an intrinsic evil: the legalized killing of unborn children. Ryan T. Anderson, assistant editor of First Things magazine, sums up the candidate's viewpoint as follows:

Obama has opposed every effort to protect unborn human life, including the Supreme Court's upholding of The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. Obama even voted against an anti-infanticide bill to protect the lives of babies who survive an abortion and are born alive.

Here are Senator Obama's own words on the subject:

Throughout my career, I've been a consistent and strong supporter of reproductive justice [i.e., abortion] and have consistently had a 100% pro-choice rating with Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-choice America. ... I will continue to defend this right [to abortion] by passing The Freedom of Choice Act as president.

For those who do not know about it, the Freedom of Choice Act is a federal bill that would mandate all 50 states to permit abortion on demand, without restrictions. Even Bill Clinton did not go this far in his support for abortion rights. Obama would clearly be the most pro-abortion president ever elected in U.S. history and would nominate Supreme Court justices with these commitments in mind. In short, the election of Barack Obama as President would certainly be the most serious setback to the Pro-Life cause since the Roe v. Wade Supreme court decision 35 years ago.

These facts can and should give any Catholic voter cause for concern. Are there any circumstances at all in which a Catholic could, in good conscience, vote for such an extreme pro-abortion candidate?

Yes, but they are rare.

Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) addressed this question in a document on "Worthiness to receive Holy Communion" back in 2004:

When a Catholic does not share a candidate's stand in favor of abortion or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation [with evil], which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.

By "proportionate reasons" he evidently meant intrinsic evils advocated by an opposing candidate at least as serious as the pro-abortion, pro-euthanasia stands of the candidate for whom the Catholic intends to vote. For example, a pro-abortion candidate may be running against a candidate who supports other life-destroying intrinsic evils such as slavery, ethnic cleansing, state-sponsored terrorism, wars of conquest, or neglect of the plight of the poor so severe that it would clearly lead to widespread starvation and death. Only policies such as these would count as intrinsic evils of a moral severity on par with the deliberate, life-destroying violation of the dignity of human persons involved in the legalized killing of children in their mother's wombs.

Bishop Nicholas Di Marzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., recently discussed the U.S. Bishops 2007 document on this matter, and stated the position of the Catholic Church very clearly:

In our own country, despite significant victories that extend protection to the unborn, this modern slaughter of the holy innocents continues because of the policies of unscrupulous politicians. ... Only in circumstances that are extraordinarily hard to contemplate may a Catholic voter support a proponent of so great an intrinsic moral evil.

In short, as a faithful Catholic, if you are contemplating a vote for Sen. Obama, you are morally bound to consider whether or not Sen. McCain advocates intrinsic moral evils - that is, life-destroying violations of the inherent dignity of the human person - on par with Obama's support for legalized abortion. Unless you can demonstrate at least a moral equivalence between the policies of the two candidates with regard to such intrinsic evils, then you cannot, with a clear conscience, vote for the pro-abortion candidate. Do not bicker about whose policies on balance are better for the economy or will help to bring down the price of oil. Those issues are important, but not nearly as important as the moral priority of opposing intrinsic evils in our society. Here is how I put it for Catholic Online back in January:

Catholics need to be crystal clear on the importance of these matters. For authentic Catholics, the economy is not the most important issue we face. Opposing "intrinsic evils" is even more important. Along with slavery, legalized abortion has been America's most shameful moral crime, an on-going "slaughter of the innocents" in our midst, and a fundamental denial of the inalienable right to "life" that our Declaration of Independence claims it is the main purpose of government's to protect.

However, by laying down this challenge to Catholic potential-Obama supporters, I am not pretending that McCain's record on the Life issues is "squeaky clean." For example, while Sen. McCain has always voted against abortion, he has at the same time supported (along with Sen. Obama) stem-cell research and experimentation on human embryos. This is a clear contradiction of his stated Pro-Life principles. As the editor of Catholic Online, Deacon Keith Fournier, has written:

When human persons become objects to be disposed of for parts, we embrace a new form of slavery where an entire class of persons has become less than human. It is intrinsically evil to "manufacture" human embryonic life and to then kill that life for spare parts.

In essence, McCain is for the legalized killing of unborn children in such exceptional circumstances, while Obama essentially supports it "across the board." Neither one is fully in accord with the Catholic social teaching on this issue - but Obama is far worse.

Deacon Fournier ably summed up the only consistent Pro-Life position with crystal clarity:

I cannot and will not support any candidate who fails to hear the cry of the poorest of the poor in the first home of the whole human race, the child in the womb. ... Abortion is the taking of innocent human life, and it should be illegal in the same manner as all other taking of innocent human life is. That is why I support a Federal Constitutional Amendment which would simply affirm the Right to Life as found in the Declaration of Independence.

The goal, of course, is not (as Bill Clinton claims) to throw abortion mothers into prison, many of whom are struggling with extraordinarily difficult circumstances and under tremendous pressure to have an abortion; rather the goal is to criminalize the doctors who engage in and profit from this child-death trade. The goal is not (as Sen. Obama claims) to take away all freedom of choice and "to punish mothers with an [unwanted] child" but to remember that adoption is the choice that everyone can live with, and it is socially absurd for hundreds of thousand of abortions to be performed each year on children unwanted by their natural parents when there are long waiting lists of parents hoping to adopt, wanting a child to love as their own.

Saint Faustina recognized the intrinsic evil of abortion:

September 16, 1937. I wanted very much to make a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament today, but God's will was otherwise. At eight o'clock I was seized with such violent pains that I had to go to bed at once. I was convulsed with pain for three hours; that is, until eleven o'clock at night. No medicine had any effect on me, and whatever I swallowed I threw up. At times the pains caused me to lose consciousness. Jesus had me realize that in this way I took part in His Agony in the Garden, and that He Himself allowed these sufferings in order to offer reparation to God for souls murdered in the wombs of wicked mothers. I have gone through these sufferings three times now. ... What it pleases God to send, I will accept with submission and love. If only I could save even one soul from murder by means of these sufferings! (Diary, 1276).

Back to our Catholic potential-Obama-voters: I have "thrown down the gauntlet" to you on a matter of utmost moral seriousness. Can you pick up that gauntlet and throw it back? To do so, again, you would have to show that McCain supports equivalent intrinsic evils, at least the moral equivalent of Obama's support for abortion.

Hypothetically, there are two ways to make a moral defense for Obama. Some people might make an argument that goes something like this:

1.) Health Care. Roughly 50 million Americans right now cannot afford health insurance. This is an outrageous social injustice. Obama pledges to provide health insurance for the poor and underprivileged. McCain's plans don't even come close. McCain, therefore, by omission, supports the continuation of this intrinsically evil, life-threatening neglect of the plight of the poor in our society. As the U.S. Bishops stated in their 2007 document on "Faithful Citizenship": "A basic moral test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst ... we will be judged by our response to 'the least among us' (see Mt 25: 31-46)."

2.) War and Peace in the Middle East. We now know that the war in Iraq was really started as a reckless War for Oil by Bush-Cheney, the moral equivalent of an intrinsically evil "war of conquest." It led to the needless loss of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi lives and the needless deaths of more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers. Obama was (rightly) opposed to this war from the start, and he promises to get us out in 16 months. McCain (wrongly) supported this unjust war from the start, and he predicts we will need another five years to finish it. So McCain will extend indefinitely this unjust war. Also, given their positions on the Iraq War, McCain is more likely than Obama to drag us into another reckless, unjust war in the future (perhaps with Iran). On the life-and-death issue of war and peace, therefore, McCain fails another basic moral test.

Abortion, Health Care, and War and Peace. These are surely the most crucial life-and-death issues facing America today (and not the price of gasoline, although we are all feeling the pinch from that fiasco, right at the moment!). Obama clearly fails the moral test on abortion. Does McCain clearly fail one of the other two? That would clearly make a vote for Obama at least possible. Does McCain clearly fail both of the other two? That might make a vote for Obama even preferable.

We will look at those two issues when my column returns in a couple weeks.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at

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