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James T. Keane | Sam Sawyer, S.J.September 15, 2020
President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden are seen during their respective 2020 nominating conventions. (CNS composite/photos by Carlos Barria, Reuters; Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)

As the U.S. presidential election race enters its final weeks, both Donald Trump and Joseph Biden Jr. have identified the “Catholic vote” as a key factor in the contest’s outcome. Along with that attention has come a great deal of political rhetoric aimed at swaying Catholic voters one way or another, some of it of an incendiary nature. Much of the vitriol has centered on Mr. Biden’s stance in favor of legal abortion. (Mr. Trump announced in 2011 that he was pro-life.)

In late August, Catharine P. O’Neill, the executive director of Catholics for Trump, declared on Twitter that “You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat—pass it on.” A day before, a Catholic priest, the Rev. James Altman of the diocese of La Crosse, Wis., had released a video on YouTube condemning Mr. Biden in harsh terms, including the following words: “Here’s a memo for clueless, baptized Catholics out there. You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat. Period.” He also admonished Catholics who vote for Democratic candidates to “[r]epent of your support of that party or face the fires of hell.” Father Altman also falsely labeled James Martin, S.J., editor at large of America, as a “heretic.”

Are the 40 million U.S. Catholics who are registered Democrats facing the fires of hell? Not according to canon law or the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse, William Callahan, issued a public “fraternal correction” to Father Altman and noted that “[c]anonical penalties are not far away if my attempts at fraternal correction do not work.” Father Altman’s video, Bishop Callahan said, came across as “angry and judgmental, lacking any charity and in a way that causes scandal both in the Church and in society. His generalization and condemnation of entire groups of people is completely inappropriate and not in keeping with our values or the life of virtue.”

Father Altman found supporters elsewhere, however, including Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Tex., who retweeted Father Altman’s video on Sept. 5 with the accompanying statement: “As the Bishop of Tyler I endorse Fr Altman’s statement in this video. My shame is that it has taken me so long. Thank you Fr Altman for your COURAGE. If you love Jesus & His Church & this nation...pleases HEED THIS MESSAGE.” (Bishop Strickland’s statements have no canonical authority in the diocese of La Crosse, nor anywhere outside of Tyler.) Father Altman then appeared on the website of Taylor Marshall for an interview in which he repeated the views expressed in his video.

Are the 40 million U.S. Catholics who are registered Democrats facing the fires of hell? Not according to canon law or the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

What do the U.S. bishops say?

The U.S.C.C.B. has been adamant that the Catholic Church in the United States does not stand behind one party or one candidate, and it has expressed that position for many years in its quadrennial guide to elections and voting, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” The role of priests and religious, say the bishops in that document, is to help people weigh church teaching, their individual conscience and the various positions of each candidate before voting. But rarely will any Catholic voting with his or her conscience find a candidate that exemplifies church teaching across the board. “Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth,” reads the most recent iteration of the document. “We recognize that the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience, and that participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election.”

The U.S.C.C.B. has been adamant that the Catholic Church in the United States does not stand behind one party or one candidate, and it has expressed that position for many years in its quadrennial guide to elections and voting, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”

For much of the 20th century the majority of U.S. Catholics voted for Democrats, but the Catholic Church in the United States has never mandated that its members vote for one party or another. To do so would violate the spirit of the U.S. Constitution as well as Catholic teaching on the primacy of conscience. A principle of Catholic teaching since St. Thomas Aquinas, the primacy of the individual conscience was affirmed by none other than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, in 1968: “Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts [the individual] with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church.”

What does the Vatican say?

In its 1994 “Directory on Ministry and the Life of Priests,” the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy said that a priest “ought to refrain from actively engaging himself in politics, as often happens, in order to be a central point of spiritual fraternity.” That document also quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1993: “It is not the role of the Pastors of the Church to intervene directly in the political structuring and organization of social life. This task is part of the vocation of the lay faithful [emphasis in original], acting on their own initiative with their fellow citizens.”

In the church’s official Code of Canon Law, Canon 287 also states that priests “are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.”

In the face of what seems to be conflicting guidance from the church, some Catholics may be tempted to avoid voting or engaging in politics altogether. But that is also not a satisfactory course of action, according to church teaching. Though it is a teaching rarely cited, the Catechism also mandates that Catholics participate in the political process, including voting: “Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one's country.”

In addition to church guidance on the general involvement of clergy or laity in politics, the Vatican has also addressed the particular moral responsibilities of political leaders. In 2004, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, writing as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, responded to a question about whether politicians who supported abortion should be denied Holy Communion. Referencing St. John Paul II’s “Evangelium Vitae,” he explained that politicians “consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws” should not present themselves to receive Communion. However, this letter also contained a closing note, clarifying that voters were only considered to be formally cooperating in the evil of support for abortion or euthanasia if their votes were “precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand.” Otherwise, if a Catholic “votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”

Language very similar to the closing note of Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2004 letter was incorporated into the U.S. bishops’ “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”:

There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil. (No. 35)

Proportionate reasons? Morally grave reasons? What reasons count, and who decides?

There is considerable debate within Catholic circles over what “truly grave moral reasons” are sufficient to permit a vote for a candidate whose policies promote an “intrinsically evil act.” Part of the confusion is over what exactly constitutes such promotion, since the list of intrinsic evils in “Faithful Citizenship” includes not only abortion and euthanasia, which can be readily understood as specific acts to be outlawed, but also “genocide, torture … [and] violations of human dignity, such as acts of racism, treating workers as mere means to an end, deliberately subjecting workers to subhuman living conditions, treating the poor as disposable or redefining marriage to deny its essential meaning.” It is safe to say that U.S. Catholics are never in the position to vote for a candidate who consistently opposes all intrinsic evils.

To further complicate matters, asking whether or not an evil is “intrinsic” is a different question from asking how “morally grave” an evil is, or to what degree one cooperates in that evil by voting for a candidate whose policies promote it.

In addition to arguments about degrees of moral cooperation and moral gravity, application of the church’s teaching to questions of voting is contentious because even bishops do not agree about how precisely to navigate and apply these categories, and no single authoritative teaching addresses the entirety of these questions. Though a comprehensive survey of bishops’ statements on this topic is impossible, two examples make the breadth of differing interpretations clear.

In 2004, in a pastoral letter issued shortly after Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis argued that though in limited circumstances a Catholic could vote for a candidate who supported some immoral policies under the moral logic of material cooperation, some issues overrode that possibility:

But, there is no element of the common good … which could justify voting for a candidate who also endorses and supports the deliberate killing of the innocent, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, human cloning or the recognition of a same-sex relationship as legal marriage. These elements are so fundamental to the common good that they cannot be subordinated to any other cause, no matter how good.

The five issues listed after “deliberate killing of the innocent” have sometimes been referred to as the “Five Non-Negotiable Issues” for Catholics in some voting guides issued by various organizations, although no official statement from the Vatican or the U.S. bishops’ conference has ever adopted that description or that specific list of issues.

Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego, in a lecture earlier this year, argued that the attempt to find a “logic of deduction [for the morality of voting] in the concept of intrinsic evil” was unhelpful because the proper ground for the moral determination of a vote was in the virtue of prudence. He went on to describe the effort to elevate a single issue above all the rest for the Catholic vote as a distortion:

The pathway from these crosscutting moral claims to decisions on particular candidates is not a direct and singular one in Catholic teaching, rooted in one issue. For this reason, the drive to label a single issue preeminent distorts the call to authentic discipleship in voting rather than advancing it.

In taking issue with the use of “preeminent,” Bishop McElroy may have been referencing the debate among the U.S. bishops over describing abortion as the “preeminent priority” for Catholics in their 2019 introductory letter for “Faithful Citizenship,” a debate in which he also opposed the inclusion of that phrase.

Even when bishops disagree, individual Catholic voters still must make a determination about how to cast a ballot and which candidates to support. And when they do, “Faithful Citizenship” offers a reminder that their judgment needs to be based not only on the morality of specific policy positions, but also on a moral evaluation of probable outcomes. “When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act,” the document says, the voter “after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods” (No. 36).

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