How Could a Catholic Vote That Way?

Just before the November election, I gave a lecture in a parish on Christian responsibility in an election year. I suggested that we have to take a variety of issues into consideration in making a judgment about the best candidate and that voters could opt for a strategy other than legal interdiction in the battle against abortion. Some of the participants were indignant—indeed, I was nearly run out of the room and had to conclude the lecture early. “How could a Catholic vote that way,” one demanded, referring to the possibility of voting for a pro-choice Democrat.

Yet statistics from the election show that a sizeable number of Catholics did vote that way. Exit polls conducted by the Voter News Service indicate that across the board, Catholics voted for Gore over Bush by 50 percent to 47 percent. Those who reported attending Mass seldom or never voted for Gore in higher numbers, but even among those who said they attended Mass once a week, 40 percent voted for Gore. That is a significant number, especially given the stern and occasionally imprudent admonitions delivered by bishops and pastors.


I think there are some good reasons why so many Catholics continue to vote along traditional Democratic lines. Let me speculate on a few of them.

Suspicion of pro-life rhetoric. A number of Catholics who voted for Gore told me they did so because eight years of Ronald Reagan and four years of George Bush, his successor, had not had any appreciable effect on the incidence of abortion. Combined with Republican support for the death penalty, this made Catholics wonder whether George W. was really committed to life. “Bush is the one who has consistently allowed the taking of human lives, when he clearly had the power to stop executions,” one Catholic voter told me.

Realism about civil law and political prudence. Much of Bush’s support among Catholics was based on his promise to promote pro-life legislation and their supposition that he would change the makeup of the Supreme Court in order to overturn Roe v. Wade. This is one possible position, but it is equally valid to judge that legal interdiction of abortion would be neither attainable nor effective. Those who form this judgment could see abortion as a moral evil and yet tolerate its legality while using other means, such as education, social services and persuasion, to reduce its incidence. That approach is based on a recognition of the difference between morality, which is oriented to personal perfection, and law, which has the more modest goal of public order. This view affirms the old adage “you can’t legislate morality,” because morality involves conversion and virtue, which are internal realities that cannot be imposed by law. Thomas Aquinas once said, in almost humorous understatement, that laws are “framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 96, a.2). The day may come when we can pass a human life amendment or overturn Roe v. Wade, but there is a lot of conversion of heart that needs to happen before that day. In the meantime, many Catholics appear to have opted for a social pro-life strategy rather than a legal one.

Optimism about government. Theologically, Republican resistance to “big government” is rooted in Protestant theology, which tends to see government and politics as a restraint on the effects of original sin. If that is indeed the case, then truly, less is better. The Catholic approach, however, is more sanguine. Thomas Aquinas, for example, says that there would have been political dominion, or government, before the fall, because as social beings even the residents of paradise would have needed a way to care for the common good (S.T., I, q. 96, a.4). This typically Catholic view permeates our social teaching. Despite the well-documented inadequacies of contemporary political life, many Catholics remain convinced that government can make life better.

Preference for consensus. A colleague who is a church historian reminded me that Catholics remember being the butt of Know-Nothing prejudice and religious discrimination. “They fear the extremism that is evident in some pro-life pockets and know that in the long run, moderation will serve them better.” This is a mind-set appropriate to “big churches” like the Roman Catholic, because those churches have a dual role. They cannot be content only to sanctify their own members; they must also seek a political consensus tending toward the common good by engaging the broader pluralistic society. This leads Catholics to reject single-issue politics because they fear that political or religious extremism will eventually marginalize them and reduce them to silence. It is true that there is a danger of compromise here, but it is a risk that Catholics have taken on a whole spectrum of social issues in order to ensure active participation in the political process.

Subsidiarity. Republican affinity for states’ rights and small government seem, at first glance, to fit comfortably with the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which holds that decisions should always be made at the lowest level of organization possible. Keeping things small and local is not an end in itself but a means of maximizing participation by as many citizens as possible. Catholics might not know the technical meaning of the term subsidiarity, but their culture and experience has taught them that participation in society requires basic economic security, education, health care and public safety. Many were apparently not convinced that the Republican platform really embraced these goals.

Bias toward community. Catholics in the United States have now achieved an unprecedented level of prosperity, but many remain close to their immigrant roots and can still smell the pasta sauce, dumplings or sausage of their youth. Even those who have gone to college and moved to the suburbs retain a bias for close community and resist the wholesale individualism that marks so much of American society. It might just be residual guilt, but I prefer to think that there is among many Catholics a strong community ethos and an affective awareness of the common good that resonated with the Democratic Party’s emphasis upon the values of inclusion and care for the poor.

Moral autonomy and prudence. What is most striking about the results of this election is that so many Catholics voted against the clear preference of bishops and pastors. In the past they might have accepted such direction without question. Today, they listen carefully but feel confident about making their own judgments. This is particularly true for women, who voted for Gore in greater numbers than men did, and who are also enjoying greater moral autonomy than they did in the past.

This does not mean, however, that Catholics embraced pro-choice rhetoric uncritically. In popular political discourse, the terms pro-choice and right to privacy have come to connote acts, particularly abortion, that are judged to be outside the realm of moral analysis or to have no moral content at all. Catholics might tolerate the legality of abortion, but that does not mean they accept it wholesale or believe it is beyond moral scrutiny. They would like to reduce or even eliminate abortion, but they also want to preserve the right to prudential judgment in certain crisis cases.

Lessons for the Future

It is still too early to know exactly what we can learn from this election about Catholic attitudes to the social problems we face. But two things are clear to me. First, there is still an identifiable Catholic culture rooted in theological presuppositions about nature, grace, sin and human nature that shapes the way Catholics think and vote. We should be very careful that we do not abandon the tradition that nurtured this culture for the sake of one possible approach to one moral problem.

Second, I am convinced that the vast majority of Americans see abortion as an evil—both for the child and for the mother—and would work to reduce its incidence if the possibility of prudential judgment were preserved in certain hard cases. Politically, we would be far more successful in our attempts to eradicate abortion if next time around we would abandon our all-or-nothing strategy and try to build on the national consensus that most abortions are wrong most of the time.

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