“Stop telling fellow Catholics they’re committing a mortal sin if they vote for So-and-so.” — Michelle Arnold

With election season upon us once again, the questions and the debates about this topic are heating up.

My friend Michelle Arnold, formerly of Catholic Answers, has recently launched a blog and here offers some insight from her years of explaining Catholic teaching to those with a lot of questions:

I’m still a Catholic apologist with 17 years of professional experience in parsing Church teaching and answering questions about the Catholic faith. And I’m finally free to offer my own opinion on the moral principles of voting as a Catholic. So, let’s look at some of the questions Catholics ask about voting.

“Can I vote for a Democrat?”

When I was with Catholic Answers, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, we had to be extremely circumspect in our presentation of voting principles to avoid any appearance of political partisanship. That meant I had to bite my tongue a lot whenever a client asked if it was a sin to vote for a Democratic candidate.

The short, direct answers are “Yes, you can vote for a Democrat” and “No, it’s not a sin to vote for a Democrat.” Any Catholic, whether that person is a layman, consecrated religious, deacon, priest, or bishop, who tells you that to vote for a Democrat is, ipso facto, a sin, or that you have to go to confession for voting for a Democrat, is wrong. Period.

And, lest I be accused (again) of being a “left-wing hack” (as happened recently on Twitter), I will also say that it’s not a sin to vote for a Republican and you don’t have to go to confession for that either.

The essential ecclesial document on this issue is Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles, a letter released in July 2004 by Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) when he was the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Of note should be the context in which the letter was released. It was sent to Theodore McCarrick, then the Archbishop of Washington, D.C., and made public the summer before the 2004 presidential election in the United States. Its primary purpose was to address a situation in which American Catholics were faced with the issue of whether they could vote for a fellow Catholic (John Kerry), who was the Democratic candidate for President that year.

In that context, then-Cardinal Ratzinger stated:

“A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor 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” (emphases added).

In other words, a Catholic can vote for a candidate who takes a permissive stance on moral evils, such as abortion or euthanasia, so long as the Catholic doesn’t cast his vote because he himself supports abortion or euthanasia and wants to vote for a candidate who reflects those values.

“What about ‘proportionate reasons’?”

When progressive Catholic pundits have asserted that this provision in Ratzinger’s letter allows for a Catholic to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights, conservative Catholic pundits have responded that Ratzinger said that there have to be proportionate reasons to vote for a pro-choice candidate. Then they assert that, given the death toll from over the last 50 years, abortion is the gravest moral issue in American politics, and therefore no other consideration rises to the proportionate reasons required to vote for a pro-choice candidate.

Only, well, Ratzinger never said that “there have to be proportionate reasons to vote for a pro-choice candidate.”

Read on to see her explanation. There’s much more, too, for your consideration. Check it out.

UPDATE: David Mills expresses something similar in this essay, from Our Sunday Visitor: 

Anything you do can endanger your salvation, depending on why you do it. Even voting for a pro-life politician, if you do it to hurt others or to secure your own advantage at a cost to others.

What the Church does teach about voting is a little tricky, though. She teaches and defends eternal truths. But she does so thinking deeply about how to live them in a fallen world. How to do that isn’t always obvious. That’s where the challenge comes in.

Abortion makes the question hard to answer. As Pope St. John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae, abortion is a crime, and one “no human law can claim to legitimize.” We can’t support it in any way. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in 2002, in a famous doctrinal note about Catholic participation in political life, abortion violates “the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person.” In a message to the American bishops two years later, he said directly that a Catholic can’t vote for a candidate because he supports abortion.

But here’s where it gets tricky. The Church recognizes that democratic politics is a matter of imperfect choices between inadequate or even corrupt candidates to achieve limited ends and the best result we can. Politics involves a lot of “ifs” and “what ifs” and “maybes” and best guesses and questions never quite answered.

No candidate in American history has held a completely Catholic set of positions. And even if one did, we’d have to ask whether he really meant it and whether he’d really follow it. In almost every election, especially at the national level, one candidate gives you one thing the Catholic wants and takes away another thing, and his opponent does the same thing in reverse. Voting requires mature reflection and often struggle. It is not something the responsible Catholic does according to a simple formula.

That abortion is completely wrong doesn’t mean a Catholic has to vote for the pro-life candidate (assuming there is one) and against the pro-choice candidate.

Read more to find out why.