Can a Catholic vote for a Democrat? Moral considerations
Catholics must consider all the moral issues at stake when choosing a presidential candidate.
This is the second part of a two-part series dealing with the question of abortion, conscience, and a Catholic’s vote for president. You can read Part 1 here.
In my post a couple of days ago, I pointed out that in Faithful Citizenship, the USCCB made it clear that the church cannot tell Catholics how to vote on election day. Instead, Catholics must vote with their conscience. Depending on the circumstances, that may mean Catholics feel “morally grave considerations” call them to vote for a candidate who otherwise supports what we believe to be a grave moral evil—like abortion or torture. The current post looks more closely at these “morally grave reasons.” What could possibly justify a Catholic’s vote for a political candidate who wants abortion to remain legal?
To start, a point of moral distinction: When it comes to politics and voting, we examine the issue of abortion from a governmental perspective. There is a moral difference between what the government actively does and what the government allows to happen.
The late Justice Antonin Scalia addressed this moral distinction in a 2002 article for First Things. For example, if a government legalizes the death penalty—which, depending on the circumstance, is possibly morally evil—it is actively making a choice and is thus morally responsible for the lives that are ended through that choice. Abortion, however, is a slightly different issue. In the case of abortion, the government does not actively take the lives of unborn children; it merely does not act to prevent or restrain individuals who have decided to terminate their pregnancy.
Thus, the significant question for Catholic voters is something along these lines: What moral responsibility does the president have for individual women who choose to have an abortion?
The same reasoning applies to other issues as well. For example, artificial contraception is also considered to be an intrinsic moral evil by Catholic moral teachings. However, the use of contraception remains legal. Would anyone say the president is personally morally responsible for people’s use of contraception simply because it’s legal and the president wishes it to remain so? On the contrary; it is widely understood that the person who uses artificial contraception is responsible for his or her own actions. In a similar manner, some Catholic Democrats may discern that the president is not personally responsible for individual decisions when it comes to abortion.
As we all know, presidents do not make the laws: the president only enforces the law. The president cannot make abortion illegal. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruled that women have a constitutionally protected right to have an abortion, while individual states have the ability to enact restrictions later during pregnancy—as long as these restrictions don’t create an “undue burden” for women seeking abortions (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992). The legality of abortion in the United States is now a matter of constitutional law.
But can the president significantly impact the abortion rate? This is a fair consideration for Catholic voters; in Faithful Citizenship the bishops say that Catholics should consider an elected official’s ability to influence a given issue in discerning their vote.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, the abortion rate has steadily declined since reaching its peak in 1981 under Republican president Ronald Reagan. This decline occurred under George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and is now at its lowest rate since 1981 under President Obama, despite the differing political parties and pro-life convictions of individual presidents. A Catholic voter could look at this information and reasonably conclude that whatever is affecting the declining abortion rates, it does not seem to be related to whomever is occupying the Oval Office.
But what about the president’s ability to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade? Republicans have appointed 12 of the last 16 justices, but still the Supreme Court has not overturned Roe v. Wade. For this to happen, a president would need to appoint enough justices to have at least a five justice majority willing to overturn Roe v. Wade. This is complicated; during confirmation hearings, nominees never comment on how they would rule on specific issues that might come before the Court. You can never really know how a nominee will rule until they are already on the bench and ruling. Thus, a Catholic could look at this scenario and reasonably conclude that it is very unlikely Roe v. Wade will ever be overturned.
Additionally, overturning Roe v. Wade wouldn’t actually make abortion illegal; it would merely bounce the issue back to individual states to decide. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that if Roe v. Wade were overturned, some states would have legal abortions available with few or no restrictions, some states would have more restrictions, and some states would make abortion illegal. Probably every woman who still wanted a legal abortion would be able to get one. The exception, of course, is poor women who might not have the resources to travel long distances or across state lines. Would these women then resort to illegal abortions? What would the punishment be for breaking the law?
Again, Catholic voters have a responsibility to consider all this when discerning how to vote. And after considering all of the above, Catholics might believe that a president could have an impact on the abortion rate in other ways—like through economic policy. Even though the overall abortion rate has declined in the past three decades, it has risen by 18% among poor women. Catholic voters might come to the conclusion that the Democratic platform of social and economic aid could help alleviate the conditions that are motivating poor women to seek abortion in the first place.
Even though a particular candidate might want abortion to remain legal, this candidate might also support policies to lessen hunger and homelessness, improve education and healthcare, and strengthen the economy. The Democratic candidate might be more in line with Catholic social teaching concerning protection of the environment, meaningful work, a just and living wage, and care for immigrants and the poor. The Democratic candidate might agree with the Catholic Church concerning the death penalty and torture. A Catholic voter might sincerely believe that the Democratic candidate would more effectively promote peace and justice, both nationally and globally.
This assessment of a candidate’s political platform works in both positive and negative ways: Catholics may come to the decision that one candidate is more in line with their moral beliefs regarding social teachings, while another, despite his or her position on abortion, may stand for other things Catholics consider to be morally unjust and unacceptable. A candidate’s position on the use of torture and war are valid moral considerations for a Catholic voter. As are any positions, actions, or statements that are immoral, reckless, racist, or incompetent.
A Catholic is not obligated to ignore the vast majority of a candidate’s political platform and public behavior and vote solely based on whether he or she wants to criminalize abortion—especially if there’s good reason to believe that said candidate doesn’t have the ability (or the intention) to do anything of the sort.
It is these kinds of moral issues that the bishops are asking Catholics to carefully consider and discern when deciding how to vote. And it is these complicated and varied issues that Catholic voters take into consideration when deciding whether to vote for a candidate based on their position regarding a single important issue. In the end, it is a decision that each Catholic must make according to his or her conscience.
Father Paul Keller's online column, Smells like sheep, focuses on the places where pastoral ministry, public policy, theology, and ethics converge.