What does the Catholic Church teach about voting? A CNA Explainer

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There is not a monolithic Catholic vote in the U.S., but Catholic voters do make a big difference in local, statewide, and national elections. And voting, the Church says, is part of participation in public life - part of contributing to the nation's common good, the flourishing of its people.

The Church does not dictate to Catholics how they should vote, but it does provide guiding principles for making decisions about voting. This CNA Explainer offers some of those principles.

What does the Church teach about voting?

In 2007, the U.S. bishops' conference issued "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," a guide to participation in public life, which included a section on voting. The bishops have periodically updated it since.

The bishops say that Catholics should vote according to "a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods."

Last week, Bishop Alfred Schlert of Allentown wrote that: "A 'well-formed conscience' for the Catholic is one that has been formed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit through prayer, studying Scripture, and honestly informing oneself about the moral teachings of the Catholic Church."

The "proper relationship among moral goods" means that voting is a kind of a weighing exercise, that not all issues have the same weight, and that voters need to prioritize various issues at hand in any election, and make hard choices about who to vote for, and who not to vote for.

Immoral acts

The Church says first that it is always immoral to vote for a person who supports an intrinsically immoral policy, if the reason for the vote is to achieve that policy:

"A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter's intent is to support that position."

The bishops say it could be possible to vote for someone who supports something intrinsically immoral but only for "other morally grave reasons." Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger described those as "proportionate reasons."

In a 2004 letter to U.S. bishops, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that: "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."

The idea of "proportionate reasoning" recognizes that there are no perfect candidates. The job of Catholic voters is to weigh the positions of all candidates, and to avoid choosing a candidate who supports something immoral, unless something good outweighs that immorality.


The U.S. bishops say that abortion has to weigh as an especially important factor when deciding whether it is morally acceptable to vote for a candidate.

In 2019, the bishops said that "The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed."

There were 862,000 abortions in the U.S. in 2017, and there are 73 millions abortions each year around the globe.

The Church does not say that abortion is the only issue, but that it is a "preeminent" or foundational consideration about the moral acceptability of a candidate.

Pope Francis asked in Laudato si: "How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?"

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In Christifidelis Laici, Pope St. John Paul II taught that "the right to health, to home, to work, to culture is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination."

In 2008, Bishop, now Cardinal, Kevin Farrell released a joint statement with Bishop Kevin Vann, saying that in their view, "There are no 'truly grave moral' or 'proportionate' reasons, singularly or combined that could outweigh the millions of innocent human lives that are directly killed by abortion each year."

Also in 2008, Archbishop Charles Chaput said that Catholics who support pro-choice candidates "need a compelling proportionate reason to justify it." 

"What is a 'proportionate' reason when it comes to the abortion issue? It's the kind of reason we will be able to explain, with a clean heart, to the victims of abortion when we meet them face to face in the next life - which we most certainly will. If we're confident that these victims will accept our motives as something more than an alibi, then we can proceed," Chaput said.

In 1988, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was asked whether Catholics can "disqualify" candidates who support a legal right to abortion.

The cardinal put it this way: "Well, certainly. That's what the consistent ethic is all about. I feel very, very strongly about the right to life of the unborn, the weakest and most vulnerable of human beings. I don't see how you can subscribe to the consistent ethic and then vote for someone who feels that abortion is a 'basic right' of the individual. The consequence of that position would be an absence of legal protection for the unborn."

What to do?

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The bishops have taught that supporting a pro-abortion candidate requires overcoming the high bar of proportional reasoning. But a candidate's opposition to abortion does not, by itself, make him an acceptable choice for Catholics. Voters should weigh the issues, and also consider character, leadership abilities, and integrity before casting a vote in any candidate's favor, the bishops say.

All of those factors go into the weighing exercise of proportional reasoning.

And the bishops say that well-formed voters could reach several conclusions:

"When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, 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."

The bishops do not rule out the possibilities of not voting, or of voting for third party candidates.

In 2016, Bishop James Conley offered this summary of "Faithful Citizenship's" voting advice: "In good conscience, some Catholics might choose to vote for a candidate who, with some degree of probability, would be most likely to do some good, and the least amount of harm, on the foundational issues: life, family, conscience rights and religious liberty. Or, in good conscience, some might choose the candidate who best represents a Christian vision of society, regardless of the probability of winning. Or, in good conscience, some might choose not to vote for any candidate at all in a particular office."

The U.S. bishops conference put it this way: "In making these 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 that the moral obligation to oppose policies promoting intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions. These decisions should take into account a candidate's commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue."

"In the end, this is a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching."

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