Catholics and the Ethics of Voting

by Stomachosus

The main purpose of our civic actions must be the promotion of the common good. Voting becomes a duty when the common good or the good of religion demands it:

It is the duty of all citizens who have the right to vote, to exercise that right when the common good of the state or the good of religion and morals require their votes, and when their voting is useful. (Davis, SJ, Moral and Pastoral Theology, v. 2 pg. 90)

It is important to note the second qualifier “when useful.” It is fully possible that a vote might be useless—say, if all candidates were equally wicked and no write-ins were allowed.

But whom must we vote for? Well, we must choose good candidates. What makes a candidate good? Those are good “who with strength of mind, in a christian spirit, and skill in bearing affairs, exhibits knowledge of political matters and sufficient eloquence” (Prümmer, Manuale theologiae moralis, v. 2, § 608). They must be upright, capable, and have a strong backbone. Obviously, the eloquence necessary in a county clerk may  be different than that needed in a Senator, but it must be sufficient for the position they are running for.

There are several possibilities that may arise in elections. One possibility is that all the candidates, or least those with the greater support, are worthy candidates. In this case, one is free to choose whomsoever is to their liking, based perhaps on agreement over matters of prudence. Another possibility is that only one candidate among the “viable” is worthy. In this case you have a grave moral obligation to support the worthy candidate, even if you disagree with him on minor matters.

But what if there are no worthy candidates, or if the only worthy candidate is “unviable”? Then the moral analysis is tougher. If there is a worthy candidate, then although he might “not be elected on account of a plurality of contrary votes, nevertheless it profits much at least by a choice that shows what is the will of good citizens” (Prümmer, op. cit). The grave obligation to support worthy candidates remains, and mere lack of viability does not excuse. If there are no worthy candidates, then one may abstain.

Now one can in good conscience leave it there. One is never required to support an unworthy candidate. However, one may support such a candidate for grave reasons. But we must distinguish between two sorts of unworthy candidates. The first sort is, perhaps, morally upright, but lacks experience, or eloquence, or some other faculty by which to govern, legislate, etc. effectively. We may say that such is “negatively unworthy” in that he lacks what is befitting the office, but does not present active harm. Against a candidate that is an enemy of religion, or who threatens the common good through the promotion of immoralities or war or any other wicked policy, there may easily be grave enough reason to support the candidate that is lacking only in aptitude. But this is easy because one is not cooperating with, advancing, promoting or complicit in any moral evil by this act… one is simply choosing an imperfect good… a Gomer  rather than the Andy they should like.

The question is much harder when it is a question of supporting a candidate that is “positively unworthy,” whether due to moral character, being an enemy of religion and morals, etc. Here, a vote for them is a cooperation in evil. Now, if one shares the evil intent, clearly one sins and is formally complicit in the evil. But what if one does not share the intent? There are two types of cooperation here—immediate and mediate material cooperation. In immediate cooperation, one does not share the intent of the evil act, but one does contribute to circumstances that are essential for the evil act to happen. For example, were I to lease a building knowingly to Planned Parenthood. This is never justified, save maybe under extreme duress (e.g. opening a door to let a robber in because he has a gun to your head).

But when one contributes only to the morally licit circumstances that are not essential to the  evil action,  the cooperation is mediate material and may be morally licit. The liceity of the action depends on multiple factors. The long and short of it is this: the graver the evil, the more causally removed one must be, and the greater the good one must be intending. In a Presidential election, e.g., an Elector is more causally proximate than a voter in California who elected him.

Is the avoidance of evil, i.e. stopping an even worse candidate, by itself grave enough reason? No, because in mediate cooperation you are contributing to circumstances that are themselves good for a good reason, despite the non-essential aid it gives an evil act. That another candidate is even worse may be reason, after one has examined the issue of moral cooperation, to go ahead and vote that way, but it is not reason itself. The principle of “choosing the lesser evil” is not a valid way of determining what is morally right. It universally is only held by Catholic moralists in the case of a perplexed conscience, i.e. when there appears, albeit wrongly, only immoral options to the conscience. In that case, lacking time and ability to solve the perplexity—i.e. by figuring out another option or else seeing that one is not actually immoral—if one must choose, then one should choose what appears to be the lesser evil. But we already established that one need not vote for an unworthy candidate, and that there is already an always moral option here, so no conscience is perplexed. One can only vote if there is some good to be accomplished and not merely evil avoided. One is not forced, then, to choose the “lesser evil.” To choose under that rationale, is to choose evil and to sin.

I offer here an analogy to illustrate:

Say you have some land, but you cannot make the payments on it anymore. The bank makes a deal with you—sell it by November 9th and give them the money you owe them, or on November 9th they sell it, and after fees and they take what is owed, you get what is left.

Now say that the bank is going to sell the place to the most debauched line of strip clubs. You, of course, oppose that. So you look for a better buyer.

But say that the only buyer that you can find will open an adult video store instead. So you have an option… “minimize the evil” and enable the existence of the adult video store, or do nothing and the bank enables the existence of something worse.

Clearly, in Catholic morality, your option must be not to accept the buyer. You may pray and hope for a last minute alternative, but you cannot enable the adult video store in order to minimize harm. The reason is that it would be immediate material cooperation. You are not enabling the strip club, but rather, however sadly, failing to prevent it since no moral means were available to you.

Now think about the election. This analogy is apt in one way, though defective in another. Certainly if there be an argument for Trump, it is not immediate material cooperation, but mediate material cooperation. But it is apt in this way… if your entire reasoning is “I vote for Trump because he is not Hillary” or some belief that “I have to choose the lesser evil,” a doctrine that is not determinate of the moral good, you are like the seller that becomes complicit in promoting evil, in order to minimize evil.

Remember, there is only an obligation to use all reasonable moral means to stop an evil, and sometimes there are no such means. Yet people feel pressured to have to do something, anything. That is a trick of Satan.

If you think that there is a contribution to the common good that Trump will make and that is proportionately grave enough to justify material cooperation in whatever ill you think he will likely cause, then you have a case that he is a moral means, and the “worse-ness” of Hillary would be an added reason as to why one might choose it. But if that is not the case, then you are faced with it being an immoral choice no matter how much worse Hillary would be—it is excluded even before considering her. In which case, while you may re-examine Trump in light of the common good, you must reject temptations that come from scaremongering and villainization of Hillary. You must reject the idea that you should set aside your conscience because you “have to do something.”

When man relies on himself alone, all comes to naught. Maybe the lesson here is to stop trusting in our political contrivances and stratagems. Cursed is he who places his hope in man, saith the Lord. Maybe it is good that you are bereft of some voting option to choose in order to battle Hillary; then maybe you will learn to see in it the vanity of human affairs and turn to the Lord.

We are supposed to minimize our cooperation in evil. One might see proportionate reasons in Trump himself (and not merely in comparison to Hillary) to hold their nose and vote Trump; I disagree, but I am not talking to those people, who may well be in good conscience. Rather, I am talking to those that keep repeating calls to violate conscience (sin), or to choose the lesser evil (sin). Those avenues are traps of the devil. Instead, inform your conscience rather than violating it, and always remember that the first precept of the natural law is, “do good, shun evil,” not “do alright, minimize evil.”

Charles De Koninck asked:

Why does one not require, as a matter of principle and as an essential condition, that the leaders of society be men who are good purely and simply? How can one admit that a bad man might make a good politician? To be sure, it is not new to see subjects governed by bad men, men to whom one does nonetheless owe obedience in those things which pertain to their authority. What is new however is the manner of accepting and defending them. (On the Primacy of the Common Good, p. 69).


Dominicus Prümmer, Manuale theologiae moralis, v. 2

Henry Davis, SJ, Moral and Pastoral Theology v. 2

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship

Benedictus Merkelbach, Theologia moralis generalis v. 1

Heribert Jone, OFM Cap and Urban Adelman, OFM Cap, Moral Theology

St. Thomas Aquinas,

De Veritate q. 17 a. 4 ad 8;
S. Th. II-II q. 62  a. 2 ad 2;
S. Th. III q. 82  a. 10 ad 2
Tanquerey, Synopsis Theologiae Moralis and Pastoralis, v. 3