By Ed Mechmann
Following up on my recent blog post about the sad state of pro-life Democrats, I received an email that asked an interesting question about sin and voting. It’s a good question that deserves an answer. But I think it raises a different and more important question.
Here’s what my correspondent asked:
According to you:  Is it the official position of the Catholic Church that voting for Joe Biden could be a sin?  Is it the official position of the Catholic Church that voting for Donald Trump could be a sin?
Many, many people ask that or a similar question. It shows that people are struggling to form their conscience and make a good decision in keeping with the Church’s teaching. That’s good. But there’s a better question.
First, let’s be clear about a couple of things. The Church does not take “official positions” about particular partisan elections, and I have no authority to promulgate one. And Christ was very clear that we cannot accuse others of sin but must leave judgment to God (Mt 7:1).
And, more importantly, Christianity is not just about avoiding sin. It’s not a set of rules to help me avoid going to Hell. We have those rules, and I should never transgress any of them. But nobody was ever saved purely by following rules (just read St. Paul, he’ll talk your ear off about that). I can’t earn my way into heaven by my own efforts. But I can act in a way that God, in His mercy, will grant me the promise of salvation won by Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.
So the better question is the one put by the rich young man to Christ: “what good must I do to gain eternal life?” (Mt 19:16) Our Lord gave a very challenging answer to that question, and we’ll get around to that in a minute after I answer the first question.
Question Number One
The bishops of the United States have issued a document to give us guidance about voting, called Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. They teach in this document that I cannot vote for a candidate who supports intrinsic evil, in order to advance that evil.
The obvious example is a candidate who favors legalized abortion. I cannot vote for that person in order to support or perpetuate legalized abortion. I “would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil”, which is forbidden (FC 34). I may vote for a “pro-choice” candidate only “for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil” (FC 35).
The same analysis would apply for other intrinsically evil act, such as torture, killing non-combatants, using nuclear weapons on cities, redefining marriage, human trafficking, racism, and so on. I cannot vote for a candidate in order to support those things.
Our bishops have consistently told us that abortion is the “preeminent issue” for Catholics and for society as a whole. Of course it is — it’s the most egregious violation of the right to life imaginable, and can never be justified under any circumstances. Personally, I can’t imagine a reason that is sufficiently grave to justify me voting for a candidate who thinks it should be legal to murder unborn children by dismemberment. I can’t see how I could stand before God and explain that.
Everyone has to make their own decision in keeping with this teaching, and be ready to be accountable to God. But again, avoiding sin isn’t enough. This brings me to the second question, which in my view is more important.
What Good Must I do to Gain Eternal Life?
We Catholics are extremely lucky, because our Church has given us a wealth of teachings about how I can live a life of virtue, according to the will of God. We have thousands of examples of how to do it under different and difficult circumstances, the first being Our Blessed Mother, but also all the saints. We also have many teachings about the best way to order society so that people can fully develop and be good children of God – Catholic social teaching.
Faithful Citizenship draws on all this Church teaching. I strongly urge everyone to read it and prayerfully consider it. I believe that it provides me with an answer to this important question.
Here’s how the bishops begin the section entitled “Goals for Political Life: Challenges for Citizens, Candidates, and Public Officials”:
As Catholics, we are led to raise questions for political life other than those that concentrate on individual, material well-being. Our focus is not on party affiliation, ideology, economics, or even competence and capacity to perform duties, as important as such issues are. Rather, we focus on what protects or threatens the dignity of every human life.FC 91
They go on tell us “policy goals that we hope will guide Catholics as they form their consciences and reflect on the moral dimensions of their public choices.” It can’t get much easier than that — it’s a fantastic guide for forming my political opinions and making voting decisions accordingly. I consider it to be the Catholic “platform” for our public policy goals (I’ve edited some of them for length):
- Address the preeminent requirement to protect the weakest in our midst— innocent unborn children—by restricting and bringing to an end the destruction of unborn children through abortion and providing women in crisis pregnancies the supports they need to make a decision for life.
- Keep our nation from turning to violence to address fundamental problems. This involves opposing abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, capital punishment and complying with moral limits on the use of military force. (Abortion is mentioned here again – that tells you that our bishops aren’t kidding when they say it’s the “preeminent issue”)
- Protect the fundamental understanding of marriage as the life-long and faithful union of one man and one woman and as the central institution of society; reject false “gender” ideologies.
- Provide better support for family life morally, socially, and economically,
- Achieve comprehensive immigration reform.
- Help families and children overcome poverty: ensuring access to and choice in education, as well as decent work at fair, living wages.
- Provide health care while respecting human life, human dignity, and religious freedom.
- Oppose policies that reflect prejudice, hostility toward immigrants, religious bigotry, and other forms of unjust discrimination.
- Encourage families, community groups, economic structures, and government to work together to overcome poverty, pursue the common good, and care for creation, both at home and internationally.
- Join with others around the world to pursue peace, protect human rights and religious liberty, and advance economic justice and care for creation.
Jesus’s answer to the rich young man was that he needed to go above and beyond his former beliefs, turn away from his own interests, and instead devote himself to serving poor and needy people. In my voting decision, I need to do just that — go above and beyond mere political opinions and partisan loyalties, and put the needy first.
So instead of just avoiding sin in my voting decision, I ask “what good must I do to gain eternal life?” This platform from our bishops offers a good answer.