The Role of the Clergy in Elections – Limits and Principles

We have just completed an election cycle and experienced yet another tidal change in the political realm. On this blog as well as others there are frequent comments that express frustration with the clergy that we are not more directive in how and for whom to vote. The most common frustration expressed here has been that priests and bishops do not directly say to the faithful that they cannot, in good conscience vote for any candidate who is pro-choice. Every now and then a certain priest may be quoted to this effect and he is either praised as a hero or excoriated as a partisan tool, out of his boundaries.

What is the right and prudent thing for a priest to do in these matters, particularly as elections come and go? I would like to explore the question by making reference to an important source document that sets forth some criteria. The document is Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion  by [then] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. The document, really a memo, to the Bishops  is not meant to specifically address how priests should handle the issue of elections. Rather it’s main focus is to address the worthiness to receive Holy Communion and how Bishops and pastors should handle the problem of Catholic legislators who vote to fund abortion. Nevertheless it gives some principles that can be applied to elections as well. Let’s review some of the principles set forth in that document.

  1. Abortion is a very grave evil. The document states The Church teaches that abortion or euthanasia is a grave sin…..there is a “grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. […] In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law or vote for it’” ( E.V., 73). Christians have a “grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law. (WTRHC, # 2)
  2. Abortion has a higher priority than many other issues – The document states, Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia (WTRHC # 3).
  3. Direct or formal cooperation in the evil of Abortion excludes one from receiving Holy Communion– Direct or formal participation in abortion would involve things like performing an abortion, procuring an abortion, paying for an abortion, directly advising and assisting one to seek an abortion and providing information, transportation, etc.,  providing other resources for the abortion to take place such as the owners of a clinic providing space, and so forth. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger also defined the following as direct or formal cooperation in abortion: consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws (WTRHC # 5). Hence Politicians who do this are formally cooperating in abortion and are excluded from receiving Holy Communion according to the memo. The document instructs the pastor of such legislators and others who formally cooperate in the evil of abortion to instruct them to refrain from receiving Holy Communion until such time as they repent or their formal cooperation in this grave evil. Surely such counseling should include pastoral dimensions wherein the pastor teaches from Scripture that the unworthy reception of Communion not only is of no avail but actually brings further condemnation upon the unworthy recipient  (1 Cor 11:29). Salutary reminders of final judgment and the strong likelihood of Hell are also called for in a matter this serious. Pastors have this duty if they become aware of any Catholic who is involved in formal cooperation with the grave evil of abortion or euthanasia. They have the duty to exhort such individuals to immediate and complete repentance in order to save their souls. Surely there will also be the need for compassion especially in the cases of women and others who have felt compelled to seek abortion under various forms of duress. The Sacrament of Confession is surely and generously offered to all who seek mercy and have repented. Additionally, Pastors have the duty to remind all Catholics about mortal sin in general and the need for worthy reception of Communion.

But what of those Catholics who vote for pro-choice politicians? Are they also guilty of formal or direct cooperation in the evil of abortion? The document has this to say:

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 favour 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 (WTRC – Concluding note).

Hence a priest is not permitted, per se, to conclude that all his parishioners who vote for pro-choice candidates are in sin for doing so and/or are unworthy to receive Holy Communion. There could be certain cases, as then Cardinal Ratzinger describes, wherein the pro-choice position was the reason that candidate got their vote, but this is not always or even usually the case. Most vote for a particular candidate for a whole host of reasons. One of those reasons, cannot be the candidate’s stand supporting abortion. Their vote must be based on other “proportionate” reasons. This notation in the document seems to yield some principles related to elections and the clergy’s role in preparing the faithful.

  1. A pastor, directly stating to his people that they should not for “Candidate A” may be going too far. Note that the document states that it is possible for Catholics to have proportionate reasons to vote for Candidate A even if he is pro-choice. While many of us may find this odious and could never even think of voting for such a candidate it does seem that then-Cardinal Ratizinger indicates such circumstances can prevail. Since the faithful have this freedom to exercise their judgment in this regard, it seems that the clergy should not usurp their judgment utterly by absolutely excluding certain, even pro-choice candidates.
  2. The determination of “proportionate reasons” is a matter involving prudential judgment . There may be legitimate differences among Catholics as to what those “proportionate” reasons might be. Some respect for the fact that these are prudential judgments is called for. Catholics may often have vigorous debates about proper priorities in voting but the document does not etch in stone what a “proportionate reason” is or is not. Hence debate should involve some mutual respect for the nature of prudential judgment. Many of us who are strongly pro-life cannot imagine any reason to vote for a pro-choice candidate of any party, ever. And yet there are issues that evoke passion and concern for others (while not excluding abortion) such as questions of war and peace, economic policy that includes justice for the poor, affordable housing, immigrant issues, responsible fiscal policy, and so forth. Like it or not, the document permits some considerations of other issues as long as they are proportionate.
  3. The Clergy must help the faithful make proper judgments and understand what is meant by proportionate reasons.  Prudential judgments require a well formed conscience. Teaching the faithful is an important role that Bishops, priests and deacons must  fulfill. Helping Catholics assess priorities and be well informed on all the moral and social issues is an essential and on-going work, not just at election time, but throughout the year.
  4. As stated in the document and quoted above, abortion and euthanasia have an important priority: Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia (WTRHC  # 3). This is for the reasons stated there. Hence it does not seem wrong for the clergy to give special emphasis to the evil of Abortion and also Euthanasia as they instruct the faithful in what it means to have proportionate reasons. At the same time these two central, moral issues of our day should not entirely eclipse other important issues either.  Other moral issues such as same sex-“Marriage,” and social matters such as justice for the poor and immigrants, fair labor laws, affordable housing, educational reform and so forth are also important aspects of Catholic teaching that cannot wholly be neglected or set aside.

I realize this post will spur a great deal of controversy. But I have tried to stick to the document written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. That document could not be clearer that abortion is a grave moral evil and that Bishops and Pastors have serious obligations to warn the faithful that any advocacy or funding of this evil, is direct, formal cooperation. It is a grave sin and excludes one from Communion. At the same time the document respects the prudential judgment that is involved in voting and distinguishes that act from direct or formal cooperation in abortion.  This is what the document actually says. Hence, I invite your comments but encourage you to tie them back to the actual contents of the memo from then-Cardinal Ratzinger. We may all have certain wishes as to what the document should say, but in the end it says what it says. I am especially interested in your thoughts as to what priests can or can’t do in the close vicinity to actual election day, given what this document has to say.

As for me, I cannot believe that our country ever came to the place where candidates proudly run under the banner of supporting legal abortion. Something is deeply wrong with us and I pray that this great scourge will end. I don’t think any Catholic can steer clear of how very grave the sin of abortion is. While the document leaves open the notion of  proportionate reasons, it seems clear that the horrible gravity of this crime must weigh very heavily in any moral reasoning surrounding the question of proportionate reasons to vote for pro-choice candidates. There is a judgment upon this land for what we are permitting and we have every obligation to be clear what side we are on and fight to end this scourge.

19 Replies to “The Role of the Clergy in Elections – Limits and Principles”

  1. may I express my feedback as follows:

    a.) “As stated in the document and quoted above, abortion and euthanasia have an important priority:” – not an important priority but rather the highest priority that surpasses all other considerations.

    b.) “The Clergy must help the faithful make proper judgments and understand what is meant by proportionate reasons. ” – was this done anywhere in the archdiocese. I know the priest in my parish did not give any direction whatsoever. I also assume that no letter of instruction came from the bishop that was written for this purpose. If I am right, then may I humbly ask why?

    c.) “The determination of “proportionate reasons” is a matter involving prudential judgment . There may be legitimate differences among Catholics as to what those “proportionate” reasons might be. ” Moral truth is not a matter of personal judgment but is absolute – imho. Hence cfr. a. Even if someone thinks that the Iraq war is worse than abortion, that person is wrong and has to conform his conscience. The Church cannot adopt a laissez faire attitude but remain as a faithful steward of the divine mysteries entrusted to her care.

    d.) After the elections, there is the matter of disciplining pro-abort pols via canon law – specifically 915. Cardinal elect Burke has interpreted that unequivocally and clearly yet some dioceses fail to enforce the Church mandate – to the distress and scandal among the faithful. Some people excuse themselves by citing a quasi-jurisdictional authority over the pols – although Card. Burke made no mention of such an exemption. The law is clear and the bishops who fail to enforce it are negligent. And just because the bishop of San Francisco does not do his job does not excuse the bishop of Washington DC to do his – using some loophole.

    1. So fair questions here Ricky. I wonder too what role the laity play play in the necessary formation on these issues. This is especially true as election season is in full swing. Lay people have the primary role in the renewal of the temporal order and should seek to vigorously influence ine another. I am especially appreciative of folks like Patrick Madrid who have done a lot of work to help Catholics think more deeply about what their vote means. And, as a lay person he is able to speak more freely, especially as election season draws close. Here is a very good video by him:

      But nontheless, you raise good questions as to the actual plan (or lack thereof) of formation for the faithful at diocesean and parish levels. I would add to point d. that priests have the first obligation to speak to pro-abort pols. However, it is also a fact that many of them do not really go to Church and hence the local bishop may then have a role as well.

      As to point c, I am simply quoting the document by Cardinal Ratzinger. That abortion is wrong is not a matter of prudential judgment but the determination of “proportionate” reasons is a matter of prudential judgement. That is what the document sets forth. I cannot simply set aside what is said there and call absolute what the document calls “proportionate” I might wish I could but I am obliged to report what it actually says.

      1. I applaud your openness in publishing and addressing my contrarian views. (It is an exemplary practice of dialogue and honesty that will keep the archdiocese alive, instead of simply using this site as an astroturf to push the Church administrations agenda.)

        I still cannot see how anyone can “determine “proportionate” reasons using prudential judgement.” to support a proponent of an intrinsically evil act vs. one who may support something that is not instrinsically evil. There is no really no moral dilemma invovled. The guidelines of Faithful Citizenship are clear about this yet, others fail to form their consciences accordingly. And the formators fail in their task to provide the much needed formation as a prominent bishop in the area once said, “One will be judged by their stance or lack thereof against abortion i.e. this is the defining is issue not only of our elections but of our age.” Worse we have people in leadership positions e.g. Keehan of the LCWR who obfuscate for the enemy and mask their lies.

        In your earlier post you ask why churches close, imho if salt loses its taste then it is laid waste; the same goes with the Church that fails to stand up for the truth, the way and the life – pro-life.

      2. I think “proportionate reason” in this case includes the fact that not every politician/candidate is in a position to influence every cause. If a politician is running for (or in) an office which does not have direct influence in the abortion issue but does have direct influence in other life issues like poverty or health care or capital punishment, then their stance on abortion may be of less consequence than their stance on these other issues. An example might be a candidate for sheriff who is blindly anti-immigration and vigorously pro-death penalty but claiming to be anti-abortion; we would have to ask “Is he or she really ‘pro-life?'” and “Which issues are within his or her power to influence?”

      3. Daniel: I think there is merit in your observation about local elections. Since Abrotion and the funding thereof is largely a Federal issue, one is less likely to prioritize the issue when the elected official can do little or nothing about it. Frankly, the issue seldom comes up at all in our local elections in DC.

      4. Its true enough that compared to officeholders at the state and federal level, local legislators have limited influence on the abortion issue. They are, however, not wholly without influence, as was illustrated in Montgomery County MD this past year. The council passed legislation, supported by various abortion-rights groups, based on the premise that pro-life crisis pregnancy centers lie to women about health risks associated with the abortion procedure.

        One also should keep in mind that those seeking a career in politics often start with local offices. We thus would do well to not consider ANY candidate’s position on abortion as completely irrelevant.

  2. Since God works to educate man, I am sure there will come a time when Catholics will learn more about proportionate reasons when they vote for a pro-choice candidate for those very reasons.

  3. Pro-choice candidate= supporter for 50 million innocent dead. Proportionate reasons when you vote means they both support abortion but you vote against the one who wants the right to kill two year old children. We are talking about murder of the innocent and I and soon the whole Church must answer for what we have done and what we have failed to do. I fear for us.

    1. Robert, the Catholic Church teaches what the Church teaches, and you are obligated to accept her teachings if you are a child of the Church, for so long as a a child lives under the roof of his father and mother he must obey and be docile to them, and the Church is the Temple of God, under who’s roof Christians live as children.

  4. I often hear people say that there can be no proportionate reason for voting for a pro-choice candidate given the gravity and magnitude of abortion. After all, what could possibly outweigh the slaughter of millions of innocent babies each year?

    There is a truth at the core of this response that is worth remembering. We must never grow complacent about abortion or forget what is at stake. At the same time, this response also ignores certain realities that ought to factor into our prudential judgments in voting. It may well be that a particular candidate, given the office for which they are running and the political dynamics of that particular political cycle, will be very unlikely to have an effect on abortion policy, but will be likely to have an effect on other areas of moral concern. While abortion in principle is a weightier issue than environmental policy, it may be in this particular election the difference between the two candidates is likely to make a significant difference in environmental policy, but not on abortion. In such an instance, it is clearly conceivable for a Catholic in good conscience to vote for a more pro-choice candidate if they are more in line with Catholic teaching on the other issue. At the same time, I think it is morally incumbent upon a Catholic to press their candidate on the abortion issue and to make it clear that under changed circumstances (e.g. a different legislative majority that would put abortion policy into play in a way that it is not in the current political cycle, or the person being up for a committee assignment that would give them more say in abortion policy) their support for abortion would preclude the Catholic from supporting them again.

    Unfortunately, I think we pro-life Catholics have sometimes shot ourselves in the foot politically by not thinking in a nuanced way about these issues. It may well be we could have made significant progress on other issues that are of moral concern to us and the Church without losing ground on abortion if we didn’t automatically rule out voting for any candidate who supports legalized abortion regardless of what office they are running for and regardless of the likely legislative and political agenda coming up in that election cycle.

  5. Msgr Pope: (I thought this might be a useful contribution to the discussion. I wrote this up immediately upon returning home, two days after the conversations described before the memory faded.)

    On Election eve, 2004, I was in Australia. While there, I took the opportunity to ask two world-class experts on Church’s teaching in this area (who are both known for their careful orthodoxy) and the intense political debate that it had engendered among Catholic voters in the US. One was Bishop Anthony Fisher, OP of Sydney (recently elevated by Cardinal Pell), who has a PhD in bioethics and is recognized as (in John Allen’s words) “one of the sharpest minds in English-speaking Catholicism”. The other was Dr. Tracey Rowland, Dean of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, and one of most respected new theologians emerging today.

    Voting as formal cooperation in intrinsic evil:

    1. Both Fisher and Rowland emphasized that Church teaching is “very underdeveloped” in this area. Bishop Fisher had attended a symposium in Rome on Evangelicum Vitae 73 in February of 2004. EV 73 reads in part:

    73. Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. . .

    In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to “take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it.”(98)

    A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. . . In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.

    Fisher said that at this symposium two top notch, orthodox theologians presented completely opposite views and neither could be considered “wrong” in light of current Church teaching (although Fisher privately agreed with one over the other). The bishop noted that only about 9 scholarly works exist on the subject and that he has read them all. In other words, there is, as yet, no authoritative interpretation of EV 73 to guide us.

    2. Fisher stated that there was no theological basis for asserting categorically that a Catholic could not, in good faith, vote for either US candidate since both had serious problems from the perspective of Church teaching. Fisher said that if he were an American, he’d be voting for Bush – precisely because of the abortion issue, but that it would be a matter of personal judgment. Life issues had been his personal passion since he was at university and naturally they dominate his moral appraisal of the current scene. Fisher noted that other people with other expertise would naturally be pre-occupied with different areas of grave concern that would shape their prudential judgment.

    3. Fisher then made a fascinating comment that I have not heard elsewhere – that there is no basis in Church teaching for comparing two very different “intrinsic evils” and determining that one is objectively and absolutely more grave than the other. One can compare levels of a similar intrinsic evil. You could say that 4,000 abortions is more grave than 40 or that a genocidal conflict that killed 10,000 was a more grave evil than one in which only 500 died. But you can’t, on the basis of current Catholic teaching, categorically determine that abortion, for instance, is always and absolutely more grave than a given unjust war or torture or severe economic injustice. By definition, something that is truly intrinsically evil can’t be relatively less evil anymore than a person can be only mostly dead (well, outside the alternate universe of the Princess Bride, anyway – although I did encounter some situations that came pretty close on the cancer unit).

    So one cannot state, as definitive Church teaching, that the gravity of the evil of abortion must outweigh all other intrinsic evils or any possible combination of intrinsic evils in our political calculations. An individual could arrive at such a prudential judgment in a particular situation in good faith but an equally faithful Catholic could come to a quite different prudential conclusion in good conscience. (Sherry’s note: As Michael Sweeney pointed out so clearly this summer, the problem in the US was a failure to make it clear when the bishops were making prudential judgments rather than articulating Church teaching that obliged.)

    1) When I said that it was my observation that quite a few serious Catholics in the US were under the impression that doctrine had developed in this area, Fisher responded that a few bishops making personal pronouncements simply isn’t the development of doctrine. When I asked Rowland why some US bishops had made such statements when they must know that Church teaching did not support it, she pointed out that many bishops are not familiar with the nuances of Church teaching in this area. Rowland (unlike Fisher, who thought that any talk of ex-communication in the midst of an election was imprudent) believed that Ratzinger (she said that she was a big fan of Ratzinger) had made a good case for refusing communion to a politician who publicly supports abortion but also agreed that there simply wasn’t any clear Church teaching about voting as a form of formal cooperation with evil.

    1. Wow, thanks for this great addition to the article. It is true that we are probably dealing with an undevoloped teaching here and in a kind of terra incognita. The Ratzinger memo does seem to reflect an acceptance of the fact that we cannot strictly require Catholics to vote in certain ways when our own understanding of formal cooperation and when it begins is uncertain. Also, your comments also illustrate how complicated things can get when we are dealing with several moral evils and trying to weigh them.

  6. I’ve always addressed global issues with local action. I think that a congressman and senator from MD will be one more vote that will influence the abortion legislation at a federal level. I think that a pro-life governor in MD will be able to stem the carnage of abortion just like Chris Christie is doing in NJ. To say that Missy Smith cannot do anything anyway is to exclude whatever contribution she might have given to the cause – no matter how remote. And I’d say she is on par with Eleanor Holmes w.r.t. other issues. So, there is nothing in the MD or DC candidates that would have justified “proportionate reasons” to choose the pro-aborts over the pro-lifers in these particular cases. If there is any, please someone let me know. Otherwise, I think the archdiocese dropped the ball in protecting the unborn from these pols who will vote the Planned Parenthood / Democrat agenda all the way.

  7. It occurs to me that the priest in this instance resembles a math teacher who is obliged to explain to his pupils 1 + 2 = __, and yet is expressly forbidden from mentioning 3 except in explaining what it means when 3 is the answer.

    1. Well there’s a little more than math going on here and that’s precisely the point, prudential judgments are not math at all. Reasonable men will differ in some degree as to the answer which is not the case with math.

  8. Thank you, Msgr. Passions run high at election time. Some Catholics in the pews have vocally objected even to distribution of Maryland Catholic Conference election materials as directed by our bishops.

  9. Msgr. Pope:

    This is a very fair post, and I respect your approach to this. But you are missing one key nuance. The issue is not simply stacking up the issues, with the gravity of abortion outweighing concerns of war and peace, poverty etc. The prudential issue relates the the ability of the politician in question to influence the particular action. Many of us pro-lifers support the Democrats not because we think abortion is somehow of lesser importance, but because we think the differences in abortion outcomes between the two parties is neglible, while the Democrats do far better on other matters.

    To make a recent case: The Bush administration claimed to be pro-life. But while abortion rates barely changed, this administration started a war that led to hundreds of thousands dead (including the unborn, I would assume) and a quarter of the population displaced, not to mention opening the door to a reign of terror against our Christian brothers and sisters. The Bush administration instituted torture, yet another non-negotiable (and while you might argue that torture is less evil than abortion, the proximity of the political actor to the evil act is far closer than it is for abortion. To put it bluntly, Bush was the acting moral agent. I do not believe Obama ever aided or supported any particular abortion). I could go on. Republican economic policies violate key principles of Catholic social teaching, including solidarity and the preferential option for the poor – they are based on an old-style liberalism condemned vociferously by popes since the 19th century (my favorite example is Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno). They offer no plan to help those without health care. They demonize the immigrant. They reject all efforts to reduce over-consumption to protect the planet.

    Of course, those on the other side will undoubtedly point to countervailing pro-life efforts, including the appointment of Supreme Court justices. But this is asking for us to make a tenuous prudential judgment, accepting potential and highly uncertain long-term gain for sure short-term loss (and that loss includes rulings by those same pro-life judges that violate the common good in other areas). That’s a bet I’m just not willing to take.

  10. Support for abortion is a sin against the fifth commandment. There are nine others, and Jesus taught the Great Commandment: to love God with our whole heart, mind, and strength. There are politicians who are labeled “pro-life,” yet nothing changes on their watch. One root of the problem is the corrupt two party system, which has resulted in the Democratic and Republican parties being two sides of the same coin. The major parties have made it almost impossible for third party candidates or independent candidates to get elected, and with the poison in politics and the media, an independent candidate that looks promising is soon demonized. But this also points to another root of the problem: the character of Americans, individually and collectively. There are too few good people to change the political landscape.

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