How is the virtue of justice and voting connected? What does it mean to vote as a Catholic in the context of today’s frequently anti-life and pro-abortion candidates? Can a Catholic safely vote for the Biden-Harris presidential ticket?
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
16 August 2020
In this Sunday’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah, the LORD says, “Observe what is right, do what is just; for my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed” (56:1).
The salvation to come is realized in Jesus Christ, the Anointed One who died on the cross in expiation of sin. God’s justice is revealed in his sacrifice, in that divine love and mercy defeated the power of sin and the eternal death it commands. Taking the weight of our sins upon himself, the Lord Jesus freed us from the power of evil because it was and is impossible for us to do so on our own. In divine justice, God acted mercifully for our sake, bestowing upon us the greatest good, once and for all.
This does not mean that faith in Christ gives us a free pass to do as we wish and live as we want without consequence, as apparently many Christians believe today. That is why the LORD commands us to “Observe what is right, do what is just.” As St. Paul teaches, “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10).
What does it mean to live in a virtuously just way? Often, when people think of justice they think of a judicial decree. Consequently, justice is often associated with some form of due punishment, as in the incarceration of a convicted criminal. Although that certainly is a component of justice, the virtue of justice is much more than those things.
The Virtue of Justice
The Catechism teaches that justice “is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor” (CCC, 1807). In other words, the virtue of justice means we give others their proper due. It also means living in right relationships with others—with our neighbor and with God. The virtue of justice is exercised through life in society, in communion with others, as we do our best to support the common good by acting and living in just ways. The man who lives justly aligns his life with Christ, who is perfectly just.
So, the virtue of justice has both positive and negative aspects. For example, one due we give to others is the protection of their freedom in society, while we withhold that same due from convicted murderers. We give God his due of public worship, which is the virtue of religion, while we withhold worship of anything that is not God.
If we can say anything about the situation today, we can say that injustice abounds. Many injustices are perpetrated against others, whatever their social status, age, sex, or ethnicity. As Catholics and Christians, we are called to eliminate them.
In the work of justice, we must exercise a correct prioritization of our efforts. This means we must focus our attention on where it’s needed most, not to the exclusion of other injustices, but precisely to bring healing and correction in the greatest possible ways and to the most urgent situations. The most heinous injustice in our age is legalized abortion—a terrible crime against innocent children that results in over a million bloody deaths each year. There’s no greater threat to human life, liberty, happiness, and human rights. Abortion is the deadliest villain in America. There’s no greater moral evil.
Justice and Voting
There are several ways we can combat legalized abortion. We must do so in deed and word. One way we do so in deed is with our Catholic vote. This election year, as is usually the case, the lines in the sand are clearly drawn.
Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris display a record of unquestionable support for the intentional killing of unborn children. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, warned that these candidates form a radically anti-life presidential ticket:
If elected,” she said, “they will immediately begin rolling back President Trump’s pro-life gains, as well as longstanding policies like the Hyde Amendment. They will stack the Supreme Court with pro-abortion ideologues, setting the pro-life cause back for generations. Together, Biden and Harris constitute the most pro-abortion presidential ticket in American history.”
In the Senate, Harris supported late-term abortions. She is in favor of federal laws prohibiting states from enacting their own abortion-limiting legislation. She is known for her ties to and active support of Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion facility. As the California Attorney General, she targeted pro-life journalist David Daleiden for investigating and exposing Planned Parenthood’s involvement in selling aborted baby body parts.
US Bishops and Faithful Citizenship
In their document, Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. bishops point out that abortion “must always be opposed” (No. 64). We have a moral obligation before Christ to vote in a way that combats legalized abortion. Our primary concern when voting for a presidential candidate must be to eliminate abortion, or, if that is not possible, to limit it as much as is possible. That does not mean we are single issue voters who ignore other issues. It means we are correctly prioritizing our vote with respect to attacks on human life and dignity. For if human life goes unprotected, so too goes all other human rights, as John Paul II wrote:
Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, 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.Christifideles Laici, no. 38
The Danger of Formal Cooperation in Evil
The U.S. bishops also warn that voting for anti-life candidates can result in formal cooperation in evil and the loss of salvation (see FC, no. 38). If we formally cooperate in evil, we are fully culpable before God for the acts of the evildoer because we intentionally cooperate with them, as in the getaway-car driver in a bank robbery. For example, if we vote for a pro-abortion candidate and agree with their anti-life position, we are guilty of formal cooperation in evil. God will hold us accountable in terms of participating in their evil acts in association with abortion.
I’m often asked if it is possible for a Catholic in good conscience to vote for candidates who support the intrinsic evil of legalized abortion. The answer is “almost never.” Why is this the case? To answer that question, we need to turn to traditional Catholic moral theology.
Mediate Cooperation in Evil
If we disagree with an anti-life candidate’s position but vote for him or her anyway, it is mediate material cooperation in evil, which can be morally permissible if it is remote and we have a proportionately grave reason for doing so. I want to say that again: we must have a proportionately grave reason to vote for that kind of morally corrupted candidate. In Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. bishops present the principle of proportion when they state:
There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.No. 35
According to the bishops, it is possible to vote for a pro-abortion candidate for “other morally grave reasons,” which is another way of saying “proportionately grave reasons.” What is a proportionate reason? Here’s an example:
Let’s say presidential candidate A widely supports abortion all throughout pregnancy, including late term abortions, while presidential candidate B supports abortion only during the first trimester and is otherwise in favor of eliminating it. If a person is reasonably sure that one of these two candidates will be elected, he could vote for candidate B in order to limit the moral evil. Candidate B is the lesser of two evils. This of course assumes that the voter opposes abortion.
It’s important to understand that good sounding things a pro-abortion candidate may say about the economy, foreign trade, entitlement, immigration programs, or other similar issues—as important as they are—do not qualify as a proportionately grave reason. Why? Because those examples are matters of prudential judgment on which there can be a legitimate diversity of opinion. They are not intrinsic evils as is abortion. They do not result in a million-plus deaths of innocent children each year.
We must avoid the danger of falling into moral equivalency; namely, thinking that all moral issues are of the same weight. The U.S. bishops point this out in Faithful Citizenship by stating that we must avoid a moral equivalency “that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity. The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed” (No. 28).
Faithful Citizenship urges Catholics to listen to Church leaders as they apply “Catholic social teaching to specific proposals and situations” (No. 33). If we apply this teaching to our specific situation today in terms of the presidential election, we are doing so in the context of an obviously and blatantly pro-abortion democrat ticket as opposed to an obviously pro-life republican ticket with a clear record of supporting pro-life measures. Given these facts, it’s apparent that a proportionately grave reason for voting for the Biden-Harris team is non-existent.
I urge Catholics to vote in a way that harmonizes with the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, who showed a special love for children when he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matt 19:14). Let us live justly in word and deed. Let’s vote in a way that gives children, human life and human dignity their due.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.