This is the fourth article four part series on Catholic Voting. Follow the links for part onepart two, part three and part five as well as The Post-Election Catholic

By Dr. Brett Salkeld, Archdiocesan Theologian

As citizens in a democracy, we have the privilege and the duty of shaping our public life together.  As Catholics, we are blessed to be able to participate in the building up of God’s kingdom through this process.  There are, of course, complications.  There is no unambiguous “Building the Kingdom” party or platform.  Politics are about the possible more than the ideal.

 In life we are very often faced with choosing between two (or more) courses of action, which can both be reasonably foreseen to lead to evil.  And in many such situations, making no choice at all is also a choice that can be reasonably foreseen to lead to evil.  This is why the Catholic moral tradition teaches that “cooperation with evil” can sometimes be permitted. 

 (Technically speaking, there are several kinds of cooperation with evil.  The only kind of cooperation that is permitted is called remote material cooperation with evil. And even it is only permitted in very specific circumstances.  Check out links here and here for details.)

 Voting is almost the perfect example of this.  No matter which party you vote for, you will cooperate in some foreseeable but unintended consequences.  But staying home or spoiling your ballot is no easy solution either, because it allows the worst party to go unchallenged.  There is no avoiding it.  Come election time, Catholics are going to cooperate with evil some way or other. 

 The Church says that any permissible cooperation with evil must never intend the evil cooperated with, must not be done through an act that is wrong in itself, and must not lead directly to the evil in question.  If these conditions are met, cooperation with evil is permitted (indeed, it is sometimes unavoidable) given “proportionate reasons.”

 The question of discerning how to vote comes down to understanding “proportionate reasons.”  To put it bluntly: my vote will lead to some evil; will it lead to enough good to justify that evil?  This is a more complex process than is often appreciated, but there are steps to help us through it.

 First, we need to be aware of the moral teaching of the Church and how it connects with the issues on the table in this election.  The Archdiocese of Toronto has developed excellent resources in this regard.  I highly recommend looking at each of these very concise documents prepared on the topics of (in alphabetical order): Environment, Human Dignity (Life Issues), Indigenous, Newcomers, Political Participation, Poverty, Religious Freedom. 

 We are responsible for knowing Church teaching even if our vote is too blunt an instrument to support all of it simultaneously.  Catholics cannot simply bypass issues that do not end up carrying the day in their voting decision.  (More on this in the next installment.)

 Further, while all of these are important and often interconnected issues, Catholics recognize a certain primacy of issues related to human life.  If human life and dignity are not protected from conception until natural death, every other right remains in question.  A just society cannot be built while the lives of innocent members of the human family remain unprotected by law or the dignity of whole groups of people is systematically undermined.

 Once we are aware of Church teaching on a range of important issues, and of the relative weight that questions of life and dignity carry within that range of issues, we must learn about the positions of the parties and, importantly in our system of governance, local candidates seeking our votes.

 This is often not done with the requisite depth.  It is too simple to say, “I will vote for the only pro-life candidate because that is the most important issue and the other parties are simply terrible on this issue.”  And it is too simple to say, “I will not waste my vote on the only pro-life candidate because her or his party has sworn not to re-open the abortion debate in Canada and this party is not strong on other important issues.”

 The question cannot simply be “does this party or candidate agree with me in theory about an important topic?”  We need to ask, “What will this candidate or party do?”  The first too simple approach does not require them to do anything.  The second simply presumes they can or will do nothing.

 Furthermore, both approaches, while coming to opposite conclusions, isolate one (admittedly essential) element of the gospel of life from the broader witness of the Church’s teaching.  In so doing, we limit our impact on every issue.  When we resist the straightjackets of contemporary political ideology in order to present the whole gospel of life, we gain credibility.  The most effective voices are those that can speak across party lines and ideological divides to demonstrate a larger imagination that refuses to pit the life and dignity of one group against another.

 So when a candidate comes to your door looking for your vote, surprise them with your Catholic imagination!  Ask them about a range of issues that belong together in Catholic teaching, even if they do not align with any contemporary political program.  Give them the sense that, even if you may well end up voting for them, you are not entirely comfortable doing so.  Or, on the flipside, that while you cannot vote for them, you endorse this or that policy that favours human life and dignity and you would consider voting for them in the future if they were more consistent.

 And don’t simply ask about their ideals.  Ask about policy.  It is one thing to say one is pro-life.  It is another to say what kind of action is possible on the question in the short and long term.  It is one thing to say the environment needs to be a priority and another to show that a given party’s plan is more practical and effective than the other plans on offer.  It is one thing to say that Canada needs to attend to the scandalous history and conditions that lead to a whole series of difficulties (addiction, suicide, incarceration rates, even access to clean water, to name only a few) for Indigenous Canadians, and another to present a credible plan to address these difficulties.

 The question of whether the good achieved is proportionate to the foreseen evil needs to look at actual possibilities.  We cannot imagine, as so much shallow public discourse does, that we have to balance the rights of the unborn against the needs of our planet as if a vote for a pro-life Conservative backbencher will end abortion in Canada the day after the election or a vote for a Green candidate will stop climate change in its tracks.  (It is telling indeed that we don’t even have a party in mind when we think of the plight of Indigenous Canadians!)

 No party has the policy or the wherewithal to fix any major issue in its totality in one term.  No one is going to get rid of poverty, or save the environment, or protect the unborn, or heal Indigenous non-Indigenous relations completely.

 Instead, some parties will make some progress on some of those issues and, unfortunately, go backwards on others.  When we are deciding how to cast our vote, we must keep in mind not slogans and soundbites, but actual possibilities.  Our Catholic moral tradition calls this the virtue of prudence.  Prudence attends not to ideology, but to reality.

 The question is not simply whether this issue is more important than that issue.  The question is, “Is the possibility for improvement in this area worth the possibility of deterioration in this other area?”  Or, more accurately still, “Is the possibility for improvement in these areas worth the possibility of deterioration in these other areas?”  If I judge that a given party will improve our situation to varying degrees in some areas and cause harm to varying degrees in some others, I need to weigh the proportion between that good and that harm. 

 To weigh the issues only in the abstract allows political parties to continue to take advantage of our theoretical priorities without having to act on them.  If we want better options, we need to weigh real world possibilities and then push our politicians for concrete movement on those possibilities.

 Your vote, as important as it is, is not enough to create a just society.  We can only vote for the options available.  And every one of those options is a compromise in one direction or another.  If we want our votes to be more powerful and less compromised 4 years from now, we need to work for better options.  We’ll look at that question in our final installment.

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