The Lesser of Two Evils


(Photo Credit PxHere)

This four-part series ran duiring the 2019 federal election.

By Dr. Brett Salkeld, Archdiocesan Theologian

It is at times asserted, as Catholics approach an election, that a Catholic simply cannot vote for a pro-choice candidate or party.  Sometimes the language of mortal sin is invoked.  Other times the suggestion is made that anyone who votes for a pro-choice politician is cooperating with abortion in ways analogous to, say, driving someone to an abortion clinic.  I recently saw on Facebook an old article from the 2016 American election resurface reporting that a Bishop had encouraged Catholics to “never to vote for any candidate, of any party, who supports abortion.”

What are we to make of this?  Is it the teaching of the Church that a Catholic can never vote for a pro-choice politician or party?

A thought experiment readily provides the answer.  To wit, what should a Catholic voter do if the only two candidates or parties with a legitimate chance to win a given election are both pro-choice but one of them has significantly better policy proposals on other issues of concern to a Catholic?  Does the Church say our only options are vote for a “third” (or fourth or fifth) party with no chance to win, spoil our ballot, or stay home?

It does not.  While some Catholics may determine that these options are the best we can do in a given situation (the Bishop in question, e.g., recommended spoiling one’s ballot by writing in “Blessed Mother Teresa” in such circumstances), it is not the teaching of the Church that we must do so.  In fact, push your hypotheticals far enough, and I suspect that even the good Bishop will admit to circumstances where he would recommend voting for one of the two pro-choice candidates.  What if, e.g., the two were agreed about abortion, but one supported assisted suicide and the other did not?  Or if they were agreed about abortion, but one seemed very likely to start a nuclear war and the other did not?

Even the most avid pro-lifer is likely to be able to imagine a scenario where voting for a pro-choice candidate is the lesser of two evils.

But what of it?  We are not faced with the question in this form in the current election.  In many Canadian ridings there are legitimately pro-life candidates, many of them belonging to a party with a legitimate chance of forming the next government.  The extreme hypotheticals invoked to justify voting for pro-choice candidates in such cases are simply not our situation.  So why bring them up?

First of all, to make sure Catholics actually know the teaching of their Church.  It does not help the cause of the unborn if Catholics remain divided on the best political approach to abortion in part because they further entrench division by misrepresenting Church teaching to one another (in particular if they are accusing one another of being unfaithful).

Second, because extreme examples often make good illustrations of principles that people should know so that they can apply them in less clear-cut circumstances.  The examples show that Catholics can sometimes vote for a pro-choice candidate.  (And, by the way, you can substitute your preferred intrinsic evil here; whatever we say about abortion applies to other intrinsic evils, like torture, as well.)  They also beg the question, “How do we discern voting when the reality on the ground is much less clear cut than the one in the hypothetical extreme?”

Believe it or not, the Catholic moral tradition actually has a set of very precise tools for doing exactly that!  Now, they are not so precise that they ensure that every Catholic who uses them properly will inevitably reach the same conclusion as every other Catholic using them properly.  There are too many unknown variables at play for that:  Will this proposed policy actually get passed and upheld by the courts?  Will it work the way we hope it will once implemented?  Is this politician just making a promise s/he has no intention of keeping to get my vote? Etc. 

The tools are, nonetheless, extremely valuable.  They allow us to be able to tell the difference between situations where people are genuinely ignoring Church teaching when they vote and situations where other people of good will have made different prudential and strategic judgments about complex matters than we have.  And that is a very important difference.

Consider: if you disagree with the claim of the Bishop mentioned above about spoiling your ballot, what kind of disagreement is it?

Is it the case that you are a disobedient Catholic with a poorly formed conscience because you think spoiling one’s ballot imprudent and believe one should vote for the lesser of two evils?  Or is it the case that the Bishop is a bad Bishop, falsifying Church teaching and confusing voters into allowing the worst of the two evils when they could have done something to stop it?

Those are the only options if it is a question of Church teaching.

But if the question is instead one of prudential and strategic judgment in a complex situation where both you and the bishop are within acceptable Church teaching, even though the two of you disagree about the best practical step in this bad situation, neither you nor the bishop is necessarily being unfaithful.

And this is in fact the case here.  Both the recommendation to never vote for a pro-choice politician and the recommendation to vote for the lesser of two evils are well within the realm of Catholic teaching.  And so you could have a serious discussion with the bishop (or anyone else for that matter) about which course of action is actually more prudent and more likely to serve the common good without having to worry that it means either he or you is being a bad Catholic.

And these are precisely the kinds of serious conversations we need to be able to have if we are to move forward.  If every conversation gets highjacked because we treat differences of prudential judgment as if they are questions of fidelity to Church teaching, the unborn are the ones who end up paying the heaviest price.

In our next installment, we will get down to the nitty gritty work of looking at the tools Church teaching offers us for such discernment and applying those tools to our particular situation in this election.

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