Speaking in a dimly lit church, alongside a crucifix and the opening swell of the Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, a Wisconsin priest makes his case for why “you cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat” when voting in the US elections. Fr James Altman says in his video, which has reached many hundreds of thousands, that he has “crunched the numbers” to get an “approximation of how many Catholics voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Zero”.
He tells “people masquerading as Catholics” who vote for pro-choice Democrats to “repent of your support of that party and its platform or face the fires of hell”, because there “will be 60 million aborted babies standing at the gates of heaven barring your Democrat entrance, and nothing you can ever say will ever excuse you for your direct or indirect support of that diabolical agenda”. He also condemns the Church hierarchy for “ripping on Trump”, the “best pro-life President and his Catholic wife”, and instead offering support to “criminal illegal aliens” and “godless communists”.
Needless to say, the message caused quite a stir. The priest’s local bishop, William Callahan of La Crosse, said he had begun the process of fraternally correcting Fr Altman: “Not in the bright light of the public arena, but as the Gospel dictates, in private.” Bishop Callahan briefly added that, whilst there was some “underlying truth” to Fr Altman’s video, the priest’s tendency towards “generalisation and condemnation” was wrong because Catholics “must never seek to divide, isolate and condemn”.
But six days after the video’s release, Bishop Joseph Strickland weighed in with a very different message. “As the Bishop of Tyler I endorse Fr Altman’s statement in this video,” he tweeted. “My shame is that it has taken me so long.”
Possibly aware that his tweet may have overstepped the mark, Bishop Strickland cautiously explained to the Catholic News Agency that he supported Fr Altman’s video because he believed “God’s people must ask themselves some tough questions each time they prepare to cast their vote in any local, state, or national election,” but avoided explicitly applying the same litmus test himself to the Catholic electorate.
If Strickland were to have done so, Cardinal Joseph Tobin would likely have stood presumptively condemned. During a Boston College webinar over a week later, the Archbishop of Newark offered his own two cents on the election, saying that people “in good conscience could vote for Mr Biden”, and that he personally has “a more difficult time with the other option”, that is, Donald Trump. The cardinal added that, while “there are serious reasons to not consider either party as being representative of the Catholic tradition … the problem is we have to vote”.
This final remark appears to rule out not voting for either candidate. If both candidates are still a “problem”, though, Cardinal Tobin’s advice stands in stark contrast to that of the famed Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who said ahead of the 2004 Bush-Kerry presidential election: “When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither.”
Matthew Walther recently defended this principle, arguing in The Week that today’s offering was also unquestionably intolerable: “In November Catholics face a choice between a de facto apostate [Biden] and a twice-divorced serial philanderer [Trump] who solicits their votes by fomenting hatred of the pope.”
Given the near universal rise of liberal ideology across the globe, Walther said that in America and across much of the developed world, Catholics should “refrain from voting entirely save perhaps for local candidates or direct ballot initiatives.” He noted that, “far from being an absolute moral imperative, voting was proscribed in Italy under pain of mortal sin as recently as a century ago”, and added that, if “a more recent discipline has enjoined the reverse upon the faithful, it is unknown to me”.
But Church documents can at least appear to enjoin the reverse, with paragraph 2240 from the Catechism of the Catholic Church reading: “Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country”.
Despite later qualifying some of these claims, the Catechism nowhere suggests that a Catholic could or should abstain from voting, but the US bishops’ 2019 statement Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship adds a notable disclaimer: “When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate.”
In America, at least, the question of whether a candidate “promotes an intrinsically evil act” can be easily sidestepped by voting for a third party far removed from power. The American Solidarity Party, for one, offers policies based on Catholic social teaching, a “consistent ethic of life” and “distributism”.
It is hard to see how the same could be said of the current Democratic and Republican platforms. Joe Biden may have “personal” pro-life commitments, but his support of Roe v Wade and federal funding for abortion services clearly promotes an “intrinsically evil act” in the Church’s eyes. And while some have attempted to excuse the Republican platform of any offences to natural law, even after Trump converted to his “strongly pro-life” position, he continued to support non-health related exceptions for abortion, much like George W Bush and Ronald Reagan before him.
His administration has also, for example, worked to lift “usury laws” which restrict predatory lenders, and Trump has boasted of building a new “nuclear weapons system”.
The US bishops’ qualifying statement, however, also avoids saying that Catholics cannot vote for a party that advances laws contrary to Church teaching. This is despite some claiming that assent to certain Church teachings are a necessary requirement to be voted into public office. Fr Stephen Tarraco, for example, claimed on EWTN that a “candidate for office who supports abortion rights or any other moral evil has disqualified himself as a person that you can vote for.”
Such a “disqualification principle” contrasts with the statement made by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger said that a “Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil” if they “deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia”, adding that “votes for that candidate for other reasons” can be “considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons”.
With only two realistic possibilities for president, “proportionate reasons” may allow a person to vote for Trump or Biden (or neither), provided they apply reasonable judgement and honest discernment. If a person believes Trump’s Supreme Court nominees and removal of federal funding for abortion will save significant numbers of unborn lives, that could prove decisive. It might change, however, if one believes Trump will ultimately damage the pro-life cause and that Biden is better placed to secure more just economic relations or foreign policies.