In anticipation of the 2020 presidential election, conscientious Catholics all along the political and partisan spectrum are wrestling with the difficult question of situating abortion, on the one hand, in relation to every other moral issue on the other. This is as it should be. The problem of abortion is the “preeminent priority”, for at least a few reasons: it is a direct attack on human life; it takes place within the sanctuary of the family; the sheer number of lives abortion destroys is astonishing.
Many Catholics are rightly concerned with being “single-issue” voters, a phrase which itself causes political division and discord. For some it is an appellation of pride; for others an accusation of perfidy.
There is another reason for which abortion is front-and-center in our counsels: The issue is a cypher for a large number of other moral convictions and policy positions that a candidate may hold. If a politician — candidate or officeholder — supports so-called “abortion rights” that politician is likely also to support same-sex marriage (and oppose religious liberty-related exceptions for employment and other issues), trans-gender theory, contraception, and euthanasia, inter alia.
Thus, it is highly probable that a politician’s support for abortion categorically disqualifies him or her from the Catholic vote, but not on the single issue of abortion. High probability is not certainty. As an abstract principle (even if not in concrete choices), there is no absolute prohibition against voting for a pro-abortion candidate. Reasonable arguments can be made that if a pro-abortion candidate advocates positions that would cause a measurable decline in abortion, it might be possible to support that candidate. This would probably fall under remote, mediate, material cooperation with the evil of the other issues, which may be permissible. In reality, however, that is is difficult to measure. There is much that suggests it is not really the case.
Cast as a supposition rather than as a prudential determination, the notion is also frequently abused as a rationale for diminishing the importance of abortion.
I may be wrong about this. It goes without saying that I believe that those who disagree with me are in fact wrong–but this does not imply that either of us is sinning with a vote for candidate A, B, or None of the Above. This is a judgment that we are not competent to make. A Catholic may cast a vote different from mine, as a good-faith result of forming her conscience according to her best lights, without either of us committing sin thereby.
Having said this, my sympathy generally falls with those who conclude that we cannot vote for a candidate who supports abortion, though not for the reasons those who make that determination usually articulate.
If abortion really were a single issue, rather than a predictor of a host of other problematic positions, it would be less likely to disqualify a candidate—keeping in mind that “less likely” is still likely. Even when we reach that conclusion, however, we must not take it as an excuse from examining all the policy positions of the opposing candidate who may oppose abortion, but who otherwise might espouse positions that are contrary to the teaching of the Church.
There is another reason for which abortion is front-and-center in our counsels: The issue is a cypher for a large number of other moral convictions and policy positions that a candidate may hold.
Even if we can affirm the principle that we cannot vote for the pro-abortion candidate on that “single” issue, the principle is not reciprocal. A candidate does not necessarily deserve our vote because she espouses opposition to legalized abortion. The anti-abortion voter is too often willing to discount (if not completely dismiss) a candidate’s positions on immigration, welfare reform, health care policy, capital punishment, and parental leave, among other issues. To say that abortion is the “preeminent priority” does not imply that there are no other priorities to consider in deciding for whom to cast a vote.
The usual rejoinder to such an assertion is that the prohibition on abortion is absolute, while all these other issues are open to prudential judgment and application. This is certainly true. But what this really means in practice for the single-issue voter is that the other issues are unimportant. Being open to prudential judgment is not equivalent to being optional.
Prudence is not avoidance.
Rather, it is the morally skillful application of the entirety of the Church’s moral teaching, considering not just the moral position of the candidate, but also the actual policy implications of that candidate assuming office. We cannot merely consider a candidate’s position on abortion—important as it is—and breezily dismiss his positions on all the other moral issues in play. Nor can we ignore the personal moral character of a candidate, including the character of his rhetoric, simply because he might support anti-abortion policies.
A candidate does not necessarily deserve our vote because she espouses opposition to legalized abortion.
This is where the single-issue voter often seems to be developing his political conscience by party platform rather than Church teaching.
Catholics belong to both major parties and to none, but the principal characteristic by which we must make ourselves known to each other and our fellows in citizenship is our attention to the obligations of Catholic moral doctrine, including the Church’s entire body of social doctrine. This is a demanding and serious charge that cannot be simply reduced to a single issue, even an issue that is absolute in its application and predictive of many other problematic positions. If we do not observe this charge, we inevitably find ourselves justifying party by theology, and then theology by party. We must resist the temptation.
Kenneth Craycraft is a licensed attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He holds the Ph.D. in theology from Boston College, and the J.D. from Duke University School of Law.
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