Can Catholics vote for a Democrat?

For many U.S. Catholics, a single issue will determine their vote in the 2020 presidential election: abortion … or more specifically reversing Roe v. Wade which established the legal right for a woman to terminate a pregnancy.

These Catholics are part of the Right to Life movement, but it seems to me they ignore all the other right-to-life issues: the death penalty, limited access to health care which kills thousands of people each year, the opioid epidemic which takes thousands more lives, and, more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic that has claimed nearly 200,000 lives largely because of poor national leadership.

They also ignore the lives of mothers and their unborn babies who will die if abortion is recriminalized, forcing them to turn again to the back-alley quacks, wire coat hangers and poisons.

The official position dictated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is:

A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity. (emphasis added)

The Catholic Church’s main response to abortion is a campaign to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the 1993 Roe v. Wade decision. That would allow states to make getting or performing an abortion illegal.

Do the leaders of the church really believe that the way to stop abortion is as simple as overturning Roe v. Wade?

It’s hard to know what will happened if Roe v. Wade is overturned, but likely we will wind up with a patchwork of states legalizing some or all abortions and others outlawing most abortions. Outlawing abortion won’t stop it, it will just put it back in the shadows and cost the lives not only of unborn babies but of many mothers. It will be especially hard on the poor in states where abortion is outlawed since they may not be able to afford traveling to a state where abortion is legal.

When abortions were illegal, one study indicated that more than 200 women a year died attempting to self-induce an abortion using poison or using various instruments.

Before the high court upheld a woman’s right to choose abortion of an unwanted pregnancy, thousands of illegal abortions occurred each year. Nobody knows how many, but estimates are in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps as many as 1.2 million a year.

Even though abortion on demand is now legal in most places, the number of abortions has been steadily dropping, going down 27.8 percent from 1998 to 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The total number in the United States is now under 1 million per year.

Although the bishops chose not to include it in its lists of “evil acts,” the Catholic Church, with the approval and backing of Pope Francis, now considers the death penalty “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

Use of the death penalty in federal cases was suspended in 1963, but reinstated in 1988 and first used in 2001 with the execution of Timothy McVeigh, convicted of the bombing of the U.S. federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 in which 168 people were killed and more than 680 people were injured.

That was one of three executions under President George W. Bush. Five men have been executed under President Donald Trump. Nobody was executed during the Obama administration.

It is noteworthy, in my opinion, that the bishops left some wiggle room for Catholics who are in doubt about how to vote with the line: “At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.”

In other words, make up your mind on the totality of the candidate’s worthiness on all issues, not just how he stands on any single issue.

In the August issue of America, the Jesuit magazine, Father Thomas J. Reese, S.J., former editor-in-chief of the magazine, dealt even more succinctly with the issue of how Catholics should approach the upcoming presidential election given the USCCB guidelines.

Here’s what he said:

“First, it is noteworthy that besides abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide and gay marriage, the bishops also list as “intrinsically evil,” policies “deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions” as well as policies promoting “racist behavior.” A liberal interpretation of this text opens the door to a wider range of Catholic social teaching than just abortion and gay marriage.

“Second, the “if” clause is very important. A Catholic is in trouble only “if the voter’s intent is to support that position.”

“So, a Catholic Republican can vote for Trump, even if his policies promote racism or subject immigrants to subhuman living conditions, as long as the voter’s intent is not to support those positions.

“And a Catholic Democrat can vote for Biden, even if his policies promote abortions and gay marriage, as long as the voter’s intent is not to support those positions.

“In Catholic theology, intention — why you are doing something — is essential to an understanding of the morality of an action.

“Paragraph 35 of “Faithful Citizenship” acknowledges the messy world of politics, where a candidate may disagree with church teaching on an important issue but a Catholic might still vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.”

 Personally, I feel that Catholic bishops should worry less about who Catholics are going to vote for and quit trying to criminalize abortion again. Instead, they should expand and give more support to existing programs such as Pregnancy Help Centers that help needy pregnant women get through not only the pre-natal and phases, but also support them afterward. That would do more than all the Right to Life marches and sign-carrying protests at abortion clinics to reducing abortions.

As Saint Teresa of Calcutta famously said: “We are fighting abortion with adoption.”

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