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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIII, No. 3
Michaelmas 2008

How to Decide the Moral Issues in Voting

by Joseph Ruwe

Joseph Ruwe, 17, is from Ohio and is the second of six children, with three brothers and two sisters. He plans to attend the University of Cincinnati this fall as part of a high school postsecondary education program. His interests are basketball and reading. He wrote this essay for his ethics class.

[Details about the Young Writers Award.]

Many people are confused about the Church’s teaching on which candidates Catholics are allowed to vote for when key moral issues like abortion are involved. It adds to the confusion when Church authorities seem to contradict each other in teaching about moral voting. For example, in a letter to the US bishops in 2004, then-Cardinal Ratzinger seemed to say that it may sometimes be morally permissible to vote for someone who supports positions that are against Church teaching:

A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the  candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.” (Emphasis added. Cardinal Ratzinger’s complete memorandum is accessible on the WFF web site: org/Catholics_and_Politics.html)

On the other hand, posted on its web site this quote from Father Stephen Torraco, PhD:

Except in the case in which a voter is faced with all pro-abortion candidates … a candidate that is pro-abortion disqualifies himself from receiving a Catholic’s vote…. To vote for such a candidate … is to become an accomplice in the moral evil of abortion. If the voter also knows this, then the voter sins mortally. (emphasis added)

This essay examines whether it is immoral to vote for someone who is against the teachings of the Catholic Church.   

The Moral Act

If an act is immoral in itself, it may never be willed or performed. There is no Church teaching that voting itself is an intrinsically immoral act. It is a neutral act that is neither good nor evil. The way that voting would become an immoral act is if the intention were bad or there were certain culpable circumstances that surrounded the act. Therefore, the circumstances and intentions that influence the act must be considered.

The Intention

The intention of the voter is an important aspect to consider when deciding whether a vote is immoral, that is, the motive or reason for voting for a certain candidate. There is never a justification to will evil to happen. It is always a mortal sin if it is a person’s intention that evil occurs as a result of his vote. For example, if one were to vote for someone because he supported the candidate’s pro-abortion stand, then the voter would be morally guilty of formally cooperating with abortion, and his act of voting would be immoral.

But, if that person voted for a pro-abortion candidate because he favored the candidate’s approach on ending imminent terrorist attacks and disagreed with the candidate on the abortion issue, then the voter would be responsible for remote material cooperation and would not be morally guilty of supporting abortion. Also, a voter would be morally guilty if he voted for a candidate who supported issues against Church teaching if the reason that he supported the candidate was trivial, such as if the candidate was black or a woman.

The Circumstances

The circumstances are the various accidental components that accompany the moral act and have a bearing on its moral content. The circumstances are an important aspect to examine when determining whether a vote is immoral. When considering the circumstances, it is important to view all the candidates and the significant issues that are occurring. Some of the circumstances are what beliefs the candidate holds, and what public position he is running for.

Is there a candidate who has a reasonable chance of winning who would make a good effort to infuse the Church’s views into law? Is there a candidate who would be outstanding in a national crisis that is occurring or seems imminent but is weak on Catholic issues? If a voter supports a candidate who is for abortion only because there is an even larger problem involving more innocent lives that this candidate is best suited to fix, then there is no moral guilt.            


When a voter votes for a candidate who holds a position that is against the fundamental moral teaching of the Church, then the voter is guilty of cooperating to some extent in that moral evil. But there are two kinds of moral cooperation and it is important (when determining culpability) to make a distinction between these two. The first type is formal cooperation. This is when a person freely participates in an immoral action. A nurse assisting a doctor in performing an abortion would be a formal cooperator in the abortion. Likewise, a voter voting for someone because the candidate supported abortion would be guilty of formal cooperation. If the action itself is evil, then this kind of cooperation is always wrong.

Material cooperation is the second kind of moral cooperation. In this kind of cooperation, the cooperator in the evil action does not approve of the immoral action. Therefore, his own cooperation is not evil in its nature or intention.

Material cooperation can become immoral depending on the circumstances surrounding it, however. One of the circumstances in material cooperation would be the amount of evil that one’s cooperation helps others to do.

For example, is the voter’s participation in the moral evil indispensable to the act (such as abortion)? If a person votes against the pro-abortion candidate, will it make a difference?

Another consideration would be the amount of evil that will happen to a voter if he refuses to cooperate (by voting for a candidate who supports an immoral act). Will the person lose his job if he does not support the candidate who his employer is campaigning for?

A third circumstance would be the closeness of one’s cooperative act to the other’s evil act. What is the connection between the person (the voter) and the evil act (abortion)?

There are also two kinds of material cooperation: proximate (or immediate) and remote. Proximate cooperation makes one more responsible for the evil deed. For example, an editor who works for a book publishing company that prints immoral books is a proximate cooperator, even if he does not edit immoral books himself.

Remote material cooperation describes a situation when the act is removed from the evil, but nevertheless may help the evil progress. An example would be a salesperson selling a gun. He does not know that the person he sold it to is planning to use it to rob a bank. Even though it is foreseeable that this might happen, that is not the reason that the salesperson sold the gun. Remote material cooperation is the kind of cooperation that Cardinal Ratzinger referred to in his letter on moral voting.

The Principle of Double Effect

Remote material cooperation is not morally wrong when the principle of double effect is satisfied. The principle of double effect concerns an act that has a good effect that is willed, and an evil effect that can be foreseen although it is not willed. Although we may never will evil, we are not morally responsible for stopping all evil from occurring.                                                       

We are able to perform an act that has a foreseen evil only under certain limited conditions. The act that is willed must be good in itself or at least morally indifferent. The evil consequence, although foreseen, cannot be intended or willed for its own sake; it can only be tolerated. The evil consequence that we do not intend cannot be the means by which the good consequence is achieved. Furthermore, the good consequence must be great enough to outweigh the evil effect. Only if all four of these conditions are fulfilled is the principle of double effect satisfied. 

Proportionate Reasons

Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2004 letter indicated that remote material cooperation is permissible provided that there are proportionate reasons. “Proportionate reason” means that there is a positive good that will happen that will outweigh the bad effect.

There are several situations where a person is justified through proportionate reasons in voting for someone who supports anti-life views. At all times these reasons should be used for the protection of life.

For example, if there are only two candidates who have a reasonable chance of winning and Candidate A supports abortion but opposes euthanasia, and Candidate B supports both abortion and euthanasia, then the voter is allowed to vote for Candidate A. This is not approval of Candidate A’s position on abortion. The voter is simply trying to minimize the harm done. In another situation, even if there were a candidate who was pro-life, there is no obligation to vote for him if he does not have a reasonable chance of winning. Another example of proportionate reason would be if there was a candidate who belongs to a party that is predominately pro-life. Even if this particular candidate is not pro-life, it is allowable to vote for him to keep the pro-life party in control of the government.

The principle of proportionate reason may not be used for frivolous reasons. It must involve an issue that outweighs the evil that the candidate promotes. For example, if a candidate is for abortion, but has a good plan to make more national parks, then obviously there is no justification to vote for this candidate. However, if the same candidate had a solution for an issue that was as important as the Catholic moral principle that he is against, it would be permissible to vote for him.

The Catholic Church has declared the sanctity of life as a most important issue to consider when voting. Abortion and euthanasia have been defined as the most serious sins in our society.

A proportionate reason for supporting a pro-abortion candidate would have to have greater importance than the 1.3 million abortions that are performed yearly in the USA. There are not many issues that would be more devastating to the nation than 1.3 million murders annually.

It is important that the voter forms his conscience correctly in accordance with Catholic teaching, in order to be able to decide what a proportionate reason would be.

The Lesser of Two Evils

If there are two candidates who are both against Church teachings and one of them supports all abortion, and the other supports abortion only in some cases, then one would be morally justified in voting for the candidate who supported abortion only in some cases. Even if there was a third candidate who was in accordance with the Church on all issues but did not have a reasonable chance of winning, one would still be morally allowed to vote for the candidate who only supported some abortions.

How to Decide?

Many voters believe that voting is an endorsement of the candidate’s every view. If this were true, then it would be nearly impossible to find an acceptable candidate. Voting means that, of the options available, this candidate is the one that best represents my beliefs.

While it is desirable to have a candidate whose beliefs are in harmony with the teachings of the Church, one must take into consideration the whole situation. Therefore, while it is not intrinsically evil to vote for a candidate who supports issues that are against the teachings of the Church, it is important for the voter to base his vote on the Catholic Church’s teaching on moral truth, and not on personal opinion or feelings.


Akins, Jimmy. “Explaining Ratzinger’s ‘Proportionate Reasons’”. This Rock. November 2004.

Donovan, Colon B. “Moral Duties Concerning Voting”.

Jalsevac, Meg. “Phoenix, AZ Bishop Tells Pro-Abortion Politicians They May Not Receive Communion”.

Lowery, Mark. “Catholic Voting and the Seamless Garment Theory”. Envoy, Issue 76, 2008.

Olmsted, Thomas. “Catholics in the Public Square” document.

Torraco, Stephen F. “A Brief Catechism for Catholic Voters”.   

Thavis, John. “On ‘Proportionate Reasons’ that would justify voting for a pro-abortion candidate”. Catholic News Service, Sept. 17, 2004.

Pope John Paul II. Veritatis Splendor, Chapter II, Part IV, 71-83,

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