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In several tweets pertaining to faithful voting for Catholics, the popular Jesuit priest and author Fr. James Martin, S.J., who offered prayers during the 2020 Democratic National Convention, presents a distorted view of Catholic moral teaching about voting while creating unnecessary confusion for the faithful.
Among the most misleading impressions Martin promulgates is posting an out-of-context quote from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in which the former head of the CDF (and current pope emeritus) articulated: “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.”
Martin posted this tweet right after a video of himself explaining that he is pro-life and claiming the expression “pro-life” cannot be reduced to only defending unborn children but also means supporting migrants and refugees, black Americans, LGBTQ teens, homeless people, and persons in prison.
The juxtaposition of these two tweets, the Ratzinger quote, and Martin’s “pro-life” video – one coming after the other on the same day – leads to a false impression regarding what Ratzinger meant in saying that there are “proportionate reasons” that may allow a Catholic to vote for a politician who supports abortion and euthanasia. Such “proportionate reasons,” Martin appears to be suggesting, would include matters like supporting migrants and refugees, the black community, LGBTQ teens, the homeless, and persons in prison.
Properly Understanding ‘Proportionate Reasons’
This is a classic distortion of what is known as “the consistent-life ethic” and of what the Catholic Church teaches regarding “proportionate reasons.” There is an important distinction here that Martin is not making.
Herein lies the distinction: Catholic moral teaching acknowledges that not all issues have the same moral weight. There are some issues, particularly abortion and euthanasia, that always have a higher moral gravity because they are intrinsically evil acts that constitute the direct killing of innocent human life. Supporting such fundamentally evil acts is a mortal sin.
Other issues — such as fighting for the homeless, migrants and refugees, and prisoners on death row — while important matters, do not have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia because these other issues do not constitute the immediate killing of innocent human lives.
Suppose two candidates run for office. If Candidate A opposes legal abortion and euthanasia whereas Candidate B supports legal abortion and euthanasia while also supporting benevolent economic and social policies that help the homeless, benefit the environment, and help migrants and refugees, then is it fair to say that there are “proportionate reasons” to vote for Candidate B over Candidate A?
It seems that Martin is suggesting that the answer is yes. Yet, in fact, according to Catholic moral teaching, the answer is no. In the document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S. bishops explain:
In making these decisions [about voting], it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose policies promoting intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions.
By not making the important distinction between intrinsically evil acts like abortion and euthanasia and other moral issues — which remain important but do not have the same moral gravity — Martin has misrepresented Catholic moral teaching on responsible voting.
Misrepresenting Important Documents
The very document from which Martin quoted Ratzinger, “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion,” states:
Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.
Ratzinger further explains, however, that if a Catholic politician votes and campaigns for legal abortion or euthanasia then heor she should not receive Holy Communion, which can be rightfully refused to them as a result of continuing to err in such a grave moral evil.
The expression “proportionate reasons,” therefore, is applicable when issues of the highest moral gravity, those that constitute intrinsic evils, are quantified against each other in trying to choose a candidate who represents the lesser of two evils. And not when quantifying less egregious (although still important) moral issues against those that constitute the direct killing of innocent human life.
A Concealed Political Agenda?
A final point deserves greater clarification regarding one of Martin’s tweets about voting and mortal sin. In a tweet dated September 3, 2020, the same date that he released his other tweets on voting, Martin wrote:
I’m seeing more priests saying that voting for @JoeBiden is a mortal sin. It is not. It is not a sin to vote for either Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump. Nor is it a sin to be Democrat or Republican. Listen to what the @USCCB says in “Faithful Citizenship” about the role of conscience…
On the surface, this looks like a very objective, well-balanced tweet, not supporting either party or either candidate. If we look beyond the surface, however, and delve deeper into the nuances about voting that the document “Faithful Citizenship” makes, it becomes clear that Martin’s tweet is far from objective, once again either misrepresenting or misunderstanding the church’s teaching.
In “Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S. bishops explain:
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.
Therefore, if a Catholic were to vote for Joe Biden because of his stance on abortion and same-sex marriage — both of which Biden has supported and both of which Catholic moral teaching acknowledges to be intrinsic evils — that Catholic would be guilty of a mortal sin.
As a popular author and priest, Martin has an influential following. As a very educated man, he can quote numerous church documents in favor of his positions. Yet if we fail to consider what these documents say in their context, nuances, and moral distinctions, then the popular tweets and videos of an influential priest can confuse the faithful and lead them astray regarding what the church teaches about faithful citizenship and morally responsible voting.
Martin was the priest who came to the Democratic National Convention to offer an invocation prayer. His presence at the event can imply a political disposition toward a certain candidate. His tweets, similarly — even those covered under the guise of “objectivity” — appear to possess more of a political agenda than faithful Catholic teaching.
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