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There are some exceptions to the rule

The bishops tell us we may not vote for someone who supports an intrinsic evil if we’re supporting that evil, but there are situations where we might vote for such a candidate. In "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," the bishops say:

Voting for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil "would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil." (#35)

It is important for Catholics to understand what "truly grave moral reasons" means. Remember that the bishops teach that not every issue carries the same moral weight. Intrinsic evils carry the most weight, and are truly grave because they are "always opposed to the authentic good of persons." The intrinsic evils relevant to our political climate are many. Here are a few the bishops list: abortion, embryonic destructive research, targeting non-combatants, torture, deliberately subjecting workers to subhuman living conditions and redefining marriage.

In other words, the direct and intentional killing of an innocent human being and the direct and intentional attack on the fundamental dignity of the human person are grave evils.

Based on this, we can then say: A Catholic might vote for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil if, by doing so, he or she can help to thwart other intrinsic evils or the endangering of human life, the exploitation of persons, or the undermining of fundamental human rights, all of which would correspond to "truly grave moral reasons."

This would limit what counts as "truly grave moral reasons" to just a few actions and public policies. We must be careful in our categories because in our current political climate, legitimate differences in economic or social policy are routinely reframed so as to get voters’ attention and get them engaged. So it is that specific policies over which we might prudentially disagree are too often framed as matters of life or death. The result of which is that everything becomes "truly grave moral reasons."

Entitlement reform, minimum wage rates, environmental protection, block grants, infrastructure spending, energy policy and bathroom signage all become reason to justify voting for the candidate who supports an intrinsic evil. And so, as the bishops warn, we end up justifying our vote for the candidate who supports an intrinsic evil in order "to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences."

There is no pat and simple answer to this dilemma, but certainly honest and open debate is helpful. Catholics should be willing to listen to the arguments of the other side as the other side sees them. With the advent of the Internet and social media, it is only too easy to isolate ourselves in our own echo chambers by which we can hear only those talking points that support our narrow interests, our partisan preferences and our prejudices against the policy solutions of "the other side."

And this is not the end of the discernment. The bishops say that we "should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity and ability to influence a given issue."

They even write that "the voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate." In such a case, a Catholic might write in a candidate so we can fulfill our obligation to vote but avoid cooperating with the advancement of evil.

We’ll take a break from this discussion next month, but later I will share what the bishops teach on specific policy matters. In the meantime, I encourage all Catholics to pray diligently for our nation and for the voters.


Omar Gutierrez is manager of the archdiocesan Office of Missions and Justice. Contact him at

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