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Issues aren't equal in forming conscience to vote

In our study of "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, we know there are certain issues that are intrinsic evils.

Abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, genocide, racism, embryonic-destructive research, torture and the targeting of civilians in war or terrorism make up this list of things that are always wrong no matter the circumstance.

We also know we should avoid the temptation to think all issues are equal. They are not. Intrinsic evils ought to weigh more heavily with the Catholic voter. We also must avoid the temptation that one's support for a single issue fulfills one's obligation to all other issues.

In light of this, the bishops ask the question about the so-called "single-issue voter." They write that "as Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate's position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter's support."

But, the very next lines in the document read, "Yet a candidate's position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support."

What does all this mean?

We should not throw our support behind a candidate over just one issue while ignoring the rest of the candidate's platform. After all, what if they advocate racism? We can, however, decide that a candidate is not even worthy of consideration because of their support for an intrinsic evil such legal abortion, racism, torture, etc.

These are complicated issues made more difficult when we don't have good choices among available candidates. Many ask whether Catholics can hold their noses and vote for a candidate despite his or her support for an intrinsic evil. The bishops respond by saying that this is "permissible only for truly grave moral reasons." What counts as grave moral reasons?

The bishops write that, "In making these decisions, 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 intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions."

Therefore, "grave moral reasons" primarily means issues that touch on intrinsic evils. We have to compare apples to apples, and so the only thing that outweighs an intrinsic evil is another such evil. To vote for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil, the alternative has to be as evil as or worse than the intrinsic evil the candidate in question supports.

This doesn't mean we can ignore poverty, capital punishment, or immigration reform, or any other issue that touches on human dignity. It means only that we must have a consistent ethic of life balanced by the teaching that not all issues "carry the same moral weight."

We can see at this point that being well-informed is crucial to having a well-formed conscience. Next month we'll see about some of the ramifications of these principles, the virtue of prudence when Catholics disagree and the importance of civility.

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

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