This week, Public Discourse is running a symposium on the 2020 presidential election. We’ll hear from authors with a wide variety of perspectives on the difficult prudential question of how social conservatives should vote this November. Although they come to very different conclusions, these authors all share a core commitment to Biblical and natural law morality. We hope the essays serve to inform your own decision. –The Editors
In recent weeks, the social media feeds of conservative Christians have been inundated with articles, videos, and memes claiming that it is a sin to vote for Joe Biden for president. One such video from a Catholic priest has garnered more than 800,000 views. In it, Fr. James Altman says that “There will be sixty million and counting aborted babies standing at the gates of Heaven barring your Democrat entrance, and nothing you can say will ever excuse you for your direct or indirect support of that diabolical agenda. Period. The end.” While he is entirely right that people who directly support the evil of abortion are guilty of a grave sin, he is mistaken that any support for pro-choice candidates is always wrong for Christians.
In my own tradition, Catholicism, there is a great realism about politics and the need to make choices between real goods. Because of this, a Catholic may in fact support politicians who advocate the evil of abortion, such as Joe Biden. However, their votes must not be cast because of, but in spite of politicians’ support for evils such as abortion, and they must have proportionate reasons for casting such a vote and indirectly supporting evil.
While I do not intend to vote for Vice President Biden and think that his presidency would do untold damage to our nation and the world, I am adamant that a Christian may in good conscience vote for him so long as it is not because of the evils he supports. Recognizing this fact is crucial for Christians who care about Christian witness in a fallen world. Before I explain why, I must first make my case that such a vote is acceptable in the first place.
Grave Sin and Political Support for It
In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (then Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, later Pope Benedict XVI), wrote an official letter to the then archbishop of Washington entitled “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles.” In it, he explains when a Catholic may present himself for the reception of holy communion, and he specifically considers how political action is relevant to this decision.
The Catholic Church teaches that holy communion, the Eucharist, is the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. Because of this belief, the Eucharist must be received with great care lest, as St. Paul put it, we eat and drink judgment upon ourselves. Cardinal Ratzinger explains that before receiving communion, we should prayerfully ask ourselves several questions: “Am I in full communion with the Catholic Church? Am I guilty of grave sin? Have I incurred a penalty (e.g. excommunication, interdict) that forbids me to receive Holy Communion? Have I prepared myself by fasting for at least an hour?”
The cardinal then goes on to consider abortion and euthanasia, which he identifies as grave sins. Any person who has freely committed, or even “formally cooperated” in, either sin is not to present himself for communion until he has repented and been forgiven by Christ through His mystical body, the Church.
There are two important distinctions here that should be understood: the first distinction is that between committing a sin and merely cooperating in it, and the second is that between “formally cooperating” in sin and “materially cooperating” in it. To commit a sin is to freely choose to do something wrong knowing that it is wrong. To cooperate in a sin, however, is to support in any way (whether by guidance about, assistance in, or providing material for) another person committing a sin.
The second and more complicated distinction is between “formal” and “material” cooperation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that we are partly responsible for the sins of others when we cooperate in them. For instance, imagine that I provide a gun to a friend because I want him to murder someone. This would be formal cooperation with the sin of murder, which occurs when a person “concurs in the bad will of the [evildoer],” according to St. Alphonsus Liguori.
To determine the morality of any action, we must consider the object, intention, and circumstances. The object of an act is what a person is doing, the intention is his reason for doing it, and circumstances are the relevant conditions in which an action takes place.
In formal cooperation with evil, a person either participates in the object, agrees with the intention, or both. Material cooperation, on the other hand, occurs when a person does not participate directly in the object of the evildoer’s act—namely “what the person is doing”—or agree with the intention of the evildoer—“why he is doing it”—but still contributes in some way to the act. If a woman purchases a latte at a coffee shop that donates money to Planned Parenthood, she is materially cooperating with the company’s evil practice, but she is not formally cooperating with it so long as she does not specifically intend to support abortion.
There are two more distinctions that are useful in a fine-grained consideration of this issue: namely, the distinctions between immediate and mediate material cooperation and between proximate and remote cooperation. Immediate cooperation is when a person commits an act that, although not wrong in itself, helps the evildoer in some way to commit sin. Mediate cooperation occurs when a person does something that paves the way for an evil act or helps it to occur (for instance, providing funds that help make it possible for someone to commit an injustice). Mediate cooperation in evil is acceptable so long as it is remote cooperation (which means that evil effect is not brought about directly by the cooperating person’s action, and thus the cooperating person’s action is “causally distant” from the evil) and there are proportionate reasons to cooperate in this way.
(It is worth noting that the question of how voting fits into the distinction between mediate and immediate cooperation leads a small minority of Catholic philosophers and theologians, such as Alasdair MacIntyre, to argue that we cannot in good conscience vote for either major party, a position recently argued in Public Discourse by Brandon McGinley.)
To put it briefly, one may cooperate with evil only if that cooperation is material, mediate, and remote and if there is proportionate cause for doing so. This means that the person does not intend the object (the evil act itself) or agree with its intention, does not cooperate with the evil act itself but only provides something that allows the evil to occur, and is acting in a way that is causally distant from the evil action. An example of someone materially cooperating in evil in a way that is mediate and causally distant is a bus driver who unknowingly provides a ride for a woman on her way to have an abortion. For a visual representation of these concepts, this chart may be helpful.
There is a final consideration when choosing whether or not to materially, mediately, remotely cooperate with evil even when there are proportionate reasons for doing so: whether or not such action is likely to cause scandal. Scandal is defined by the Catechism as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” Thus, if the bus driver’s company began advertising his route as “the most affordable way to get to Planned Parenthood,” continuing to drive that itinerary would likely cause scandal. The bus driver should therefore resign from his route in order to avoid committing the sin of scandal.
Remote mediate material cooperation with evil is acceptable so long as a person has proportionate reasons for doing so. But how does this apply when considering casting a vote for pro-choice candidates or, more specifically, for Joe Biden?
Why Someone Would and May Vote For Biden:
So far as I can tell, there is at least one good reason why a pro-life person would consider voting for someone other than Trump this November, namely, the belief that President Trump has a corrosive impact on society, America’s constitutional order, and the world.
The argument for this position takes many forms, but it generally goes something like this: President Trump has a) so politicized our culture that Americans are on the brink of civil war, and b) shown himself to be at best ignorant of and at worst actively destructive to the American constitutional order. Previous essays in the Public Discourse 2020 election symposium have outlined these arguments, so I need not repeat them here.
If these arguments convince a pro-life person, it seems he potentially has proportionate reason to cast his vote for Biden. One could think that support for Trump will likely, whether immediately or over time, lead to descent into a state of civil war that will be so harmful to our body politic that the possibility of pro-life legislation (or any legislation at all) seems nonexistent. A vote for Biden, according to this logic, is a vote for living to fight for life another day.
Joe Biden and Donald Trump both clearly possess great vice and little virtue. There is no getting around that. While we cannot judge a person’s culpability (that is, whether they are accountable for their sins), we should pray for both Trump and Biden to repent from their publicly sinful lives.
That being said, Biden is a vicious man who consistently supports abortion at all stages of pregnancy, while Trump is a vicious man who has taken action throughout his presidency to protect not only life, but religious freedom, marriage, and myriad other socially conservative issues. However, if a person judges President Trump’s vice (or the Republican party’s weakness) to be ultimately harmful to America and the pro-life cause, he may choose to vote for Biden in good conscience, provided he do so in spite of, and not because of, Biden’s support for abortion.
By casting a vote for Biden, a person is cooperating with evil. However, that cooperation is not necessarily formal (and thus wrong). If the person votes for Biden with the intention of preventing the breakdown of society in hopes that he (the voter) will be able to continue to stand up for unborn children, he is only remotely mediately materially cooperating with the evil of abortion. Allow me to explain.
Joe Biden, if elected president, intends to support laws that allow for the murder of innocents. This is evil. However, a pro-life person who chooses to vote for him does not participate in the evil object (i.e., the person is not casting a vote for or in support of abortion, but is casting a vote to preserve the nation) or agree with its intention (the person does not actually intend abortion), and thus the person cooperates in evil only materially and not formally. Additionally, the voter does not cooperate with the evil act of advocating abortion but only provides something that allows the evil to occur (namely a vote that helps Biden take office), and that act of voting is not itself evil. Finally, Biden’s support for abortion is not the direct means to the voter’s end (preventing another Trump presidency) since the voter is voting specifically to prevent the breakdown of society, civil war, etc., which would presumably also make stopping abortion impossible. Such a vote, then, is remote mediate material cooperation with evil done for proportionate reasons, and is thus morally acceptable.
Two words of caution are called for, however. The first is that those Christians who are convinced that they should vote for Biden should be careful to avoid committing the sin of scandal. Biden’s campaign is heavily tied to a number of grave evils, and thus showing public support (e.g. by wearing a Biden t-shirt) would likely cause scandal to others.
The second is that, while a Christian may vote for candidates who support grave evils so long as the Christian voter does not intend those evils, this is not carte blanche to vote for any candidate for any reason. Under no circumstances may someone vote for Biden precisely in order to protect the abortion license, or to restrict religious expression, or to advance gender ideology. A vote cast for any of these reasons is formal cooperation with evil, and it is thus immoral.
Why This Matters for the Church
So why am I writing this essay? If I think that it is foolish (though not necessarily sinful) to vote for Biden this November, why would I write something that could potentially convince someone to cast a vote for him? My answer is simple: because every Christian should care about the strength of Christians’ moral witness and the unity of the church.
It is important for Christians to be willing to correct our brothers and sisters when they go astray, and for us to be willing to accept correction when we ourselves have failed to live up to Christ’s call to holiness. However, attempting to “correct” a person who has done nothing wrong makes it more difficult for us to support one another and provide trustworthy guidance. When our moral witness becomes entirely tied to prudential political judgements, we swap our faith in a transcendent redeeming God who offers us salvation for a politician or party who promises to create heaven on earth.
We must not forget that, according to the Gospel of John, Christ’s final prayer before His passion was a plea for Christian unity. Seeking unity does not entail accepting heterodoxy or evil. Joe Biden, for instance, should be understood by Catholics to have excommunicated himself through his public support for abortion.
What the Christian call of unity does demand is that we never allow earthly cares and worries to separate us. When we do, we lose moral credibility and increase fragmentation in the church. We are mistaken if we claim that those Christians who make different legitimate political judgments of prudence are rejecting the call of Christ. In fact, by accusing them of sin, we ourselves are acting against one of our Lord’s final earthly wishes.