Voting for Pro-Abortion Candidates

Dear Grace,
Recently, in our parish bulletin, a statement appeared that was signed by seven priests in our diocese. They write that they believe “it is not necessarily sinful for Catholics to vote for politicians who support legalized abortion, as long as they are voting for that candidate for other equally weighty reasons.”

They used the following quote from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a Vatican Official, to support their statement: “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.” These priests also state that “the right to life, although fundamental, is one among many life issues.” I am troubled by this. Can you explain Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement and why he would say this?

Grace answers: Cardinal Ratzinger’s quote was part of a memo sent to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, DC and Bishop Wilton Gregory, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops earlier this summer. The entire memo was intended to address the issue of “Catholic” politicians receiving Holy Communion. At the end of the memo, however, he added the following: “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 statement is nothing new, but rather an application of standard Catholic moral teaching. Basically, there are two main ways in which a person cooperates in evil/sin. The first is called formal cooperation, and is never morally permissible. As Cardinal Ratzinger says, this would be the case if we deliberately vote for a candidate because of his pro-abortion stance. As Catholics, we cannot do that because it would be like taking part in the act of abortion ourselves.

The second type of cooperation in evil/sin is called material cooperation. A case of material cooperation would be one in which a person (in this case, a Catholic voter) does something that in itself is not wrong (voting), though it enables another person (political candidate) to do something sinful (vote in support of an intrinsic evil — abortion) if he/she is elected as a result of this. In addition, this material cooperation can be proximate or remote. Remote material cooperation would be when the acting person (voter) is less intimately connected (in this case, a Catholic votes for a pro-abortion candidate for reasons other than his pro-abortion stance — he does not intend to vote for abortion — and these reasons are proportionate to the gravity of abortion).

The crucial part in the whole matter is the proportionate reasons. When a Catholic voter casts his/her vote for a political candidate who advocates abortion and/or euthanasia, he or she must have a grave reason for doing so, and in this case, it must be equal (proportionate) in weight to the most fundamental life issue, which is abortion. Then, that issue would be a proportionate reason to vote for that candidate. Every year, abortion is the killer of 1.3 million innocent human beings. I personally cannot think of any other life issue that could be proportionate to that.

A possible example of morally permissible remote material cooperation would be if there were only two candidates running for the same office and both were in favor of abortion. Then, we would have the proportionate reason necessary to vote for one of them, as one of them will be elected anyway, and we would want the one who will support the least abortions to win. But this changes if one of the two is a candidate who is clearly opposed to abortion and/or euthanasia. Yes, a Catholic must vote according to his/her conscience, but the Church teaches that that conscience must be informed! A Catholic with a correctly informed conscience is morally bound always to defend life, and most especially innocent life.

To say that all the life issues in the election are equal would be wrong. They are not! In fact, in the very same memo we are speaking about, Cardinal Ratzinger states, “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion or euthanasia….there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.” [emphasis added]

The US Bishops, basing themselves on the sound and consistent teaching of the Catholic Church, have stated, “Abortion and euthanasia have become pre-eminent threats to human life and dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental good and the condition for all others” (Living the Gospel of Life). In other words, human life is, yes, one among many life issues, but it is above all the rest and all other issues depend on it.

The priests talk rather loosely about “equally weighty” reasons, and provide no sound account of how to discern that those reasons are adequate. Their statement is incomplete regarding the proportionate reasons for which a Catholic could justify voting for a pro-abortion candidate. A tremendous amount of explanation is missing about the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. This is what makes their statement and the publication of it in parish bulletins irresponsible. And, if it goes unexplained more fully, it could lead many into confusion and error.

Do the very best you can to become informed before you vote. There will be many different races for public office with many different circumstances, but we, as Catholics, must do everything in our power to vote the most pro-life possible. On this, God Himself will judge us.

© Copyright 2004 Grace D. MacKinnon

For permission to reprint this article, or to have Grace speak at your event, contact Grace MacKinnon at

Grace MacKinnon holds an MA in theology and is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: You may also visit her online at

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