On Conscientious Voting

Author: Most Reverend John F. Donoghue

On Conscientious Voting

Most Reverend John F. Donoghue
Archbishop of Atlanta

A Letter From The Archbishop


September 16, 2004

Dear friends in Christ,

A few years ago, the Bishops of the United States wrote these words to our people, and they remain true:

"We encourage all citizens, particularly Catholics, to embrace their citizenship not merely as a duty and privilege, but as an opportunity meaningfully to participate in building the culture of life."

This encouragement leans heavily on the forceful teaching of our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, who has said, with special regard for our own nation:

"A free and virtuous society, which America aspires to be, must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage from conception until natural death…man cannot be separated from God, nor politics from morality."

What must Catholics do — in this upcoming General Election, and in all elections of law-makers and law-upholders?

The Church holds her members to acceptance, complete acceptance of her teaching on matters of faith and morals. We can argue incessantly about degrees of authority, and types of authoritative statement. But the Church's teaching is to be held and practiced. In moral theology, there are two kinds of cooperation involved in this question, and they break down as follows: "Formal cooperation is that degree of cooperation in which my will embraces the evil object of another's will. Thus, to vote for a candidate because he favors abortion is formal cooperation in his evil political acts. However, to vote for someone in order to limit a greater evil, that is, to restrict in so far as possible the evil that another candidate might do if elected, is to have a good purpose in voting. The voter's will has as its object this limitation of evil and not the evil which the imperfect politician might do in his less than perfect adherence to Catholic moral principles. Such cooperation is called material, and is permitted for a serious reason, such as preventing the election of a worse candidate." (cf., Colin. B. Donovan, Moral Duties Concerning Voting, EWTN)

This distinction may seem somewhat technical, especially to our modern ears, which are too often satisfied by easier answers. But the distinction is one of profound consequence, and must be accounted when we decide, in conscience, how we are to vote in a given election. The fundamental teaching on this importance is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

"Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church." (#1783-1785)

Dear friends, as a Bishop of the Church, I cannot tell you for whom to vote. It would be to misuse authority given me to exercise with humility and prudence. But I can teach you, on behalf of the Church, the manner in which you must decide for whom to vote, and I hope that in this letter I have given you clear and helpful instruction. If I have failed in this effort, then as usual, I will count heavily on the mercy and understanding of God. But if I have succeeded in giving you a foothold in which to begin your preparations for the upcoming election, then I am content. For us all, our responsibility to our Faith and to our country requires that we consider these issues, and that we do what is right. For only action that is right and true will in the end rescue our country. This is a critical moment — and to do nothing would be a great tragedy. Therefore, let us implore the Holy Spirit to enlighten us, to enlighten our country, and if not even the middle or the finish, may He reveal to us, as we live, at least the beginning of our country's journey back to living the rights endowed by our Creator, rights once happily acknowledged and protected, by all citizens, for all citizens: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — but most of all, Life.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Most Reverend John F. Donoghue
Archbishop of Atlanta