Can there be Mortal Sin in Voting?

Living in Milwaukee, a bastion of liberalism, I can’t recall meeting any Catholic in the last two elections, including some daily communicants, who did not vote enthusiastically for Obama. And the post-election data in both cases indicate that the majority of Catholics around the country voted similarly. During these elections, however, we occasionally heard news from other states about priests warning their congregations that voting Democratic would be a mortal sin.

These priests had some solid backing from bishops. For the last two decades, a number of bishops have warned not only politicians but individual voters that they should not receive communion without confession, after voting for Democrats supporting abortion rights – including Bishops Burke of St. Louis, Wenski of Orlando (now Miami), Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Maher of San Diego, Weigand of Sacramento, and Cardinals Law and O’Malley of Boston. 

In the 2012 election, Bishops Ricken of Green Bay and Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., and Jenky of Peoria were very specific concerning the danger of mortal sin in voting for Obama. If added confirmation were needed from the Vatican, we have the 1974 declaration from the CDF that “Man may never obey a law which is in itself immoral, and such is the case of a law which would admit in principle the liceity of abortion. Nor can he take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law or vote for it.” And in 2013, Benedict XVI responded to journalists’ questions concerning a contemplated excommunication by Mexican bishops of politicians who would enact laws permitting abortion. Benedict said they would be justified in doing so; but the bishops never followed through. It goes without saying, however, that, if there is anything spiritually worse that mortal sin, it would be excommunication.

But how could casting a ballot – even enthusiastically (like MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, with a tingle up one’s leg) –  be a mortal sin? Voting boils down to a type of speech, free speech. Like a gesture or sign, it translates into “I support this candidate and what he/she stands for.” If a vote is another form of speech, this would seem to imply that even saying in public, “I support Obama and his constant and dedicated extension of abortion rights” would be a mortal sin. This seems extreme. But speech can be gravely sinful: Jesus admonishes us in Mt. 5:22 that even saying hateful words to your brother can put you in danger of hell fire.

Most Catholics, of course, if they had to put the meaning of their vote into words, would not say, “I support elective abortion,” but rather something like “I am just voting for choice.” Still, this boils down to “choice for women to kill their own offspring,” which doesn’t jibe well with the Fifth Commandment of the Decalogue. Supporting this choice justifies murder. How can that not be sinful? Support by words and deeds of the killing, at will, of unwanted unborn humans manifests an indifference which is the opposite of love, and, in fact, makes the supporter into an accomplice of the act – not just “ethically challenged,” but an abettor.

Many post-election justifications were heard from Catholics who voted for Obama. For example, extensions in health care for women would decrease the number of abortions; the administration would bring about the redistribution of wealth; maternity and paternity leaves would help in pregnancies; the expansion of immigration, expansion of unemployment benefits, and other “entitlements” envisioned in the Democratic platform, would better the lives of many – and  even save lives.

In such responses one notices ethical utilitarianism and “the means justifies the end” type of argumentation: namely, good ends will be achieved, but a price will have to be paid (over a million preborn humans destroyed per year). Could a voter actually be unaware of these consequences?  Unlikely.

In spite the mainstream media’s concerted blackout of most negatives about candidate Obama, the news did slip out that, as a member of the Illinois legislature, he alone among the Senators refused to support medical care to save the life of newborns who survived late-term abortion – even after the Illinois legislation had been revised to address his objections. And Obama’s multiple campaign speeches favoring continuation and extensions of the right to abortion left no doubt about his intentions to any of his fervid followers. Could rational beings have no intimation of what would follow from putting this man in power?

The best-case scenario for justifying the Catholic vote for Obama was the advice that Senator Edward Kennedy and other Democrats followed in their famous 1964 meeting with Catholic priests and theologians for two days in Hyannisport, about which I have already written in a former column. After intensive dialogue, the “experts” concluded that a Catholic could vote in favor of abortion. In the aftermath, Kennedy, Al Gore, John Kerry, and other Democrats began shifting from pro-life to “pro-choice.” The basic idea was that, even if you had personal objections against abortion, you should not “force” it on others, e.g., by voting according to your conscience.

It is instructive that in the 2012 election even the Democrats for Life in America (DFLA), an organization that claims to speak for a third of the Democratic Party, could not in conscience endorse the Presidential candidate, Barak Obama. But “Catholics for Obama” harbored no such reservations.

The popular “decision” of not “imposing” your view by liberal theologians has been constantly overruled by the statements of bishops and cardinals, as mentioned above. Unfortunately voters in Congress, as well as voters on the street, think that they have the prerogative of overruling these overrulings. They may think they are also overruling the possibility of committing mortal sin; but this possibility exists, objectively, in spite of deliberately ill-informed consciences. That will become an issue again this November.


Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.