This is a book about gambling. It’s a book about Catholics playing the odds about a specific Church teaching, as conveyed by the successors of Christ’s apostles. That particular teaching from those successors, the bishops, is that it is sinful to not vote for the candidate who most adheres to the Church’s teaching on abortion.
In fact, a number of bishops have gone as far as to say that not only is it sinful, but that it can be a mortal sin.
“Whoa!” you say. “Are you kidding me? Since when? I go to Mass every Sunday, and I haven’t heard that.”
I’m sure you haven’t. But ignorance isn’t a blanket excuse for Catholics. They have a duty to learn the tenets of the faith, and to do so with dedication. “Bishops, with priests as co-workers, have as their first task ‘to preach the Gospel of God to all men,’ in keeping with the Lord’s command.”1 And here is what a number of bishops have said explicitly:
Voting for the candidate who least adheres to the Church’s teaching on abortion can be a mortal sin.*
It’s that simple. It’s what bishops, in increasing numbers, are publicly confirming. Here I do not argue whether these bishops are correct (although I accept their teaching); instead, I merely present the factual record: that a meaningful number of apostolic successors have declared that such voting behavior can be a mortal sin, and that a significant number of Catholics are ignoring their teaching. The posit that many Catholics are gambling cannot be successfully challenged, because they indisputably are. Those are the facts.
Now, it’s also a fact that not all bishops have unambiguously made this declaration. To be sure, a very few are so tepid in their declared opposition to abortion that one might legitimately wonder if they truly oppose it. In the context of authentic Church doctrine, they can only be described as extremists. A larger segment of bishops assign “social justice” and “quality of life” issues the same importance as the holocaust of unborn innocents. But most American bishops have now made, or signed on to, statements placing abortion as the top issue for Catholics in the voting booth.
Thus, what we have among the bishops is not material discord about a Catholic’s duty to vote for the most anti-abortion candidate, but the question of whether, or the degree to which, it is sinful not to do so.
(By the way, in this book I avoid the term, “pro-life” a much as possible, because it is often co-opted – and corrupted – by advocates of “seamless garment” propaganda to dilute the primacy of the abortion issue for Catholics. More on that later in the book. And, for convenience, all references to “abortion” as an “intrinsic evil” for Catholics also encompass the other current non-negotiable issues in play today: euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, homosexual “marriage,” and religious freedom.)
The prospect of sinning merely by casting a vote is a question that most American Catholics are never stirred to ponder. It’s a free society, right? And, anyway, the Church can’t legally tell us for whom to vote. “Separation of church and state.” It’s right there in the Constitution, right? (Wrong.) That’s why priests and bishops don’t talk strongly about politics – because politics and religion don’t mix, right?
Well, that’s what we’re told, by both the political class and the Church, itself. Apparently, we can vote for whomever we want, and that seems to be fine with the Church. No worries, apparently.
But many priests and bishops are, in fact, starting to speak out and, notably, not in contravention of the Constitution or campaign laws. They have long possessed every right to discuss politics and even to tell you how to vote, as long as they don’t tell you for whom to vote. But today’s historic threat to religious freedom in America has compelled bishops and priests to push back and break their relative silence on serious moral issues. They are aggressively denouncing the evils of the day, especially those that are currently “in play” in the United States, namely the Six Non-Negotiables.
The “non-negotiables” were identified in the early 2000s by Catholic Answers, the largest Catholic lay apologetics apostolate in the United States. They have since been endorsed by bishops and priests worldwide. The original five non-negotiable issues – abortion, homosexual marriage, human cloning, embryonic stem cell research and euthanasia – were cited as high-profile, high priority, contemporary issues that a Catholic must never support. Indeed, while Catholics could disagree on many other issues, such as how best to help the poor or how to address environmental matters, these non-negotiable issues do not allow for disagreement among Catholics. They involve intrinsic evil, and on these serious moral issues Catholics must adhere to Church teaching.
(A sixth non-negotiable, religious freedom, was added in 2015, amid the rapid rise of once-unthinkable legislation and court rulings that suddenly began removing Christians’ free exercise of their religion. This was most notoriously seen in the oppression of Christian small-business owners for refusing to provide services for homosexual weddings.)
For purposes of speaking out, the bishops winnowed the issues further, and it is perfectly logical that the dominant life-and-death issue, abortion, became the focus of their sermons, inside the churches and without. Abortion is the diabolical cataclysm of our day, they said. Euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research are as destructive to human life, but they are not as pervasive in society. There are more than 2,300 abortions in the United States every day.2 Among today’s moral atrocities, abortion is the greatest.
And so the bishops began their outcry, one by one and collectively. And they stated in strong and sometimes severe terms that Catholics must vote for anti-abortion candidates, for the good of society and for the health of their own spiritual lives. Some were bold enough to warn of such personal spiritual jeopardy in no uncertain terms. One by one, and emboldened by their growing line of predecessors, Bishops Paprocki, Chaput, Jenky, Sheridan, Ricken and others declared that failing to vote for the most anti-abortion candidate could be a mortal sin.
(Where prelates and clergy are quoted in this book, their office and location are those at the time of the quote.)
Of course, theirs remain voices in the wilderness among many of the faithful. That is to say that they’ve convinced themselves that they’re faithful – Catholics, including clergymen, don’t want to hear it. Why? The reasons are legion, but here are three common ones: 1) some priests don’t want to deal with the pushback from liberal parishioners or from local media who will surely object to such a “radical,” politically-incorrect pronouncement; 2) some priests simply have no desire to become embroiled in politics or societal issues; and 3) some priests simply disagree altogether about the sinfulness of voting for a pro-choice candidate. (Again, a ground rule for nomenclature: in this book, “pro-choice” and “pro-abortion” are one and the same, because either term provides for the murder of children. Murder is murder. Death is death. There is no gradation.)
And there we have the spectrum among Catholic clerics: Those who have perspicuously enunciated a doctrinaire teaching on one end, and, on the other, clergy and laymen who after decades of poor, undisciplined Catholic formation cannot abide the orthodoxy of: 1) the bishops’ teaching authority, and 2) the teaching, itself.
Both steadfast orthodox and resolute liberal Catholics have long populated the pews, and their respective states of implacability are, of course, unlikely to change. But there is a very large segment in the middle. According to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study, 41% of American Catholics identify themselves as neither conservative or liberal. Because Catholic voting patterns have proven to be reflective of society at large, at least in recent U.S. presidential elections, we can plausibly conclude that there is a large percentage of Catholics who are simply not political ideologues. That is, they are politically persuadable at election time, and probably don’t much think about politics until then. They are the reason that since 1972 a majority of Catholics have voted for the winning presidential candidate, whether Republican or Democrat, including the pro-abortion Barack Obama twice. 3
Many priests don’t even bother to say to parishioners, “Vote for anti-abortion candidates” Instead, they retreat to safe ground: “Well, there are many issues to take into consideration as a good Catholic,” they drone. “The environment, the poor, the elderly, abortion, immigration, fair housing, employment,” and on and on until 10 minutes, sufficient for a Sunday homily (it’s in no fashion a sermon), have passed, and they conclude that they’ve adequately performed their election-season duty.
But they don’t stratify the issues. Abortion is just lumped in there somewhere in the middle, as if it’s just another thing to consider in the voting booth. Never mind that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has explicitly averred that abortion “is not one issue among many.”4 Never mind that Pope Benedict XVI declared that “Not all issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.”5 “Nah,” the priest says to himself, “my week will be hell if I highlight abortion.” Given his enormous pastoral responsibility, oughtn’t he consider whether his own fate will be hell if he doesn’t?
Perhaps such priestly capitulation to comfort will diminish in light of the aforementioned probity recently demonstrated by many bishops. But given the stakes at hand – eternal life or eternal death – why would priests and laity take the ultimate gamble by ignoring the bishops’ profound declaration that voting contrary to Church teaching on matters of intrinsic evil can be a mortal sin?
In philosophy there is an argument, known as Pascal’s Wager, that holds it to be an indisputably better bet to believe that there is a Christian God and lose nothing if there isn’t, than to disclaim such belief and risk losing everything if there is. In other words, better to be safe than sorry. “I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true,” said Blaise Pascal, a 17th century French philosopher, mathematician and physicist. 6
As to the rather weighty question of eternal bliss vs. eternal suffering, the only sane choice would be to side with Pascal, would it not?
French philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus, who after long professing atheism appeared to have been gravitating to Christianity before his sudden death in a 1960 car wreck, put it this way: “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t, than live as if there isn’t and to die to find out that there is.”
Contemporary Catholic author Peter Kreeft recounts the story of an atheist who demanded proof of the existence of God from the great rabbi and philosopher Martin Buber. Buber refused but asked the atheist, “But can you be sure there is no God?” Forty years later, the man wrote, “I am still an atheist. But Buber’s question has haunted me every day of my life.” Pascal’s Wager, Kreeft says, “has just that haunting power.” 7
If one accepts the teaching authority of the bishops, as a Catholic is obliged to do, then the salvific gravity of their teaching is of ultimate consequence. Catholic doctrine holds that God gave the Church to man as His teaching authority on earth and that the bishops, as successors to the apostles, are assigned to convey that teaching. Now, the bishops do not agree to the last man on every teaching (they are allowed to differ on matters of prudential judgment), but that is because they indeed are men, subject to human individuality. It is the same with popes, some of whom have taught doctrine well and some of whom have butchered it.
We thus see demonstrated the faithfulness, over 2,000 years, of the Holy Spirit who has sustained God’s promise to never abandon His Church, even, as the retired Pope Benedict XVI put it, “when the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing.” 8
Given the consensus, if not absolute unanimity, of the bishops on the mortal sinfulness of not voting for the most anti-abortion candidate, what is the Catholic’s faithful response in the voting booth? Because some bishops are not completely on board, may a Catholic vote for whomever he wishes?
That would be the high-risk choice. Given that some bishops have said that not voting for the most anti-abortion candidate can be a mortal sin, then, proceeding from the logic of Pascal’s Wager, the only rational choice for a Catholic voter is to act in his own salvific interest. It is an indisputably better bet to believe that those bishops are correct and lose nothing if they aren’t, than to disclaim such belief and risk losing everything if they are.
Of course, it is a shame that one of philosophy’s lowest arguments for living a virtuous life – eternal damnation – need be pulled out to encourage Catholics to do so. It bespeaks their ignorance of authentic Church teaching, specifically that they are required to put their faith and hope in that teaching. But it also affirms God’s mercy. After all, God wants all of our love, but he allows mere fear of hell to be sufficient for sacramental absolution. His love for us is infinite, His standard for us infinitesimal.
* (Throughout this book, references to “most anti-abortion candidate” or “candidate who least adheres to the Church’s teaching” also include the “most electable candidate” meeting these criteria. No Catholic is obligated to waste his vote on a clearly unelectable candidate, unless all of the other candidates hold decidedly unacceptable positions on abortion.)