A Catholic Vote Must Be a Moral Vote

There was a time not too long ago in our nation’s history when Catholic doctrine positively influenced the outcome of ballot votes by effectively contributing to meeting the perennial need to keep civil law in harmony with moral law. One might consider, for example, the political success of the Catholic campaign in Massachusetts in the 1940s against the proposal to end the legal prohibition of artificial birth control. The civil laws against contraception had been written by Protestants in the previous century, but the general Protestant teaching on that moral issue had changed. In the 1940s, supporters of Planned Parenthood and others were invoking the rationale of civil liberty and pushing for an end to all state restrictions on birth control. The push came mostly through the Republican Party, and Catholic Democrats united in resisting it as immoral.

In 1948 the Archdiocese of Boston conducted a public campaign against the liberalization of birth-control laws and adopted the slogan “Birth Control is STILL against God’s Law!” The slogan appeared publicly on billboards and in radio spots. Catholic priests used the slogan in their homilies. The argument against contraception was made on the basis of natural moral law, not merely religious conviction. Natural law was understood as following from that which is suitable or unsuitable to human nature considered in its totality. A sermon outline distributed to Catholic priests in Massachusetts for their Sunday homily on October 1 explained that “the prohibition of birth control is not a law peculiar to the Church any more than are the laws against murder, theft, perjury, or treason. The Catholic Church does not initiate these laws. They are rooted in our very natures and are written by God in the very heart of every man, woman, and child.”1 The Catholic campaign at the time was successful, and the liberal amendments were defeated. Civil law was kept in harmony with natural law. Of course, the moral victory was only temporary. In our nation in the twentieth century, traditional morality won a few battles but lost the war.

The liberalization and secularization of the United States of America in the twentieth century came about through the modern ideologies promoted in its colleges and universities especially in the 1960s. New and progressive theories of moral truth and justice were introduced into the curriculum. The sexual revolution was underway, and many of the new theories systematically rationalized sexual license, which soon had disastrous consequences in Church and State alike. Commitment to the natural law, which had been fundamental to the founding of our nation, was categorically abandoned and then disdainfully opposed, along with most of the other basic ideals and values of Western Culture.2 Faith and reason, as well as religion and science, were routinely placed in false opposition to one another and no longer considered to be compatible vehicles of objective truth.

Like Europe itself, the United States of America was intentionally founded as a political synthesis of Christian faith and human reason. The original idea was that Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, respectively representing divine revelation, philosophical wisdom, and the rule of law, could be effectively harmonized into a unified political system that with the help of grace would sustain the common good and universal human rights. The synthesis between Jerusalem and Athens began in Judaism even before Christ assumed a human nature and founded his Church, but it was comprehensively advanced by early Christian philosophers and theologians such as St Augustine. It formed the Classical and Judeo-Christian heritage of Europe until it was replaced by modern secular ideologies such as fascism, communism, and liberalism.3 Such ideologies are inherently anti-Jewish and anti-Christian and typically terminate in genocides, as they clearly did in the twentieth century.

In the old world of Europe, the common good was understood not as the maximization of overall pleasure but as the set of social conditions that cultivate and sustain traditional human virtues and morals. Human rights were understood not as the freedom to have or do whatever one desires but as the freedom to pursue that which is perfective of human nature. The existence of God and the providence of God, as well as the basic precepts of moral law, were considered to be knowable by reason alone. If such truths were not evident to someone, a proper education could always make them apparent on the basis of foundational truths which are self-evident to anyone who is able to reason. That was the task of the various philosophers who defined the moral and political philosophy of the West.

Civil law is based in natural human knowledge of the common human good, and God is our ultimate Good. Secularism is the incoherent proposal that the common human good can be defined and pursued rationally apart from God. Human reason itself is opposed to secularism and tells us that God exists and that without God there is no ultimate or lasting happiness. The State is ordered to God by the content of reason, and the Church is ordered to God by the content of faith. The United States of America is “One Nation under God”—not under any particular revealed religious doctrine about God, but under God as naturally known as the author of natural moral law. Without God, there is no real basis for a unified and just society.

“In God We Trust” is therefore an article of reason as well as an article of faith. A nation must have a civil cult of reason and natural law, just as a religion must have clerical cult of faith and revealed law. God is the metaphysical foundation of both natural goodness and supernatural goodness. Civil law is ordered to the natural common good, and religious law is ordered to the supernatural common good. Those who deny the existence and goodness of God fall into a contradiction, because God alone is necessary and sufficient for human happiness. God is also the metaphysical foundation of both scientific truth and religious truth.

Every citizen of every nation in every time and place has the inalienable moral right and duty to acknowledge God and to trust in God. Moral rights and duties are grounded in human reason and human nature, not in any religious confession of faith, and certainly not in any national consensus or will of the majority. The majority can always fall into serious error and stand in need of being called back to reason. Any nation or religion that contradicts our perennial human knowledge of God and moral law is opposed to the common good. The common commitment to natural moral law in Europe and America is what brought about the abolition of the immoral practice of slavery.

The United States of America preserved the old Judeo-Christian synthesis longer than Europe did, but it is now being abandoned here as well. Most of our citizens have embraced secularism and no longer think of themselves as living in a Christian nation. Many of the young people who were very effectively educated in our colleges and universities from the 1960s to the present are now protesting and destroying all our nation’s connections to Christian Europe. The old world of Europe was a cultural system of traditional values, a living synthesis of revelation and reason, which was enshrined in our own nation’s founding.

Many people now see that old European system of Christian values as something evil, as something that must be opposed and dismantled for the cause of civil liberty and a new secular system of values, but there is nothing new about such political movements. Those who take part in them forget or ignore that Western culture has already been there and done that, with terrible and miserable results. The secularisms that took over Europe in the twentieth century and rejected God and the transcendent dignity of the individual human person now threaten to take over America in the twenty-first century.

Thus our nation is at a crossroads this year. We have to decide our future. Shall we retain our original commitment to natural law and the existence of God, which was present in our nation’s founding, or shall we embrace the brave new world of secularism and liberalism, which completely divorces the will of the people from both God and human nature? 2020 may well go down in history as the year when the United States of America as a whole decidedly abandoned its old European values and traditional morality altogether. The choice is ours to make, and one of the primary places that we make it is in the voting booth. We therefore ought to review the basic principles of forming our consciences and voting in accord with the natural law.

No one is ever morally permitted to intend any act that is intrinsically evil. To vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s liberal stance on an intrinsically immoral kind of act is to intend an evil act. To do so knowingly and deliberately is to commit mortal sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly indicates many different kinds of acts which must be morally opposed as intrinsically disordered and therefore evil. Unlike Protestant doctrine, Catholic doctrine has never changed on any such intrinsically evil acts. The Catholic Church has always insisted that all such acts, even if made legal by civil law, are still against God’s law.

What about those who find that no matter how they vote they will be supporting political candidates who contradict God’s law, as most do nowadays in one way or another? In order to vote for a candidate who takes a liberal stance on any intrinsically evil kind of act, it is morally necessary to be opposed to that stance and to have a serious and truly proportionate reason to vote for the person anyway, according to the principle of double effect, which is often used in traditional natural-law ethics. The candidate might have a positive stance on other important moral issues or be likely to do less overall moral harm than his or her opponent would do if elected, but whenever we vote for any candidate who is clearly supporting immoral policies, our specific reason for doing so must always be serious and proportionate. And we must then accept the responsibility to voice our opposition to such immoral policies publicly and emphatically.

For example, we would be morally permitted to vote for a pro-abortion candidate only if two conditions were met: we were prepared to do something positive to make our objection to abortion apparent, and we could honestly estimate that the candidate upon election would do sufficient good to offset the great evil of supporting abortion. Hopefully, we are always willing to protest publicly against legalized abortion. However, given that the act of abortion is a form of murder that violates the universal and inalienable human right to life, and is in fact routinely killing millions of innocent citizens, there is no proportionate reason for anyone to vote for any pro-abortion candidate. The second condition therefore cannot be met in the current situation, and no vote that materially cooperates in the evil of abortion can be justified. No pro-abortion candidate upon election is going to save millions of human lives, but making abortion illegal again, as it morally ought to be in every nation, would do just that.

Finding a proportionate reason to vote for a pro-abortion candidate specifically for the Presidency or Senate of our nation is even more difficult given the constitutionally defined role of these elected offices in nominating and confirming the Justices of the Supreme Court. These factors have often been emphasized by members of the pro-life movement, who typically offer a reliable moral guide to voting. Such factors must be weighed carefully as we now prepare to participate in the upcoming November elections, and the platforms of each political party must be evaluated with a concern to avoid supporting activities which cannot be justified. Human life must always be defended from intrinsically evil acts against it, and voting for a pro-abortion candidate in any political party is therefore morally unacceptable.

Abortion is intrinsically evil and therefore must never be directly intended in any act. Knowingly and deliberately voting for pro-abortion candidates specifically because they are pro-abortion is formal cooperation in evil and is always a mortal sin, but doing so for some another reason is material cooperation in evil and is usually but not always a mortal sin. Many Christians nowadays suppose that such material cooperation is hardly ever a mortal sin, but the reasoning that informs such a conclusion is unsound. Since abortion is a form of murder, voting for pro-abortion candidates even not specifically because they are pro-abortion but for some other reason is still participating in the act of murder. Such cooperation is justified only if it is unavoidable. Certainly it cannot be morally justified by the present conditions that obtain in our own nation. If the present conditions in the real world, not merely in improbable speculation and subjective imagination, were such that voting for pro-abortion candidates would somehow actually save more human lives than it would cost, then knowingly and deliberately doing so specifically in order to save a proportionate number of human lives would not be morally wrong. It would be a justified material cooperation that is justifiable only under the strictest conditions, and those conditions would be met. We would be reluctantly and unavoidably participating in murder in order to save more human lives than would be killed.

As things stand in the real world, however, with millions of unborn babies being denied their inalienable right to life and routinely murdered, voting for pro-abortion candidates when it is avoidable is gravely evil by virtue of the consequences of the act, which perpetuates a social injustice that is exceptionally evil. The matter of an immoral act can be grave by virtue of its consequences as well as its object and motive. The act of voting is good in itself, and we may have the best of intentions, but if a vote materially and effectively participates in the killing of millions of innocent citizens, then knowingly and deliberately placing such a vote when it can be avoided is gravely wrong. Remote material cooperation in the intrinsically evil act of abortion is morally wrong because there is no objective reason which even comes close to justifying such cooperation. A person who clearly understands the moral facts of the matter and clearly has the option to avoid voting for a pro-abortion candidate but then deliberately does so anyway is participating in murder and committing a mortal sin. Of course, most people do not clearly understand the moral facts of the matter, and in their confusion they are excused because they know not what they do, but people of faith who have a moral sensitivity which is informed by grace and cultivated by sound catechesis generally recognize that there is something seriously wrong with voting for a pro-abortion candidate. The guilt that they would feel from such an act is appropriate.

There are many people who claim that such reasoning is naïve and outdated. Many also regard it as reducing a complicated moral question down to single-issue voting. But all moral reasoning involves the question of discerning what can and cannot be justified, and whether our conscience will be violated by a particular course of action here and now in the real world. The question of whether to vote for a pro-abortion candidate is not really very complicated for those who accept traditional natural-law reasoning, as members of the Catholic Church do. When we apply the principle of double effect to the question of voting for pro-abortion candidates, we find that the condition of proportionality is not met, and thus we know that we ought not to do it. And when we listen to those who are attempting to offer some moral justification for voting for a pro-abortion candidate, we find that they are not even using traditional natural-law reasoning, which forces us to conclude that they are under the influence of some modern secular ideology.

There are also many people who find themselves in general agreement with this line of reasoning and its unavoidable conclusion but then maintain that whenever there is no pro-life Democrat available it would be better not to vote for anyone, or would be better to vote for a pro-life member of a third party, than to vote for a pro-life Republican. Many Catholics feel this way, and Catholic Democrats have often found it necessary to condemn and resist the platform of the Republican Party. But times have changed, and it should now be painfully obvious to Catholics that the pro-abortion stance of the platform of the Democratic Party is morally reprehensible. The platform of the Democratic Party contains other policies which are likewise objectionable, but its greatest evil by far is that it rationalizes and promotes the murder of millions of innocent children.

Furthermore, while it is certainly morally permissible to vote for a third-party candidate or not to vote at all, taking either of those options sets aside the opportunity which is now before us—the opportunity for which American Catholics have been praying for decades — to make abortion illegal in our nation once again through the constitutionally defined role of the Supreme Court, and thus to bring our civil law back into greater harmony with God’s law. Whether we like it or not, that opportunity is presenting itself largely through the Republican Party. To set aside such an extraordinary opportunity and thus fail to bring about the political correction of the most terrible social injustice that has plagued our nation and its laws since 1973 would be to ignore the action of divine providence and to fail to do that which is now in our power to do for our weakest and most vulnerable citizens—the unborn. We might not get another chance. For this reason, not voting for pro-life candidates who have a good chance to win is imprudent.

Doing what is morally right is not always easy or pleasant, and nowadays it usually involves facing the outrage and violence of those who have committed themselves to advancing modern secular ideologies, but one thing is very clear: a Catholic vote must be a pro-life vote. Especially for the upcoming November elections, all people of good will who adhere to natural law need to understand that no one is morally permitted to vote for pro-abortion candidates. Catholic clergy and all Christian pastors should be clearly and explicitly informing the lay faithful that voting for pro-abortion candidates cannot be morally justified. Anyone who thinks that it can is making a mistake. And given that our vote can help correct the massive social injustice of legalized murder in our nation, our most prudent course of action is to support all pro-life candidates, even though we disagree with them on other issues. We might have good reasons not to like particular pro-life candidates, and their opinions and attitudes might not be completely consistent on social issues other than abortion, but as a matter of principle we should still give them our vote. The imperative in such cases is clear, urgent, and grounded in the dignity of the human person: for the sake of the babies, vote pro-life!


  1. This episode is recounted in John T McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom (New York: W W Norton & Company, 2003), pp. 229-231. As social norms change, it is always helpful to keep things in historical perspective.
  2. For a summary of the historical evidence that the founders of the United States adhered to traditional natural law, see Robert R Reilly, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2020).
  3. Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), Western Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), pp. 17-58.
Dcn. Tracy Jamison, OCDS About Dcn. Tracy Jamison, OCDS

Deacon Tracy Jamison was raised in a Christian family as the son of a Scotch-Irish evangelical minister in the Campbellite tradition. As an undergraduate he majored in Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Cincinnati Christian University, where his parents had been educated. At this institution he met Joyce, who was completing a degree in Church Music, and after graduation they entered the covenant of Christian marriage in 1988. Through the study of philosophy and the writings of the Early Church Fathers, Tracy was received into the full communion of the Catholic Church in 1992. Under the influence of the theological writings of St. John Paul II he began to study the works of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross and entered formation as a Secular Carmelite of the Teresian Reform. In 1999 he completed the doctoral program in Philosophy at the University of Cincinnati, and in 2002 he made his definitive profession as a Secular Carmelite. In 2010 he was ordained as a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Currently he is an associate professor of philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary of the West.


  1. Avatar sergio Prado says:

    Rome, october the 2th 2020
    It seems that you are supporting one specific republican candidate!
    Remember that “declaring or claiming to be christian” because one has a Bible on his hand or “defend the life” means not only to make populist or fundamentalistic religious publicity, but to live effectively the whole Gospel, it means to live the 10 commandments, do not divorce, do not lie, do not kill, do defend the live of all kind of people, do defend the creation, do fight against climate change, do stop the injustices against the poor, and do stop the production and selling of arms … and so on. Look the doctrine of Pope Francis and you will see another point of view, very different from this “catholic teacher”.
    Best regards

    • Avatar chike anikwue says:

      Dear Sergio,
      The preamble to the American Declaration of Independence reminds us that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these rights are LIFE, LIBERTY and THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS…If you don’t have LIFE, Mr Prado, nothing else matters. Even Papa Francis agrees with the Catholic Bishops Conference of America that abortion, which is the deliberate killing of an innocent baby, is the pre-eminent evil in our society. You may try to assuage your conscience by giving us your long list about what you think matters, but deep down you know that abortion stops a beating heart, and no fake Catholic is deserving of our vote.

    • Sergio, actually address his argument rather than use perjorative terms like ‘fundamentalist’. Deacon’s argument is a sound one that should be addressed on its own merits. Can you do that? Also, back up your claim about Pope Francis. He is clearly anti-abortion, so the burden of proof is on you. Lastly, the Deacon gives no clear indication of his political affiliation, nor his view on certain issues. You could ask him for clarification before drawing conclusions. I would surmise that you would get a complex answer which would not fit your narrow perspective of what is at issue here. To anyone reading the comment by Sergio Prado rest assured this is not a serious comment.

  2. Avatar Harvey B. says:

    Sergio — the “doctrine of Pope Francis”?? We are to believe and follow the doctrine of the Catholic Church.
    Of course the 10 Commandments are the foundation, but read the article again. The deacon clearly pointed out why abortion is preeminent in our times, and how voting for certain candidates/parties can have the impact of saving millions of lives over the coming years.
    The sale of arms is not intrinsically evil. The sale of arms does not directly kill millions of innocent people. Abortion does. So while there is no perfect candidate or party, the article navigates through the dilemma to arrive at the best moral choice we face in elections today.

  3. Avatar Emie Olsen says:

    You have a candidate who is good at words, but does not mean what he says. You have candidate that doesn’t care about moral justice. One who is a misogynist, a racist, evaded tax, while working people eke their way for a living and pay their taxes. And just because he belonged to a prolife party, does not mean he is pro life. Just because one voted the other way mean he is pro abortion. America is now full of hatred, and it is instigated by the words of a president who claims to be pro life, but clearly very unchristian in his daily life. How can I in good conscience promote such a president just because he claims to be what he’s not. A vocal liar. Takes pride in bullying people, doesn’t believe in preserving and saving the environment.

    • Avatar Debbie Koch says:

      Emie, you have read Deacon Jamison’s article as a political pitch for a particular presidential candidate. His article is not about the roiling tides of the election cycle, the political issues, and its candidates. He is not advocating any specific candidate. The deacon is applying the true and steadfast teaching of the Catholic Church and his knowledge of philosophy to the question of the responsibility a Catholic voter exercises when he enters the voting booth . It is about the most shocking scandal of our time, i.e. abortion, which is the killing of a preborn, vulnerable, and innocent person. Years ago, the bishops of the United States stated that when it comes to discerning one’s vote on a particular candidate, the issue of life is the pre-eminent issue.

    • Avatar M. RANSOM says:

      Emie, If we are to begin to look closely at the moral lives of these two candidates we have enough fodder to justify just about anything. The Democratic candidate is not a saint; he has abused many women, is a habitual liar, abused his office for substantial monetary gain, affiliated himself with those of the KKK, ridicules minorities, lied about his participation in the framing of an American hero, and conspired to overthrow a duly elected president. He makes very unsettling remarks about young girls [wanting to see them dance, etc.]. He opposed the tax breaks and deregulations that allowed the economy to flourish. He claims to be a Catholic, but votes to kill the unborn and make it into the law of the land. Both men have their issues; God chose St. Augustine, father of the Church. God works through sinners; Trump is doing God’s work, like it or not. So whose work is his opponent doing?

  4. Avatar Paul Scales says:

    Let’s deal with one travesty at a time. You lose yourself in the weeds when you take on everything at once. And let’s not be too quick to make alliances with those who are categorically opposed to Church teaching.

  5. Avatar Prince Hal says:

    This was a very brave article, and one that we need to hear. But, I would say that commentators on this thread also need to be mindful of respect also. We might see a comment that is diametrically opposed to our own and of course we say that they are wrong and we are right. I am opposed to the wanton slaughter of innocent children. I myself was recommended to be aborted, by two doctors, to save my mother’s life, but she refused, I was born and she lived with the physical health consequences until her death.
    How do I help achieve the reduction, and then the abolition of abortion – no abortion under any circumstances? Is it possible that there are many factors involved, particularly when there are so many adverse consequences with the nominally pro-life candidate? If there is Supreme Court that is solidly pro-life, and social conditions that are productive in reducing the desire to abort, will that not work also? Now there is great complexity in this, and I do not know the answer, but perhaps the answer that we are being told is the right answer, may not be the right answer at all. So, yes, I have a great deal off sympathy for Sergio’s comments. Is he right? I do not know. But thank you for the article and for the comments.

  6. There is a lot of baggage with party labels. Look to the party platforms. There is no Republican policy to support inherent evils. The Democrat’s platform supports many, especially abortion and the homosexual anti-family agenda. Look who supports each platform, are they supportive of the Church? What is the party’s stance on religious liberty (how will your vote affect the Little Sisters of the Poor?) Historically the Democratic Party embraced Catholics, but now the party opposes the Church on every major issue (please don’t mention support to the poor – studies show Republicans are more charitable with their own money than Democrats). Catholic Democrats have a choice, to support their party or their Church.

  7. Thank you Deacon Jamison for your thoughtful comments. I believe that in life and civilized society you must realize that all wrongs are not equal. There is a hierarchy on evil and abortion I believe, is at the top of that list. The intentional destruction of an innocent life is inexcusable. At 19 years of age I, along with a group of like-minded students and adults, held a peaceful sit-in at a local abortion clinic. It was a Saturday and we stayed inside the clinic stopping abortions for a day as we peacefully prayed and sang. We broke the law and were arrested that day. We believed that breaking the law of trespassing to save a life was justifiable. Morally I had no doubt that we were doing the right thing and legally there are laws in existence that allow you to trespass to save a life. But the point here is that killing babies was a far greater evil than trespassing, just as today protecting the unborn is a much higher priority than other wrongs. As Catholics and Christians we must remember what Jesus says in Matthew 5: “If anyone causes one of these little ones-those who believe in me-to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.“ One should look no further than the importance of the the values of our potential Supreme Court nominees to decide their vote. Votes are personal and everyone must search their soul for the moral decision. For me the choice couldn’t be easier

  8. Avatar Deacon Tracy Jamison says:

    Many of the comments being made are ad hominem and illustrate the dynamic mentioned in Pope Francis’ latest encyclical (#15), “In this craven exchange of charges and counter-charges, debate degenerates into a permanent state of disagreement and confrontation.” Therefore I will offer an ad hominem comment. In my lifetime I have taught Ethics in Protestant institutions, secular institutions, and Catholic institutions. Soon after entering the full communion of the Catholic faith, I happened to be teaching Ethics as an adjunct at a Catholic university and decided to include John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor in the course. Most of the students loved it, but some of the faculty members resented that encyclical and immediately accused me of “fundamentalism.” The same thing often happens whenever I use the writings of Benedict XVI. If the commitment of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to natural-law ethics is a “fundamentalism,” then I am in good company and unconcerned about the label, but there is nothing Protestant about it. There is an unfortunate tendency nowadays to set up a false opposition between Pope Francis and his predecessors and to suppose that his teaching represents a radical break with the natural-law tradition. We find that progressives and traditionalists alike are rushing to abandon the hermeneutic of continuity. For my part, the hermeneutic of continuity is the only reasonable and Catholic option. I find no real discontinuity in the teachings of Pope Francis, who shares the same concerns previously expressed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The natural-law tradition cannot be reduced either to the political right or to the political left. In this article I have simply applied it to the upcoming elections and argued that priority ought to be given to justice for the unborn. There are many other legitimate social justice concerns, and I personally share those concerns, but they do not constitute a moral justification for voting for any pro-abortion candidate in any party. We have to put first things first. I can offer no blanket endorsement of any candidate or political party, and I have often publicly defended the moral right to immigrate, for example, though I do not believe that respect for that moral right requires open borders. I have no problem interpreting the encyclicals of Pope Francis in continuity with those of his predecessors. May God guide our nation toward greater justice for all and preserve in our hearts the daily practice of solidarity, kindness, genuine dialogue, and universal fraternity, which our broken world so badly needs in the present age.

  9. Avatar Tony Auciello says:

    Thanks Deacon Tracy. Excellent writing on church teaching, thank you for taking the time to expound on this critical issue that has become crystal clear as to its moral standing, if it wasn’t already.

  10. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Deacon Tracy,
    I agree there is continuity in the teaching of Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. Your article is an excellent presentation of the teaching of the Church as it relates to an understanding of the Natural Law. However, I wonder if the only influence that leads people to reject the natural law arguments is secularism? It seems to me that reality is not only understood in the traditional western way. The United States is a complex of people from many different cultures and religions. Science has given new perspectives about the cosmos, very different than when natural law theory was developed. Is it not imperative that theology consider the context of life experience and develop teaching that contemporary people can understand?

    As for the present political moral dilemma: We have a choice of a candidate that some consider unstable and incapable of being responsible for the destructive weapons that can destroy the world. Another candidate that supports abortion that is in our Catholic Tradition morally evil. The possible destruction of the world vs abortion are political issues that are open to prudential judgments. One does not commit a mortal sin if one decides to vote for one alternative over the other.

    • Avatar Deacon Tracy Jamison says:

      I agree that theology should always consider the context of life experience and be taught in a manner that contemporary people can understand, but having taught normative ethical theory for many years now, I have found that contemporary people have no problem understanding the natural-law approach to moral reasoning. In fact, when I taught it alongside utilitarian ethics, Kantian ethics, and Rawlsian ethics in secular institutions, the majority of college students consistently preferred natural-law ethics, and that was true in the classroom even when I favored Kantian ethics over the natural-law tradition. Before becoming Catholic, I was promoting Kant, and my students were asking for more Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. It’s not that contemporary people cannot understand the classical tradition; rather, they have never been taught it. And the empirical sciences themselves are moving us away from the absurdities of modern empiricism and back toward the moderate essentialism of the disciples of Aristotle. Aristotle and natural law are grounded in common-sense realism, which transcends all cultural, religious, and political institutions. Natural-law reasoning is present in all cultures, not just Western culture, and it is completely compatible with modern scientific reasoning.

      In natural-law reasoning, the judgment of whether an act that materially cooperates in evil is morally permissible is not merely a prudential judgment. Acts can be morally wrong even though they are not intrinsically evil. To decide whether an act is morally permissible, we must consider the act’s intention, circumstances, and consequences as well. If the act materially cooperates in evil, we must consider whether it can be justified by the principle of double-effect. If it cannot, then it is morally wrong, and we know that we ought not to do it. If it concerns grave matter, and we know that it does but then deliberately do it anyway, it is a mortal sin. Grave matter can be constituted by the intention, circumstances, and consequences as well as the object of the act. Some intrinsically evil acts are always grave matter, and some are not. Even when an act is not intrinsically evil but morally wrong by its intention, circumstance, or consequence, the gravity of the matter of the act must be taken into consideration. It is not merely a question of what would be more or less prudent. With regard to estimating the proportion in order to justify voting Democrat or Republican or neither in the current Presidential election, we should give priority to considering what we actually know about the formal platforms of the parties and not be influenced by speculative fears produced by the imagination of improbable outcomes. May God bless and guide us in our deliberations!

      • Avatar Tom McGuire says:

        Deacon Tracy,
        I thought a lot about what you write here. When I studied philosophy and theology, I did not have the life experience nor the questions I now have at 80 years old. In response to ethics, my previous comments were not about those who study Ethics from a Western perspective. I agree that natural law is easier than some other western systems. What about those who come from other cultures; Asians and Africans whose ethics are formed from a totally different traditions? The contemporary person who has never given philosophy any attention? Those who find the truth as defined by big data? I am not a philosopher so I will leave these questions without any answer.

        Oscar Romero makes a lot of sense to me. This is a quote from his wisdom that can be a guide for many who turn to the WAY of Jesus, which I am sure you know well. What he says about love is the criteria to judge all law, even the natural law.
        Tom McGuire

        Oscar Romero LOVE SUMS UP LAW

        Love Sums Up the Law
        Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
        If there were love of neighbor
        there would be no terrorism,
        no repression,
        no selfishness,
        none of such cruel inequalities in society,
        no abductions,
        no crimes.
        Love sums up the law.
        Not only that, it gives Christian meaning
        to all human relations. . . .
        Love gives plenitude to all human duties,
        and without love justice is only the sword.
        With love, justice becomes a brother’s embrace.
        Without love, laws are arduous, repressive, cruel,
        mere policemen.
        But when there is love—
        security forces would be superfluous;
        there would be no jails or tortures,
        no will to beat anyone.

        Archbishop Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love

      • Avatar Tom McGuire says:

        Deacon Tracy,

        I appreciate the work it takes to understand a apply the Philosophical principles of truth to make the distinctions in Natural Law. For most of us human beings, living ordinary lives, philosophical reasoning is beyond our abilities.

        I came across this quote from Mahatma Gandi today:
        “Truth resides in every human heart, and one has to search for it there, and to be guided by truth as one sees it. But no one has a right to coerce others to act according to his own view of truth.”

        Pope Benedict XVI speaking of truth wrote:
        “It is not fitting to state in an exclusive way: ‘I possess the truth’. The truth is not possessed by anyone; it is always a gift which calls us to undertake a journey of ever closer assimilation to truth. Truth can only be known and experienced in freedom; for this reason we cannot impose truth on others; the truth is disclosed only in an encounter of love.”

        I voted, taking seriously moral questions and truth as I know it. My choice is not the choice of all my brothers and sisters. I pray we may find a way to live together in peace even though the president elected is not the one I voted for.

    • Avatar Deacon Tracy Jamison says:

      Hi Tom,
      In the natural-law tradition we distinguish between moral axioms, which are necessarily known to ordinary mature persons by reason, and reasoned conclusions and applications of the moral law, which can be widely or even invincibly unknown to people, due to bad moral education or formation or prevalent philosophical errors in particular societies. All cultures have an implicit awareness of basic virtues and moral precepts, but all cultures also have certain moral challenges and blind spots. Normative ethics is pursued as a science in order to improve intellectual comprehension of what is good and just in habits, actions, passions, and relations. The goal of the moral life is to be more divine: simple, true, good, and beautiful. Aristotle tells us that ethics is based in human nature and is the same for all peoples and cultures. All peoples and cultures have a natural awareness of what promotes human flourishing and what does not. Natural law ethics, like traditional logic, simply makes explicit and consistent the principles which everyone already knows and follows implicitly. Different cultures have different ways to express such universal principles and virtues, but they all implicitly recognize them. You might enjoy reading C. S. Lewis’ little book The Abolition of Man.

      Our own culture has been significantly corrupted by modern ideologies. It is true that other cultures often grasp certain basic precepts of natural law better than we do. As I was growing up as a Protestant, I frequently visited missionaries in foreign cultures and often found this to be true. And in college I developed friendships with many students from Korea, Japan, India, China, and other countries, and I began to see the good and evil in my own culture through their eyes. I found it impossible to believe in moral relativism. There is an essential core of logical and moral principles that all people know implicitly regardless of their cultural or educational background. It cannot be coherently denied. There is a natural deposit of reason and virtue, just as there is a supernatural deposit of faith and morals. But yes, it can be corrupted. Pope Francis like all the other popes is calling the world back to that natural deposit, which the supernatural deposit presupposes.

      With regard to the relation between law and love, Chapter One of St John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor explains the dynamic well. Jesus offers the Ten Commandments and precepts of natural law in general not only as minimum requirements but also as the path towards spiritual perfection, at the heart of which is divine love. In the Gospels (Matthew 19 etc), Jesus invites a rich young man to maintain his careful observance of the commandments and also to add the detachment and perfection proper to the Beatitudes. But the young man goes away sad, specifically because he has many personal attachments.

      Following Christ requires both a mature human freedom and God’s gift of grace. This is not a freedom from observing God’s commandments, but a freedom to observe them willingly out of love for God and neighbor and with a desire for true happiness. Those who choose to live by the flesh naturally find God’s commandments burdensome, but those who choose instead to live by the Spirit gradually find them delightful, even if some of them are initially very difficult. True virtue is the ability to take delight in doing what is morally right and avoiding what is morally wrong. As St Augustine pointed out, God sets love in order in our hearts by enabling us to desire what we ought to desire and to be repulsed by what ought to repulse us. As St Oscar Romero’s poem puts it, if our hearts were perfectly ordered in love through grace, we would spontaneously comply with natural law, and it would be no longer a burden for us but a joy and delight even to exceed its demands. May the Lord perfect us in love!

  11. Avatar Deacon Tracy Jamison says:

    From the responses that I am receiving in person to this article, both positive and negative, from Catholics and Protestants alike, it has become apparent that I should clarify one point. In my own search for moral wisdom, it helped a great deal when I learned that Cardinal Ratzinger, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, soon to become Benedict XVI, provided the following Nota Bene at the end of a letter to the Bishops of the United States of America in 2004 on the “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion”:

    “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.”

    Cardinal Ratzinger’s traditional natural-law approach in this note makes it clear that the moral permissibility of voting for a candidate whose platform explicitly includes the promotion of intrinsically evil acts is a question of whether the voters’ remote material cooperation in evil can be justified by an honest and objective estimation of the proportion according to the last criteria of the principle of double-effect. It is also immediately clear from this traditional analysis that the act of voting for such a candidate is not intrinsically evil. If the act is evil, as it often is, then it is evil not in itself but by virtue of its intention or circumstances and consequences. If it were intrinsically evil, it would never be permitted in any circumstances whatsoever. As many have pointed out, the estimation of the proportion in the application of the principle of double-effect is not a form of utilitarianism or proportionalism that is attempting to rationalize doing something intrinsically evil. The principle of double-effect does not ever permit us to do something intrinsically evil in order to avoid a greater evil. To suppose that it does is to make a fundamental mistake. If the act of voting for a candidate who formally supports something intrinsically evil is evil, then it is evil specifically because it is a morally unjustifiable cooperation in evil. I have argued accordingly that voting for the Democratic ticket in the current Presidential election is morally wrong not because it would be doing something intrinsically evil but because no objective estimation of the proportion can justify it. That is my professional opinion as an ethicist. Just to be clear, please allow me to say that it is also my opinion that voting for the Republican ticket in the current Presidential election is morally justifiable and permissible, not merely because the act is not intrinsically evil, but also because the amount of evil in which the act remotely and materially participates is proportionately less than the good that it potentially secures, such as justice for the unborn in accord with their right to life. Of course, all voters in good conscience must consider the consequences and estimate the proportion for themselves. They should also consider the question of scandal. This is not proportionalism or consequentialism, and it is not a question of doing something intrinsically evil. Part of the problem is that very few people these days know how to make moral decisions in accord with natural-law principles. Certainly it is always true that self-declared pro-life candidates can be morally disqualified for other objective reasons, even though they do not support legalized abortion. If you happen to believe that the remote material cooperation in evil that is involved in voting for a pro-life candidate who does not consistently adhere to precepts of natural law cannot be morally justified by the principle of double-effect, then it is true that you ought not to vote for that candidate. Your conscience might thus require you to vote for a third-party candidate or not to vote at all. But it would be important to base your decision on objective reasons in the candidates’ platforms and not merely on subjective considerations or extrinsic impressions. You should attempt to produce a clear statement of the reasons why you believe that voting Republican in the current Presidential race cannot be morally justified by the principle of double-effect, as I have attempted to do with regard to voting Democrat. In either case, if we are analyzing our moral options in accord with the natural-law principles recommended by Cardinal Ratzinger and the Catholic intellectual tradition, the question turns on the estimation of the proportion. Material cooperation is permitted only when it satisfies the principle of double-effect.

  12. Avatar sergio Prado says:

    Rome, october the 12th 2020
    Excuse me if I copy a long paragraph of the recent encyclical of Pope Francis. Look in this text taken from: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html, how he argues that “Paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers.”
    74. One detail about the passers-by does stand out: they were religious, devoted to the worship of God: a priest and a Levite. This detail should not be overlooked. It shows that belief in God and the worship of God are not enough to ensure that we are actually living in a way pleasing to God. A believer may be untrue to everything that his faith demands of him, and yet think he is close to God and better than others. The guarantee of an authentic openness to God, on the other hand, is a way of practising the faith that helps open our hearts to our brothers and sisters. Saint John Chrysostom expressed this pointedly when he challenged his Christian hearers: “Do you wish to honour the body of the Saviour? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honour it in church with silk vestments while outside it is naked and numb with cold.” [58] Paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers.
    Best regards.

  13. Avatar Constant Y. says:

    Deacon Jamison – Thank you for breaking the silence. I am a recent Catholic convert.

    Without Catholic training but with the guidance of my wife, I have concluded that there are strong forces in this country working to silence the Church, and indirectly the elimination of Catholic school training.

    The purpose of any discussion on moral behavior is to “control” behavior. I believe it starts with AUTHORITY and in a democratically organized country this authority is government. This is why voting for the “right” candidate is so important. We have a candidate that says he is Catholic but never mentions God, at least not to my ear. The other candidate uses phrases like, “In God We Trust,” “one glorious nation under God,” “the dignity of work and the sanctity of life,” “life is a divine gift from God” in many public settings. I grew up thinking America was a God-fearing country. Alas, I now think America is secular and Godless. My point is that we need to remind the mindless (I use this respectfully and with humor) often about our allegiance to God and country (community).

    The silence I’ve heard from the Church these past years is disturbing. The Church, in my mind, cannot and should not remain silent, but maybe this is not my place to think this.

    May I direct you to a recent homily with the title, “Staring Into The Abyss”, but with the You Tube title, “Courageous Priest Speaks The TRUTH About Joe Biden and Kamala Harris”


    Thank you for your courage, Deacon (and your message at St. Lawrence)

    • Avatar Deacon Tracy Jamison says:

      Hi Constant,
      Welcome to the Catholic Church! I have never regretted my decision to accept the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. The only way to believe the deposit of divinely revealed truth infallibly is to believe it in union with the infallible teaching of the Bishops ordained in Apostolic Succession. There are different levels of teaching and certainty within Catholic doctrine, but it has an infallible core which is coextensive with the divine Deposit of Faith and Morals. We must assent to everything which the Church defines as belonging to or following from that divine Deposit. We must also adhere to the teachings which either the Pope or Catholic Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic teaching authority. We cannot be truly Catholic without that assent and adherence. Of course, it often happens that our Bishops will disagree among themselves in areas of interpretation which go beyond that essential core, but our Bishops have not been silent and have continued teaching the divine Deposit faithfully down to the present day, though many people do not assent to it. It is true that Bishops make errors in prudential judgments and are prone to sin just like the rest of us are. But if we want to be certain that we have not fallen into moral error, and that we are believing what Christ actually revealed, then we need to accept their teaching authority and follow their guidance. For our personal act of faith in Jesus Christ to be complete and infallible, we need the Catholic Church, we need the Catholic Bishops, and we need the Pope. And our nation as a whole has certainly been secularized and is desperately in need of the moral guidance of the constant teaching of the Church that goes all the way back to the Apostles and has been faithfully transmitted in spite of human weakness and immorality. It is a tremendous grace of illumination and inspiration to recognize the presence of Christ in his Church. Thank you for your fully Catholic act of faith! Let us renew our efforts to support our Bishops, fellow disciples, fellow citizens, and all people of good will!

  14. Avatar Deacon Tracy Jamison says:

    When pointing out that the estimation of the proportion in the application of the principle of double-effect is a prudential judgment, many well-intentioned pastors immediately offer that fact as a premise or reason for concluding that it is not a sin for someone to decide that proportionality is lacking in an act with foreseeable evil consequences and then to go ahead and deliberately do it anyway. Their reasoning is invalid. A prudential judgment is one that applies a moral principle to a particular case. Matters of prudence are always matters of principle. In applying the principle of double-effect, a person’s prudential judgment is either correct or incorrect. If his judgment is incorrect, then it is true that the person is not culpable for the unjustifiable cooperation in evil, since he thought that he was justified, and simply made an honest mistake. But if his prudential judgment is correct and he deliberately cooperates in evil even though he judges that it is unjustified, then he is in fact committing a sin. And a pastor’s job is to provide the faithful with the specific moral guidance necessary for applying principles to particular cases correctly and thus for making good prudential judgments. It would obviously be inappropriate for a pastor intentionally to leave matters unclear and then to excuse people from sin on the grounds that they are prone to make incorrect prudential judgments. Pastors ought to provide clarity and help us to recognize cases where we are applying moral principles incorrectly and thus imprudently.

    Cooperation in evil is unjustified and morally wrong whenever the principle of double-effect is not satisfied. It is true that the principle of double-effect applies only when an act is not intrinsically evil. The principle must never be used to rationalize committing an act that is intrinsically evil. But an act can be seriously immoral even when it is not intrinsically evil. To decide whether an act is morally permissible, we must consider the act’s intention and its circumstances and consequences as well. If the act of voting for a candidate who formally supports something immoral is evil, then it is evil specifically because it is a morally unjustifiable cooperation in someone else’s immoral act. We must therefore carefully consider whether the vote can be justified by the principle of double-effect. If it cannot, then it is morally wrong, and we know that we ought not to do it, for no one is ever permitted to intend anything evil. If we understand the objective principles by which cooperation in evil can be morally justified, then it is not difficult to decide whether a particular cooperation in evil is morally wrong.

    It is therefore clear that if we decide to cooperate in evil when such cooperation is unjustifiable, then we are committing a sin, and if we know that our cooperation is unjustifiable, then we are personally culpable for that sin. Furthermore, if the matter of the cooperation is grave, and we know that it is grave but deliberately do it anyway, then it is a mortal sin. Grave matter is constituted either by the object of the act or by the intention, circumstances, or consequences of the act. Some intrinsically evil acts are always grave matter, and some are not, but gravely immoral acts are not always intrinsically evil. When an act is not intrinsically evil but is nevertheless morally wrong in its intention, circumstances, or consequences, the gravity of the matter of the act must still be taken into consideration. Unjustifiably voting for a pro-abortion candidate is gravely wrong, and no vote for a pro-abortion candidate in the current election is morally justifiable. Unfortunately, the platform of the Democratic Party is pro-abortion. If there is an error in my reasoning about this issue, please inform me. May the Lord guide the deliberations of all his good people.

  15. Avatar Deacon Tracy Jamison says:

    Hi Tom,
    In response to your comment from October 24, it seems to me that people are just as capable of basic philosophical and moral reasoning as they are of basic scientific and mathematical reasoning. Certainly people sometimes suffer from impediments and lack of opportunity, but philosophy and ethics used to be taught in Catholic high schools just as effectively as math and science are. The school system has changed, but human nature has not. I remain optimistic that people naturally have the ability to learn basic moral philosophy. The question is whether they have the opportunity and the will to do it. The Catholic parish is called to teach natural law and impart moral wisdom to people of all ages. We need to do a much better job of helping parishioners to take an interest in the study of Sacred Scripture and the Catechism and in understanding how to apply natural-law reasoning to contemporary moral and political issues.

    I appreciate the truth in the quotations you selected, but I do not think that Gandhi and Benedict XVI intended to promote a subjectivism about truth. When we teach the truths of math or science, we are not coercing people or imposing something on them that is merely our own opinion or perspective, and the same goes for the truths of religion and morality, which are just as objective as math and science. Gandhi and Benedict XVI would affirm the objectivity of religion and morality, for otherwise their teachings make no sense. In the very statement that “no one has a right to coerce others to act according to his own view of truth” Gandhi is asking us to act according to his own view of truth, and in the very statement that “we cannot impose truth on others” Benedict XVI is asserting a truth that he wants us to accept. If Gandhi and Benedict XVI were subjectivists, what they are saying about truth and justice would be inconsistent and self-refuting. They are moral teachers who spent their lives helping others to recognize objective moral facts, which is what we should all try to do to some degree in imitation of their example. Speaking the truth about justice or offering a moral argument for public consideration is not an act of coercion. We should be as certain of the fact that it is morally wrong to vote for a pro-abortion candidate in the current election as we are certain of the fact that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen. May God grant us a greater assimilation of truth and a more just society for all.

    Deacon Jamison

  16. Avatar sergio Prado says:

    Dear friends,
    look at this video… it seems not very orthodox, ethics, or very christian at all, isn’t it?

  17. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Now what?

    Will we as Catholics begin the important work of healing a divided nation? Will we respond with the love of our enemy? Or will we continue the hate that has permeated so much of the political discourse for the past four years?


  1. […] in our very natures and are written by God in the very heart of every man, woman, and child.”1 The Catholic campaign at the time was successful, and the liberal amendments were defeated. […]