The following comes from a piece written by Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego published September 19 in The Valley Catholic:
Many widely circulated independent Catholic voter guides propose that the concept of intrinsic evil provides an automatic process for prioritizing the elements of the political common good in the United States.
The church teaches that certain acts are incapable of being ordered to God since in their very structure they contradict the good of the person made in God’s likeness. Such actions are termed “intrinsically evil” and are morally illicit no matter what the intention or circumstances surrounding them. Those who focus primarily on intrinsic evil make two distinct but related claims: 1) that the action of voting for candidates who seek to advance an intrinsic evil in society automatically involves the voter morally in that intrinsic evil in an illicit way; and 2) Catholic teaching demands that political opposition to intrinsically evil acts, like abortion, euthanasia and embryonic experimentation, must be given automatic priority over all other issues for the purposes of voting.
The recent statement of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” shows why this argument is simplistic and thus misleading. The bishops’ statement clearly asserts the absoluteness of the prohibitions against concrete intrinsically evil acts, emphasizing that no circumstances or intentions can justify performing or illicitly cooperating with such acts. At the same time, “Faithful Citizenship” recognizes that voting for a candidate whose policies may advance a particular intrinsic evil is not in itself an intrinsically evil act. Voting for candidates is a complex moral action in which the voter must confront an entire array of competing candidates’ positions in a single act of voting. It is crucial that in voting for a candidate who supports the advancement of an intrinsic evil, Catholic voters not have the intention of supporting that specific evil, since such an intention would involve them directly in the evil itself. But voters will often find themselves in situations where one candidate supports an intrinsically evil position, yet the alternative realistic candidates all support even graver evils in the totality of their positions.
This is particularly true in the United States today. The list of intrinsic evils specified by Catholic teaching includes not only abortion, physician-assisted suicide and embryonic experimentation but also actions that exploit workers, create or perpetuate inhuman living conditions or advance racism. It is extremely difficult, and often completely impossible, to find candidates whose policies will not advance several of these evils in American life.
Even more important, a fatal shortcoming of the category of intrinsic evil as a foundation for prioritizing the major elements of the political common good lies in the fact that while the criterion of intrinsic evil identifies specific human acts that can never be justified, it is not a measure of the relative gravity of evil in human or political acts. Some intrinsically evil acts are less gravely evil than other intrinsically evil actions. Intrinsically evil action can also be less gravely evil than other actions that do not fall under the category of intrinsic evil. For example, telling any lie is intrinsically evil, while launching a major war is not. But it would be morally obtuse to propose that telling a minor lie to constituents should count more in the calculus of voting than a candidate’s policy to go to war. It is the gravity of evil or good present in electoral choices that is primarily determinative of their objective moral character and their contribution to or detraction from the common good. Moreover, because voting is a complex moral action involving mitigating circumstances, a vote for a candidate who supports intrinsic evils often does not involve illicit cooperation in those acts. For these reasons the category of intrinsic evil cannot provide a comprehensive moral roadmap for prioritizing the elements of the common good for voting.