Politics & Policy

What’s a Catholic to Do This Election?

A voter’s examination of conscience.

There’s been some controversy about remarks Carl Anderson, the head of the Knights of Columbus, made during his annual report last week at the Knights’ convention in Toronto. As I explained here, I was in the audience and found his point that Catholics cannot in good conscience vote for candidates who support legal abortion to be an obvious one.

Here I ask him some questions about what he said and what he thinks Catholics and other people of good will ought to consider about the election.


Kathryn Jean Lopez: You made the case that abortion should be treated as a unique bright line for Catholic voters. Why?

Carl Anderson: Abortion is unlike any other issue in the United States. It is the direct killing of millions of innocent human beings. Since 1973 more than 50 million unborn children have been killed legally by the abortion regime we have now. Each year, we add another million to that horrific tally. 

If we accept what science tell us, that the unborn child is a human being, then shouldn’t we take every action we can to protect these children from wholesale destruction? 

Abortion is qualitatively different from any other government killing because it targets exclusively the innocent. And abortion is quantitatively different because it is killing on an almost unimaginable scale. It hardly seems like it should be controversial to propose voting based on this issue. 

Lopez: What does that mean in this election? 

Anderson: It means that if we are serious about stopping abortion, we need to take a real stand to stop it — in this election and in subsequent elections. 

My proposal is that Catholics refuse to vote for pro-abortion candidates across the board. I think we should act based on our moral beliefs and not be complicit in any political act that sustains the legal status quo of massive abortion killing. This strategy should be employed regardless of the political party of any candidate. 

Catholics have a responsibility to build a culture of life. And I do not see how it is possible to build a culture of life by electing public officials who are committed to preserving a culture of death. We have to decide if we really believe other issues in our country morally outweigh the direct, legalized killing of the innocent on this scale. I don’t think any other issue does. I think the only way a Catholic, or a person who believes abortion is killing, can vote for a pro-abortion politician is if they find a way to put their politics ahead of their moral beliefs. If it was the targeted killing of 50 million innocent adults in question, would those Catholics who serve as apologists for pro-abortion politicians still do so? If not, they should have to explain why that would be different.

I said a moment ago that I think there is a strong moral case to be made for drawing a bright line between Catholics and support for politicians who favor legal abortion. But I want to emphasize that this is not some classroom exercise in moral theology or whether it is morally possible to come to a different conclusion. What I am proposing is a practical proposal to end the pro-abortion legal regime in America that has existed since Roe v. Wade

While about eight in ten Americans support substantial restrictions on abortion, pro-abortion politicians do not. While almost two-thirds of Americans support banning taxpayer funding of abortion, such funding is becoming political doctrine for many pro-abortion politicians. 

It’s not radical to say we want abortion restrictions. It’s radical to say we don’t want any restrictions. That’s the position of only about one in ten Americans. But it’s the position of nearly every pro-abortion politician, including those who are Catholic. These politicians aren’t representing the views of the American people. They are imposing an extreme political doctrine on the American people. 


It’s not radical to say we want abortion restrictions. It’s radical to say we don’t want any restrictions.

The pro-abortion side has gotten more and more radical. We see a push to make taxpayers and religious employers complicit in abortion. Things have gotten worse, not better. The only way to stop this is at the ballot box.

Lopez: Does that mean a Catholic in good conscience can — or even has to – vote for Donald Trump?

Anderson: It is not up to me to make the case for who Catholics as Catholics should vote for. I have simply stated that if we want to really change politics, if we really believe abortion is killing and are determined to end it, then we will never do that as long as we vote for those who support abortion. Who gets our vote is a separate question from who does not get our vote, and the latter is what I have spoken about. Others may try to politicize my position, but it is actually non-partisan and bi-partisan.

Lopez: Some Catholics I talk to are considering not voting for president. Is that a responsible position? 

Anderson: If someone is confronted with a case where for certain reasons they decide they cannot vote for the candidate with the pro-life position on abortion, I think it is better not to vote in that race.  

Some people may find it strange to withhold their vote. But my point is that 43 years of voting for pro-abortion politicians because of “other issues” has not improved the situation regarding legalized abortion. If anything, these politicians have become more radical. 

My proposal is simple, and I am not asking anyone to do what I have not done myself. I have never voted for a pro-abortion candidate—period. I have personally supported candidates of both parties, not on the basis of party, but on the basis of their position on abortion. And I have done this when I was working in the White House for a Republican president. Where one candidate was pro-abortion and the other was unacceptable for another reason, I just skipped that line on the ballot and moved on to the next. I have always thought that withholding a vote on principle was also a legitimate way of voting. 

Lopez: How did we get ourselves into this situation? Are Catholics to blame in part for not taking their duties as faithful Catholic citizens seriously? 

Anderson: Catholics definitely bear some responsibility. Too many have accepted what is essentially a bogus and incoherent argument—the argument of some Catholic politicians that they are “personally opposed” to abortion but are unwilling to legally restrict abortion.  

First, we should ask, “Why are they personally opposed?” If it is because they agree that abortion is the killing of an innocent human being, then how can they possibly refuse to take action to protect that life? The rationale makes no sense.  

Remove “abortion” from the sentence and substitute another evil and you see what I mean. “I’m personally opposed to racism, but I won’t vote to overturn apartheid or Jim Crow laws.” Or “I’m personally for equal rights for women, but don’t ask me to impose equal-pay laws on employers who may not agree.” Catholics should stop accepting what is essentially an intellectually dishonest argument.

We might look for clarity on this to then-Senator John F. Kennedy. Campaigning for president, Kennedy spoke at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Even as late as 1960, he had to explain why Protestants could vote for a Catholic.

The speech has many critics. But Kennedy said something that is worth repeating here. He said: “But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.”

That is the more honest approach. What use is it to be “personally opposed” if it never influences one’s actions?

Lopez: Are you at odds with Pope Francis on the priority of abortion in voting? Do you care less about refugees and the environment and poverty than he does?

Anderson: First, Pope Francis is strongly pro-life. He has said that not killing is an absolute value. He has spoken out again and again on behalf of unborn children. 

He has also noted the deficiency of attempts to “ridicule” the Church’s defense of unborn life as “conservative” or “ideological,” explaining that “this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right.” I agree absolutely.

No pope has sought to control the public policy of the United States. But here’s the thing: Since the 19th century and the “Know-Nothings,” Catholics in America have been slandered with the allegation that they have to vote the way the pope tells them. We think of what Alfred E. Smith and John F. Kennedy had to face in this regard. We want to be careful not to fall into the trap. No pope has told us how we must vote, but many have said it is the job of the laity to engage with politics and transform the culture. They have given us moral guidance on key issues, and now we must act. So we understand that the practical, concrete steps we take to implement our values are, of course, responsibilities of the laity and that includes discussions on what values should guide our vote. 

In terms of the other issues you mention, these too have been important to us. My annual reports to the Knights of Columbus discuss our substantial efforts on behalf of refugees, our support for the environment, and our response to Laudato Si. We spend an enormous amount of money to help the poor — from HIV-positive AIDS orphans in Africa to poor children in our inner cities, to families in need of food. I went to Haiti and initiated a program to give 1,000 Haitian children artificial legs after the earthquake there. And when I recently picked up and placed a handicapped Mexican child in the 50,000th wheelchair we have given to the poor in the past several years the tears in his mother’s eyes brought tears to my own.

So yes, I think our priorities are in alignment with the pope’s. We are focused on the same issues. We do not speak about abortion all the time, but we must speak about it some of the time.  

The pope has called the unborn child “the example of innocence par excellence,” and he said that it is “necessary to express the strongest possible opposition to every direct attack on life, especially against the innocent and defenseless.” I agree completely. 

Lopez: How important for Catholic voters is the task of doing something about Christian genocide? What should they say and do exactly? 

Anderson: Around the world, many people face dire problems and heartbreaking circumstances. We see that every day in the charitable work that we do. But some groups face extinction and have been targeted for genocide. This is the case with Christians in the Middle East. 

Perhaps the best analogy is this. There were many refugees during the Second World War, and it was a terrible thing to be a war refugee. But it was altogether different — and worse — for Jews, who were targeted for extermination. For Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, it is not only individual extermination that they face, but collective extermination. 

The genocide and destruction of these indigenous communities could mean the end of Christianity in the region. Silence in the face of such atrocity is not acceptable. Nor is comparing their plight to that of other individuals who face hardship, or even death, but not the wholesale disappearance of an entire community. 

This is not the first time the Knights of Columbus have stood up for the victims of persecution. We did so for the victims of the Ottoman atrocities in the 1920s, and for Mexican Catholics in the 1920s. We did so for the Jews being persecuted by Hitler as early as the 1930s. We did so for Christians denied their freedom by Communist governments in the Cold War. And we do so today.

We should insist that our government help these indigenous communities to survive in two key ways. First, by ensuring that government aid gets to them. And second, by bringing pressure, including through our foreign and military aid to the region, so that these minority groups are not discriminated against in their home countries on the basis of religion, but instead are guaranteed equal rights in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Those rights must include freedom of religion and of speech. People can help us support these individuals and communities at ChristiansAtRisk.org.

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