Given some of the recent extreme rhetoric about voting and mortal sin, we really need a reminder about what this language is supposed to mean.

First, the distinction between mortal and venial sin refers to a person’s subjective responsibility for sin – what Aquinas terms the “debt of punishment” incurred by sin. As such, it is strictly speaking impossible for us to label any action a “mortal sin” in the abstract, since any such judgment requires attention to a person’s knowledge and consent to the act.

Second, Aquinas distinguishes these two categories in terms of their connection to our ultimate end. A mortal sin is one that involves disorder in (direct) relation to the end of life itself, whereas a venial sin involves disorder involving “things referred to the end,” with the overall orientation to the end remaining intact. (As I reminded my students when I taught this material just a week ago, it’s still a sin!)

Does voting directly relate to the end of life itself, or is such a political decision one involving “things referred to the end”? Well, it depends. The most obvious way one could risk mortal sin when voting is to act as if the outcome of the election was more important than faithfulness to God – that is to say, if one put party above faith. As should be obvious from that description, it would be difficult to say whether a given vote did in fact involve such willing. Certainly a person who willfully refused to acknowledge a candidate’s immoral stands and actions would perhaps come near this – but there are evidently plenty of people who vote for a given candidate in spite of his or her immoral positions.

One could of course formally support a candidate who held positions contrary to the Catholic faith. By “formally,” I mean that a person could in fact wish with some real possibility of fulfillment that a candidate would in fact implement policies that would be contrary to the faith. Thus, a Catholic might in fact believe that Donald Trump should and could implement an immigration policy that would directly destroy families, or that Hillary Clinton should and could repeal the Hyde Amendment. Formally cooperating with evil actions is always wrong, but even then, the gravity and imputability of the sin would be a matter for a person and their confessor, not for the public forum.

Frustrating as it may seem to partisans on both sides of this depressing election, many, many Catholic voters will go to the polls and vote for either of the two major party candidates, without formally supporting their immoral positions and without believing that their vote one way or the other is more important than their Catholic faith. Bishop McElroy of San Diego has put this very plainly by simply stating that:

  • It is contrary to Catholic teaching to state that voting for a Democrat or Republican automatically condemns the voter to hell;

Of course, one could accuse others publicly and mistakenly of committing mortal sins and threaten them with eternal damnation for it. While it is impossible to judge subjective responsibility in a vacuum, surely the scandal caused by such accusations and the disrepute it brings on Christ’s Church would be very, very bad indeed… and it most definitely is something that involves the end itself, and not some innerworldly activity such a politics which ought rightly to be “referred to the end.”