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Catholic questions heading into Respect Life Sunday

October 4, 2008

Tomorrow is “Respect Life Sunday” when the Catholic Church reiterates in word and deed its commitment to the principle that the right to life is the fundamental tenet of law. And for those Catholics (like myself) who still hold that law sprouts from (or ought to sprout from) a foundational, universal moral commitment to life, the upcoming election is a true test for putting into to practice our belief that law ought to reflect that ethic and that we must, without negotiation, make our vote a symbol and gesture of that belief. MSNBC has a provocative write-up on the tension within the Church going into the presidential election. Justin Cardinal Rigali, the chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, has released his statement for this Sunday, which is a clear and praiseworthy summary of what is at stake politically this November.

Those of us who really believe abortion and embryonic stem cell research to be “non-negotiables” will not vote for either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain, for to do otherwise is to performatively contradict that stance. A vote for Obama and a vote for McCain is an active display of the negotiable quality of these issues. So if a Catholic buys into the notion that there are, indeed, such things as “non-negotiable” issues, then that Catholic remains consistent in action only by refusing to negotiate by voting for the so-called “lesser evil.”

If a Catholic votes for Obama or McCain, then he/she does not, in my opinion (which is based upon Ratzinger’s famous letter on pro-choice politicians), commit mortal sin provided they vote for what their conscience and intellect deem proportionate reasons. A vote for Obama or for McCain is a material cooperation in evil, which is a sin, albeit a non-mortal one. My conscience tells me that I ought not to participate materially in the evil of abortion or embryonic stem cell research. But that’s a standard I hold only myself to, for the duty to follow one’s conscience is binding. I trust that those Catholics who inform themselves of the Church’s teaching on life issues and vote for Obama or McCain are acting in good conscience. I just know that my conscience tells me not to vote for either because it tells me that abortion and embryonic stem cell research are not negotiable issues.

Conscience and morality are not conditioned by a two-party, three-party, or single-party system. The right to life is not relativised, I think, by the fact that either Obama or McCain will win and that a third-party candidate will not. Once upon a time, when the Church was not afraid to refuse to compromise with a political structure, the most ardent of Catholics did not endorse the rule of a sovereign who compromised fundamental moral issues. I pray we recover that worldview soon, for there are many today who wish to compromise in their endorsement of Obama and McCain. I dare not presume that they should be denied the Eucharist (such is their judgment and that of their ordinary). But I do dare to presume that they are weakening the Church from within by means of their negotiation with the ethics of life.

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44 Comments
  1. newenglander permalink
    October 4, 2008 8:59 pm

    In 2004 I, a registered Democrat, could not in good conscience pull the lever for Kerry because I saw him as a “cheerleader” for abortion. And, no, I did not vote for the foolish George Bush either, a total incompetent. Four years later what will I do? Obama is even a more enthusiastic supporter of abortion on demand that Kerry was!
    So four years later? I’ll not vote for either Obama or McCain!

  2. October 4, 2008 9:32 pm

    Excellent and balanced summation of what is at stake here Poli.

    We need to be constantly reminded of our call to witness (martyrion) to holiness and not compromise or relativise our principles.

  3. David Nickol permalink
    October 4, 2008 9:39 pm

    I think letter of Bishop Martino of Scranton puts the “remote material cooperation with evil/proportionate reason” position in its starkest terms:

    Being “right” on taxes, education, health care, immigration, and the economy fails to make up for the error of disregarding the value of a human life. Consider this: the finest health and education systems, the fairest immigration laws, and the soundest economy do nothing for the child who never sees the light of day. It is a tragic irony that “pro-choice” candidates have come to support homicide – the gravest injustice a society can tolerate – in the name of “social justice.”

    Nothing matters but the unborn.

    Tax breaks for the rich and not the struggling middle class? Fine. Poor education? Fine. Millions without health insurance? Fine. Brutal raids on workplaces and splitting up families of “illegal immigrants”? Fine. Another great depression? Fine. We must be willing to sacrifice anything for the 300 million Americans now alive so that the unborn can live.

    But actually, it’s not even that. If there were a candidate whose election would guarantee that the unborn would be saved, then disregarding taxes, education, health care, immigration, the economy, war, poverty, global warming, and every other important issue would not seem quite so extreme. But the choice isn’t between abortions and no abortions. The choice is between two candidates who have different views on what the law ought to be regarding abortions. Can anyone actually foresee the two possible futures and compare the abortion statistics from 2009 to 2012 under a McCain and an Obama administration?

    So what is really important is to vote for the candidate who calls himself pro-life, no matter what the actual outcome will be regarding abortions. And no matter what the outcome will be regarding every other issue.

  4. October 4, 2008 9:51 pm

    This is a powerful post.

    Is there any candidate that you could vote for?

  5. Craig permalink
    October 4, 2008 10:02 pm

    Joe Schriner

    http://www.voteforjoe.com/

  6. David Nickol permalink
    October 4, 2008 10:08 pm

    Doesn’t the concept of “nonnegotiable issues” come from the Catholic Answers voters guide? Cardinal Ratzinger didn’t mention it in his letter. I don’t think it appears in Faithful Citizenship or any other document coming from Catholic bishops.

    It seems to me that Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae endorses the concept of voting for the lesser of two evils:

    In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.

  7. Craig permalink
    October 4, 2008 10:37 pm

    “A vote for Obama or for McCain is a material cooperation in evil, which is a sin, albeit a non-mortal one.” I’m not sure if the church would say that that form of cooperation would result in sin because of the distance…but I think from the vantage point of social sin we are all guilty.

  8. October 4, 2008 11:14 pm

    Well, this is insulting and rather arrogant of you: “Those of us who really believe abortion and embryonic stem cell research to be “non-negotiables” will not vote for either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain, for to do otherwise is to performatively contradict that stance.”

    It’s also not what the Bishops teach us to do in a case where both candidates support non-negotiable issues. As the KC Bishops teach:

    “In another circumstance, we may be confronted with a voting choice between two candidates who support abortion, though one may favor some limitations on it, or he or she may oppose public funding for abortion. In such cases, the appropriate judgment would be to select the candidate whose policies regarding this grave evil will do less harm. We have a responsibility to limit evil if it is not possible at the moment to eradicate it completely.

    I have no problem with conscientious objection, only the insinuation that people who disagree with you on your not electing to vote are somehow less sincere in their belief that ESCR and abortion are great evils. I don’t know, I think that’s an awful thing to say about fellow Catholics.

    This is not “negotiating” on the ethics of life – that would be somehow dissenting from the Church’s teaching. If you assent to the teaching, you assent to the teaching. Politics is not moral philosophy. Sometimes it requires compromise and prudence, because we don’t (and shouldn’t) live in a theocracy.

    You also ignored a key part of the letter where the good Cardinal explicitly condemns the Freedom of Choice act and says “we cannot allow this to happen”. This is hardly a call for Catholics to abstain from voting this November and it’s shameful of you to present it that way.

    The FOCA, by the way, is said to be Obama’s first priority as president. It seems like allowing the FOCA to happen would mean abstaining from voting or voting for the man who wants to make it law: Barack Obama.

    The Bishops could not send a clearer signal.

  9. decker2003 permalink
    October 4, 2008 11:26 pm

    Material cooperation in evil is NOT a sin at all, IF there is exists a proportionate reason. Otherwise, it would be impossible to act all, since almost any action contributes in some way to evil actions by others. Check your moral theology manuals on this point. To say that material cooperation is always sinful is scrupulous. The issue is always whether the principle of double effect is satisfied, e.g. can one reasonably expect sufficient good effects to warrant doing something which will also faciliate another person’s evil action?

    Your argument should be that you do not believe that voting for either Obama or McCain could have any good effect sufficient to justify the cooperation in evil that such an act would entail. I would like to hear why you believe that is the case.

  10. October 5, 2008 12:12 am

    David N,

    Thanks for the helpful EV citation.

  11. October 5, 2008 3:28 am

    Doesn’t the concept of “nonnegotiable issues” come from the Catholic Answers voters guide? Cardinal Ratzinger didn’t mention it in his letter. I don’t think it appears in Faithful Citizenship or any other document coming from Catholic bishops.

    Pope Benedict XVI, (Address to members of the European People’s Party March 30, 2006) :

    As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable. Among these the following emerge clearly today:

    * protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death;

    * recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family – as a union between a man and a woman based on marriage – and its defence from attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different forms of union which in reality harm it and contribute to its destabilization, obscuring its particular character and its irreplaceable social role;

    * the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.

  12. October 5, 2008 9:18 am

    Policraticus,

    Any ideas on how we can recover that worldview?

    Kyle

  13. Policraticus permalink*
    October 5, 2008 9:40 am

    I have no problem with conscientious objection, only the insinuation that people who disagree with you on your not electing to vote are somehow less sincere in their belief that ESCR and abortion are great evils. I don’t know, I think that’s an awful thing to say about fellow Catholics.

    A vote for McCain or Obama is material cooperation in evil, plain and simple. Full knowledge of this cooperation is sinful, albeit a non-mortal one. This is a very easy notion to grasp. If by using the quote from John Paul II you provide in order to strengthen a case to vote for McCain is to grossly misinterpret that encyclical. Obama and McCain are the same on ESCR, disagreeing only on the formalities of passing the legislation. There’s no way to limit that evil without voting third party. The fact is that there are pro-life candidates in this race, and one would limit their material cooperation in evil by voting for them.

    If you are so concerned about people saying awful things to Catholics, perhaps you ought to take it up with Christopher Blosser and Co. They’re the ones using Communion for political effect.

  14. David Nickol permalink
    October 5, 2008 10:32 am

    to principles which are not negotiable

    Christopher,

    Thanks. I stand corrected.

  15. October 5, 2008 10:34 am

    Sorry if I’m misreading Poli here, but I’m interested in hearing him square this:

    … Those of us who really believe abortion and embryonic stem cell research to be “non-negotiables” will not vote for either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain, for to do otherwise is to performatively contradict that stance. A vote for Obama and a vote for McCain is an active display of the negotiable quality of these issues. So if a Catholic buys into the notion that there are, indeed, such things as “non-negotiable” issues, then that Catholic remains consistent in action only by refusing to negotiate by voting for the so-called “lesser evil.”

    with #34-37 of the USCCB’s Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship with respect to the present election. When the Bishops state as they do:

    When all candidates hold a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.

    I don’t think they are relativize the intrinsic evils those candidates hold.

  16. October 5, 2008 10:41 am

    It’s a sad fact that in the “two-party” system such as ours, third party votes are in many cases not even recognized and have no tangible effect. Hence the argument that given the relative equality of McCain and Obama on ESCR, one must evaluate them on other grounds. On abortion, McCain appears to have a distinct advantage over Obama (in terms of his actual legislative record to date and what he will presumably do in office — with respect to the support of the ‘Mexico City Policy'; public funding of abortion; financial support of ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centers'; the installation of judges whose rulings may affect pro-life goals, and so on.

  17. October 5, 2008 10:45 am

    Oh, and for the record: I concur with Michael Iafrate that voting is not the sum total or height of our ‘political involvement’.

  18. October 5, 2008 10:47 am

    If you are so concerned about people saying awful things to Catholics, perhaps you ought to take it up with Christopher Blosser and Co. They’re the ones using Communion for political effect.

    Might want to take it up with Chaput and Burke, etc. How DARE the head of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature make the claim that the Democrats risk becoming “The Party of Death” on the eve of the election? Doesn’t he realize its potential to affect one’s impression of the candidates?

  19. October 5, 2008 11:24 am

    Christopher

    BOTH parties are constantly at risk of becoming the party of death. It’s one thing to say “they have the risk of becoming” it’s another to use that to suggest they “really are.” The second cannot be said based upon the first, and rather, must be denied because one can’t have the risk if one already is. So the concern is for ALL sides to make sure they don’t become it; but both sides both risk it, from their own narratives. That you ignore this distinction and take a quote out of context for a talking point demonstrates the invalid nature of your own discussion on the topic.

  20. October 5, 2008 12:00 pm

    As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable. Among these the following emerge clearly today:

    * protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death;

    It is important to note, however, that Benedict’s list of non-negotiables is not the same as the Catholic Answers list. Education does not appear on the CA list. And the CA list reduces “protection of life in all its stages” to only a few specific issues, while Benedict’s does not. The CA list is clearly a partisan attempt at cherry picking.

  21. S.B. permalink
    October 5, 2008 12:08 pm

    It is indeed odd that Catholic Answers wouldn’t refer to “the protection of the right of parents to educate their children” . . . if their aim is to be partisan, that is. The Republican party is distinctly better (albeit not perfect) on protecting parental rights. Democrats tend to be captive to the teachers’ unions, which is why they so far haven’t been as good at protecting the rights of parents to homeschool, choose a Catholic school or any other private school, choose a charter school, etc.

  22. October 5, 2008 12:32 pm

    Doesn’t NOT voting in this case fail to “do all the good we can do” and “prevent all the evil we can prevent” for the COMMON GOOD?

  23. October 5, 2008 12:52 pm

    Adrienne, exactly. And there is little difference between voting for a third party candidate and abstaining.

    Christopher, I agree with you and Iafrate on that point too, in case that was unclear.

  24. October 5, 2008 1:29 pm

    Zach, considering you think voting is so important, indeed the “most important” way we “do politics, I can’t believe you have such a negative view of voting third party. The more this system remains a two-party system, the less voting matters. And the only way to break out of this essentially non-option of a two-party system is to vote third party.

    Poli – I am really curious about which third party candidates you are considering that would meet the criteria that you apply to Obama and McCain.

  25. October 5, 2008 1:53 pm

    Tax breaks for the rich and not the struggling middle class? Fine. Poor education? Fine. Millions without health insurance? Fine. Brutal raids on workplaces and splitting up families of “illegal immigrants”? Fine. Another great depression? Fine. We must be willing to sacrifice anything for the 300 million Americans now alive so that the unborn can live.

    Spoken as someone who is born.

    In the early days of the republic, everyone who advocated for slavery was free. Today everyone who advocates for abortion has been born.

    This is the definition of oppression.

  26. Nancy Chase permalink
    October 5, 2008 3:27 pm

    I am ardently pro-life, a mother of 4 children, and an Obama supporter. However, I am leaving my Catholicism because of the Church’s mighty use of political influence – wielding it against Catholics like myself.

  27. Christopher permalink
    October 5, 2008 3:42 pm

    BOTH parties are constantly at risk of becoming the party of death. It’s one thing to say “they have the risk of becoming” it’s another to use that to suggest they “really are.”

    Henry — I have never disputed that.

  28. October 5, 2008 3:59 pm

    Nancy,

    The “Church,” depending on what you mean by that, has not wielded political influence at you are any anyone like you. The “Church” has not said you cannot vote Obama. Please do not leave your faith because some of the way some choose to narrowly interpret and convey the teaching of the Church. Voting for either Obama or McCain is remotely, but materially cooperating in the evil each stands for. Each of us, in our conscience, are to free to discern which candidate we believe is better or best.

    As a pro-life suppoter of Obama, I believe you also have a responsibility to make your voice heard on those issues, but you are free to support him.

  29. Nancy Chase permalink
    October 5, 2008 4:30 pm

    JB:

    That’s just it. I do not feel I am “materially” cooperating with evil. I make my voice heard on the abortion issue. Yet I am surrounded by relatives and a community of Catholics who insinuate that by voting for Obama I am literally “assisting in the homicide of innocents.” Where does it end and personal accountability begin? I want no more of this kind of extremism.

  30. David Nickol permalink
    October 5, 2008 4:40 pm

    In the early days of the republic, everyone who advocated for slavery was free. Today everyone who advocates for abortion has been born.

    This is the definition of oppression.

    Everyone who takes any position on abortion has been born.

    The entire discussion we are having here on abortion, and almost everything that the Catholic bishops have been saying recently, has not been about whether one should or should not have an abortion. It is about what the law regarding abortion ought to be. Actually, it’s not even that direct. It’s how Catholics ought to vote in order to determine what the law ought to be about abortion.

    One may agree 100% with the Church’s teaching that abortion is the equivalent of murder, and yet disagree about what civil law dealing with abortion ought to be. Or one may agree 100% with the Church’s view about abortion and about what the law ought to be, and yet disagree on the Church’s theory of the morality of casting a certain vote.

    The Church in essence is saying, “This is the Catholic position on abortion. This is the Catholic position on what civil law must say on abortion. This is the Catholic position on how to get the civil law to reflect the Catholic position (vote for a president who will appoint justices likely to overturn Roe). And this is the Catholic position on the morality of voting for pro-choice and pro-life candidates under the circumstances. ” The Church is making an awful lot of decisions that it seems to me should be up to the voters.

    One thing I have never heard actually explained is what the grievances of the unborn are. We have had Archbishop Chaput say we will have to explain ourselves to them, but if they could speak, what would they say? I can see the case against abortion based on the belief that the unborn are innocent lives that no one has a right to sacrifice. I can’t see the case that the unborn are an oppressed minority group whose rights are being violated. This is particularly so when it comes to a Catholic point of view, in which life on earth (“this vale of tears”) is a test that some people fail, for which they suffer eternal punishment. It is a test, however, that the unborn who are aborted cannot fail, because they don’t ever take it.

    I want to say very clearly that I am not attempting to justify abortion. If the unborn are human persons, then the argument is clear that no one but God has the right to cut short their lives. But what I am saying is that I don’t find the case against abortion to be convincing when it is made based on the loss and suffering experienced by the unborn who are aborted. We have no idea what it is, but what we can say is that presumably it is the same as experienced by any infants who die at a very early point, through abortion, miscarriage, or even early embryo loss before implantation, the last of which dwarfs the number of lives lost to abortion. And nobody even thinks about them, let alone prays for them or attempts to do anything about them.

  31. October 5, 2008 4:45 pm

    The term materially cooperating with evil is a theological and does not imply moral guilt. You are not assisting in the homicide of innocents.

    Part of the difficulty is that many American Catholics have been heavily influenced by individualism and we have lost the concepts of social sin and the role of the community as the Body of Christ. In a certain sense, as we are all members of society, we all, as members of this body, share in the guilt of our country (abortion, wars, torture, economic slavery, etc.). At the same time however, we can be living, personally, in a way that is responsibly and “free” from guilt in these matters.

    The extremism is not orthodox Catholicism. It is a narrowing of the faith into a specific political ideology or moral issue. Stand firm in the faith. Do not let them take it away from you.

  32. October 5, 2008 5:12 pm

    Everyone who takes any position on abortion has been born.

    That’s right, David. The abolitionists who fought against the evils of slavery were free also. This was because that slaves, being enslaved and having no rights could not advocate for themselves. I’d say the same was true of the unborn. Being enslaved, they have no rights and cannot advocate for themselves. It takes those who are “free” to fight for them. We are the modern day abolitionists.

  33. Nancy Chase permalink
    October 5, 2008 6:23 pm

    JB:

    Thank you for taking time to respond so kindly (and intelligently) to me. I sincerely appreciate it.

  34. October 5, 2008 6:39 pm

    Nancy,

    Your a quite welcome. I have dealt with similar frustrations, although probably not to the same extent that you have, so I can sympathize.

    God bless and Pax Christi

  35. October 5, 2008 8:22 pm

    Michael,

    I have to say I think you have it exactly backwards. The two party system is what makes our votes count. If we had 3, 4, or 100 political parties, almost all of our votes would be less effective. There is an article available here which details some of the reasons I believe this. Section 4 addresses direct election and the two party system.

  36. October 5, 2008 9:05 pm

    2 party system only works if they, collectively, represent the people well. This is not longer the case. Instead the people are being forced to alter themselves to fit within the mold of this party or that one.

  37. October 5, 2008 9:27 pm

    Zach – The three party system of Canada seems to work pretty well. Secondly, many people do not vote precisely because of the absurdity of the two party system. Thirdly, I think it’s strange that you would defend a system whose two parties are not able in any discernible way to reflect the concerns of Catholic voters. Unless, of course, you happen to think that Republican party fits nicely with Catholic values.

  38. October 6, 2008 8:13 am

    Your argument should be that you do not believe that voting for either Obama or McCain could have any good effect sufficient to justify the cooperation in evil that such an act would entail. I would like to hear why you believe that is the case.

    Exactly. Remote material cooperation with evil is not a sin in the presence of a proportionate reason. It is sinful when there is no proportionate reason (and simply giving a reason and saying that it is proportionate does not mean that there is in fact a proportionate reason).

  39. October 6, 2008 8:20 am

    Michael how in your politics do you account for pluralism?

    I don’t think the Republican party fits “nicely” with Catholicism. I do think the American system of mixed government has many good things which are consonant with Catholicism. I also think we can work from within the parties to change them. The parties do, in some ways, reflect the concerns of Catholic voters. No party would be perfect – even a Catholic party would likely not be united in aim and principles.

  40. David Nickol permalink
    October 6, 2008 8:47 am

    Being enslaved, they have no rights and cannot advocate for themselves. It takes those who are “free” to fight for them. We are the modern day abolitionists.

    The unborn are not “enslaved.”

    There is no abortion equivalent to the slave trade. No one raids other countries in search of unborn babies to abort. Every case of abortion is a personal choice.

    Also, it is ironic that the religious right tries to make an analogy to slavery, when it is doubtful they would have been abolitionists during the run-up to the Civil War, and when they are the least likely at present to want to face up to and deal with the aftermath of slavery, which is still one of the major problems in the United States.

  41. jeremy permalink
    October 6, 2008 10:29 am

    There is no abortion equivalent to the slave trade. No one raids other countries in search of unborn babies to abort. Every case of abortion is a personal choice.

    Everyone who bought a slave made a personal choice. The fact that someone makes a personal choice does not make it right.

    religious right tries to make an analogy to slavery, when it is doubtful they would have been abolitionists during the run-up to the Civil War
    Maybe in your mind. However, those who would seek to know God and know the Will of God would have a hard time squaring pro-slavery beliefs with Jesus’s two main commandments.

    Also, the same could be said of the democrats, who fought the hardest for segregation. That is a mighty broad brush you are painting with.

  42. October 6, 2008 11:13 am

    Democrats run today’s plantations, from L.A. to Oakland, D.C and Detroit.

  43. October 6, 2008 12:50 pm

    Poli, very nice post indeed.

  44. Policraticus permalink*
    October 7, 2008 9:14 am

    I haven’t been on the blog for the past few days. There are many assumptions that Christopher, Zach, and Adrienne carry that either need to be argued for or argued against. That said, I will expose the errors of their assumptions later this afternoon in a separate post. I see that their errors stem from a relativising of Catholic teaching on political life, which they largely seem unconscious of.

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