More Muddled Thought

There is a report today at CNS about "Cardinal Mario Pompedda, the retired head of the Apostolic Signature, the Vatican's supreme court," who "said Catholics might find sufficient reasons to consider such a candidate a 'lesser evil' in a field of imperfect choices." This contradicts the opinions of some American Cardinals and Bishops, who agree with the teaching of Humanae vitae that it is never permissible to choose evil, even a lesser one, in order either to avoid a greater evil or to bring about a good.

There will be certain occasions where one is forced to act in such a way as to choose among an array of possible courses of action that are all evil to varying degrees, and in those cases, of course, one ought to choose the lesser evil. For example, suppose you are living in Nazi Germany and you are hiding Jews in your basement. The Gestapo comes to your door and asks you, point blank, "Are you hiding any Jews in your basement?" What ought you to do? Arguably your choices are none of them happy. If you lie, you commit a sin with no guarantee that you will actually save any lives; if you tell the truth, you seem almost certainly to endanger innocent lives; if you say nothing at all, you will probably get yourself arrested or worse, and it seems likely that your house will be searched no matter what you do. It's not clear that any of these choices are unambiguously good, and it's possible that they are all, in fact, bad (though Kant's view was that we are not obligated to say anything in such situations, and we would be acting morally to keep out mouths shut even if that had the effect of getting our house searched). In cases such as this, our Catechism teaches, we must attempt to do what causes the least harm. But we are never permitted to choose to do something evil--we may only act wrongly if there is literally no other option.

In the case of voting for a pro-abortion politician there is almost always a viable, morally licit alternative. Take the last American presidential election, for example. Suppose you are a voter who assumes, as a criterion of choice, that what you think of as a "consistent ethic of life" will require opposition both to abortion and to capital punishment (I'm not attempting to argue that this understanding of the ethic of life is correct, though that is in fact what I myself happen to believe). As it happens, in the last election such a voter would be SOL. The Democratic candidate opposed capital punishment but promised to do all he could to make abortions easier to procure. The Republican candidate opposed abortion but supported capital punishment. According to Cardinal Pompedda, it may be the case that our putative voter may "find sufficient reasons" to consider one candidate preferable to the other, but it is difficult for me to imagine how such a voter could possible claim that support of abortion, which has the very real effect of killing a million people every year, could possibly weigh in the balance against support of capital punishment, which results in far fewer deaths and arguably need not result in any at all.

Perhaps what Cardinal Pompedda means is that, all in all the support of abortion may not necessarily tip the scales in favor of a candidate. After all, Bush not only supports capital punishment, he also supports the war in Iraq, the destruction of our environment, the oppression of innocent civilians, the enrichment of corporations, blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda ad nauseam. So, OK, let's put all that in the balance. Does all of that stuff (which is, in fact, nowhere near as morally clear as the case of abortion) really cancel out the deaths of one million innocent human beings? If Cardinal Pompedda thinks so, then the most charitable description of his moral intuitions that I can think of is "banal."

Clearly to procure an abortion and to vote for a politician who merely wants to make it easier to procure an abortion are two different acts. The former is the direct, intentional killing of an innocent human being. The latter is more like hiring a hit man to do the job for you. Cardinal Pompedda quoted from Cardinal Ratzinger's 2004 memo to U.S. bishops:
-- A Catholic who deliberately voted for a candidate precisely because of the candidate's pro-abortion (or pro-euthanasia) stand would be guilty of "formal cooperation in evil."

-- When a Catholic does not share a candidate's stand in favor of abortion but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered "remote material cooperation," which is permitted when there are proportionate reasons.
Again with the "proportionate reasons"! Surely no sane person is going to suggest that there is any combination of social engineering programs or pork barrel welfare programs that will really count as proportionately equal to one million wrongful deaths a year? Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the conservative/libertarian reluctance to have the state provide free medical care to anyone who wants it is per se wrong, and that, as a consequence of this wrongness, any death that is the result of a lack of proper health care might be able to be put in the balance next to the direct, intentional killing of an innocent child. But it seems unlikely to me that this sort of indirect loss of life, intended by virtually no one, is really on a par with the intentional killing that is abortion, nor is it likely that the unintended deaths caused by lack of proper health care will really reach into the millions per year.

It is possible that, like Cardinal Ratzinger, Cardinal Pompedda is talking in very abstract terms, meaning to say only that it is not by definition a sin to vote for a pro-abortion candidate, just so long as one does not vote for that candidate because of his pro-abortion views. This kind of "remote material cooperation" is not something to be proud of, of course, but certainly it is at least logically possible that it could happen and not be sinful.

But since there are always viable alternatives in a presidential election (our putative voter, for example, could have chosen to vote for neither Bush nor Kerry) I cannot imagine a case--beyond one that is merely logically possible--being made out to excuse a Catholic vote for John Kerry or any other U.S. politician who supports abortion rights to the exent that the Democratic Party does.

But we do live in debached times and, if modern politics demonstrates anything with a reasonable degree of certainty, it is that most voters don't bother to think these matters through very carefully. Earlier this evening I saw a woman with a button affixed to her backpack that said "Against abortion? Don't have one!" There, in a nutshell, is the frightening smallness of mind of today's polemicists. Against murder? Don't kill anybody. Against kiddie porn? Don't buy any. Against rape and incest? Don't have sex with your siblings against their will. But who are we to tell other folks who do enjoy these sorts of things that they ought not to engage in such activities? And for goodness sakes don't even think about bringing your hackneyed Judaeo-Christian-centrist oppressive ideas into the public square to enslave the rest of us! It's one thing to have religious attitudes in the privacy of your own home, where everyone is welcome to be a narrow-minded bigot if they so desire, but there's no reason that the rest of civilized society should put up with such monstrous folks as Christians, Jews, Moslems, and other self-appointed arbitri morum.

It's too bad that lawyers like Pompedda don't stop to consider the ramifications of their words before inflicting them on an unsuspecting public. I'm sure he meant well, though, and he's really only guilty of a remote material cooperation with evil.


Darwin said…
I definately agree with your frustrations. I can't help thinking that even if the good cardinal did not mean his comments this way, that everyone in the US who latches onto these comments will be someone trying to come up with an excuse for voting for someone like Kerry.

That said, the juncture in which I can see such ruminations becoming relevant all to soon (sorry, couldn't help the mild alliteration there) would be if we are face with both a pro-choice Democrat and a pro-choice republican on the presidential tickent. (Say, Rudy vs. Hillary)

Now, I honestly haven't figured out what I would do in such a circumstance. I think that Guliani would probably nominate supreme court justices less damaging to the pro-life cause than Hillary, and he might even be prevailed upon to govern down the center rather than being one-sidedly pro-choice. But at the same time, I'd have to think long and hard before voting for a pro-choice candidate. Especially because the victory of a pro-choice republican would signal to the party leadership that nominating pro-choice candidates was okay.
Tom said…
As far as I know, the Church has not yet struck on the proper formula for evaluating voting as a moral act.

Some see voting as an act that necessarily implies at least proximate material cooperation (if not formal cooperation) in every promised act of the candidate. From this perspective, voting for a pro-abortion candidate is to choose evil.

Others -- and Cardinal Pompedda is perhaps one -- look at voting through the prism of the Principle of Double Effect. The argument here looks, not at the candidate's pro-abortion position as such, but at the effect his election will have on the whole issue of abortion (which includes the number that occur, societal attitutes, and laws). It is possible at least in principle that the negative effect will be small enough -- perhaps because the office has little direct effect regardless, perhaps because it is morally certain that no one legislator will change anything over the course of one term -- that other, positive, and intended effects justify the vote.

Still another (though not wholly unrelated) position is to see voting as a matter of mitigating evil, either a specific evil (as Darwin suggests, voting for the less pro-abortion candidate) or sort of the overall evil. (Zippy regards the "mitigating the overall evil" position as consequentialism, and I'm not sure he's wrong, but I don't think it's been declared beyond the pale authoritatively yet, and of course Zippy regards this whole democracy business as fundamentally anti-Christian anyway.)
Tom P. said…
Darwin, welcome to my world. As a NYer it is rare that there is anyone running who isn't pro-abortion. And the candidate running on the RTL line is usally some unqualified joker who is running ONLY because they are against abortion. And what exactly has GWB done to reduce the number of abortions in the US that made voting for him over Kerry a moral imperative?

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