Interesting Follow-up to My Post on the Moral Act of Voting

Last week, I tried to give an answer to a reader who is (understandably) puzzled about how to approach the act of voting, particularly when confronted with candidates who are not merely “less than ideal” (that’s always the case) but committed to supporting policies which are gravely and intrinsically immoral. If you haven’t read that yet, please click here to get my reply.

Anyway, in the comboxes, my good friend Sherry Weddell reprinted something she wrote several years ago about a conversation she had with a couple of moral theologians—both solidly orthodox, big fans of Pope Benedict, and one of them even a bishop (not to mention a solid Dominican). I reproduce her note below, mostly to give some more insight from wiser heads than mine for those interested in puzzling out the complexities of the moral act of voting. It not going to give you a magic answer or tell you “Here is who the Church says you should vote for.” But it will give you some sense of how rich and nuanced (and often tentative and careful) healthy Catholic thought is as it approaches these issues. This is one of the things I most prize about the Catholic tradition: its ability to really carefully pause and consider things without allowing itself to be shoved around by the braying noise of this world. Here’s Sherry’s note:

I’ve posted this a few time over the past 7 years but thought it might be useful. I wrote this up immediately upon returning home, two days after the conversations described before the memory faded.

On Election eve, 2004, I was in Australia. While there, I took the opportunity to ask two world-class experts on Church’s teaching in this area (who are both known for their careful orthodoxy) and the intense political debate that it had engendered among Catholic voters in the US. One was Bishop Anthony Fisher, OP of Sydney (recently elevated by Cardinal Pell), who has a PhD in bioethics and is recognized as (in John Allen’s words) “one of the sharpest minds in English-speaking Catholicism.” The other was Dr. Tracey Rowland, Dean of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, and one of most respected new theologians emerging today.

Voting as formal cooperation in intrinsic evil:

1.  Both Fisher and Rowland emphasized that Church teaching is “very underdeveloped” in this area. Bishop Fisher had attended a symposium in Rome on Evangelicum Vitae 73 in February of 2004. EV 73 reads in part:

73. Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection ...

In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to “take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it” (98).

A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. ... 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.

Fisher said that at this symposium two top-notch, orthodox theologians presented completely opposite views and neither could be considered “wrong” in light of current Church teaching (although Fisher privately agreed with one over the other). The bishop noted that only about 9 scholarly works exist on the subject and that he has read them all. In other words, there is, as yet, no authoritative interpretation of EV 73 to guide us.

2.  Fisher stated that there was no theological basis for asserting categorically that a Catholic could not, in good faith, vote for either US candidate since both had serious problems from the perspective of Church teaching. Fisher said that if he were an American, he’d be voting for Bush –- precisely because of the abortion issue, but that it would be a matter of personal judgment. Life issues had been his personal passion since he was at university and naturally they dominate his moral appraisal of the current scene. Fisher noted that other people with other expertise would naturally be preoccupied with different areas of grave concern that would shape their prudential judgment.

3.  Fisher then made a fascinating comment that I have not heard elsewhere -– that there is no basis in Church teaching for comparing two very different “intrinsic evils” and determining that one is objectively and absolutely more grave than the other. One can compare levels of a similar intrinsic evil. You could say that 4,000 abortions is more grave than 40 or that a genocidal conflict that killed 10,000 was a more grave evil than one in which only 500 died. But you can’t, on the basis of current Catholic teaching, categorically determine that abortion, for instance, is always and absolutely more grave than a given unjust war or torture or severe economic injustice. By definition, something that is truly intrinsically evil can’t be relatively less evil anymore than a person can be only mostly dead (well, outside the alternate universe of the Princess Bride, anyway –- although I did encounter some situations that came pretty close on the cancer unit).

So one cannot state, as definitive Church teaching, that the gravity of the evil of abortion must outweigh all other intrinsic evils or any possible combination of intrinsic evils in our political calculations. An individual could arrive at such a prudential judgment in a particular situation in good faith, but an equally faithful Catholic could come to a quite different prudential conclusion in good conscience. (Sherry’s note: As Michael Sweeney pointed out so clearly this summer, the problem in the U.S. was a failure to make it clear when the bishops were making prudential judgments rather than articulating Church teaching that obliged.)

1)  When I said that it was my observation that quite a few serious Catholics in the U.S. were under the impression that doctrine had developed in this area, Fisher responded that a few bishops making personal pronouncements simply isn’t the development of doctrine. When I asked Rowland why some U.S. bishops had made such statements when they must know that Church teaching did not support it, she pointed out that many bishops are not familiar with the nuances of Church teaching in this area. Rowland (unlike Fisher, who thought that any talk of ex-communication in the midst of an election was imprudent) believed that Ratzinger (she said that she was a big fan of Ratzinger) had made a good case for refusing Communion to a politician who publicly supports abortion but also agreed that there simply wasn’t any clear Church teaching about voting as a form of formal cooperation with evil.

What do you think?

Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, April 17, 2014.

Recalling the Unlikely Ginsburg-Scalia Friendship

Justice Antonin Scalia’s love of debate was one of the things that drew him to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a woman with whom he disagreed on many things, including many aspects of the law.