In Ratzinger's well-known letter to Cardinal McCarrick last month (see discussion below), the author closed his memo with a brief note on the moral issues involved in voting for politicians with regard to pro-life legislation:
"[N.B. A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate's permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate's stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.]" (emphasis mine.)
Domenico Bettinelli of Bettnet, last Friday, pointed to Fr. Stephen Torraco's Brief Catechism for Catholic Voters as a aid in reading Ratzinger's words here. Fr. Torraco, in item eight of his 'Catechism,' discusses the issues involved in a campaign field in which "none of the candidates are completely pro-life":
"8. What if none of the candidates are completely pro-life?
As Pope John Paul II explains in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), '. . .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 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.' Logically, it follows from these words of the Pope that a voter may likewise vote for that candidate who will most likely limit the evils of abortion or any other moral evil at issue."
Since Ratzinger supplies no references for his 'proportionate reasons' statement of his letter, it is difficult to discern its textual basis. If he is, in fact, basing his point on Evangelium Vitae (EV), then his observations would be speaking only to a relatively obscure situation which is only indirectly relevant to the average voter. I would argue, however, that he cannot be referring to EV 73-74, because the latter text speaks to an entirely different situation. First, EV 73-74 is speaking specifically to the case of the 'elected official'; Ratzinger to that of the Catholic voter. Second, EV presumes that the politician in question has made absolutely clear his "absolute personal opposition to procured abortion." Ratzinger's hypothetical case, on the other hand, deals with the politician who has a "stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia." Hence, Ratzinger cannot be basing his comment on a reading of EV 73-74. Nor, I think, is it helpful to read the former in light of the latter.
No, Ratzinger seems to be dealing with a situation in which neither EV nor the CDF 2002 Doctrinal Note have explicitly addressed, i.e. the situation of the voter considering a field of candidates for election. While both documents teach that it is "impossible to promote such laws [i.e., that attack human life] or to vote for them," it is also clear that 'Joe Catholic voter' is not directly promoting or voting for such laws. Of course, to vote for a candidate is indirectly to 'promote' the laws which the candidate has pledged to support, but here we get into the tricky area of what is technically know as 'cooperation' with evil. As is well-known, it is only 'formal' cooperation with evil that is intrinsically and universally illicit; 'formal' cooperation implies participation in the actual 'form' of the evil action, which in turn requires either 'direct involvement' or 'shared intention.' EV 74 describes this process as relevant to the situation of abortion:
"Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil. Such cooperation occurs when an action, either by its very nature or by the form it takes in a concrete situation, can be defined as a direct participation in an act against innocent human life or a sharing in the immoral intention of the person committing it."
If one both of these aspects are missing, the cooperation is not 'formal' but 'material.' Now, lest we tread in ethical minimalist territory, we must emphasize that material cooperation with evil is still cooperation with evil, and must still be avoided whenever another viable alternative is present. Yet, formally speaking, material cooperation is not intrinsically evil; its relative sinfulness depends upon the degree of material 'closeness' to the activity (i.e., the extent of direct involvement, the extent of the shared intention). While, again, it should be avoided when possible, it cannot be a priori excluded, and can be permitted in certain situations. (To give you an idea of how 'minimal' material cooperation can be, it might mean using a product manufactured by a company which donates to Planned Parenthood; such products, as many of you know, constitute probably 50% of the consumer market and are nearly impossible to avoid.)
Now, applying these categories to the democratic voting process is fairly simple: Voting for a candidate who supports, in part, immoral legislation is not 'de facto' evil unless the voter manifests one of the two criteria necessary for formal cooperation, direct involvement and shared intention. This is precisely what Ratzinger is pointing out in his memo. Voting for pro-abortion politicians can be permitted so long as a shared intention is not present (the criterion of direct involvement, it seems to me, is difficult to apply to the voting booth). And this results from the simple and uncontroversial application of traditional moral teaching on cooperation to the voting booth.
Yet, to return to the theme of 'ethical minimalism,' it stands that not everything that is morally permissible in theory is morally permissible in practice. It is true that material cooperation with evil is not intrinsically sinful; but that does not mean it is not sinful. Stealing, too, is not intrinsically sinful; but it can certainly be sinful, and generally is sinful apart from rare (if well-known) circumstances. And this is where it important to recall Cardinal Ratzinger's qualifier, "which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons."
Church teaching on abortion is not limited to a simple affirmation that abortion is wrong. Church teaching also speaks to the gravity and 'weight' of its wrongfulness, presented in terms of the grave matter of the act. "There is a grave and clear obligation to oppose [pro-abortion laws] by conscientious objection." Thus, to affirm that abortion is wrong, but then to relegate it to a secondary priority in view of other concerns (e.g., welfare reform) which intrinsically carry less gravity, is also to dissent from Church teaching. And this is as true of the Catholic voter as the Catholic politician. Thus, even if it is permissible, in theory, for a Catholic voter to vote for a pro-abortion candidate, this presumes that other issues are at stake which carry equal gravity vis-a-vis the abortion issue. If no other issues are present, or if they are present, but the pro-abortion candidate is on the wrong side of these issues as well, then the voter has no proportionate reasons for voting for this candidate. Even if he has not formally cooperated in the candidate's pro-abortion stance, he has nonetheless erred in undervaluing the moral gravity of abortion.
Hence, it follows that Ratzinger's statement does not give blanket permission to vote for pro-abortion candidates so long as the voter does not share the candidate's intention in relation to abortion (and, all doom-and-gloom assessments of our American Church aside, the Catholic who would vote for a candidate precisely because of his pro-abortion stance is probably the rare exception). On the contrary, Ratzinger permits such a vote only when 'proportionate reasons' are present. And since the purpose of Ratzinger's memo is to explicitly highlight the relative gravity of abortion/euthanasia vis-a-vis other concerns, the burden seems to be squarely on the shoulders of those who would propose that any other concerns -- those, I mean, which are 'on the table' in the upcoming American elections -- are genuinely equal to the moral gravity of these fundamental matters, literally, of life and death. I'm not claiming that such alternative, grave concerns do not exist. I'm just waiting to hear what they are.
Ongoing commentary by the editors of CatholicKerryWatch
Sen. John Kerry stands with Kate Michelman (right) President of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Since 1995, Michelman's group has given Kerry a 100% rating for his voting record to defend abortion.