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. From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rom 13:1–7; 1 Pet 2:13–14), but at the same time it firmly warned that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1995).
During every election season, we have to watch certain Catholic voters try to justify their intent to vote for a pro-abortion candidate, saying that the Church actually permits their action. So inevitably, people will march out the the words of then Cardinal Ratzinger in his 2004 memorandum on the issue of politicians and whether or not they could receive the Eucharist. The final section of this document, in brackets, addresses the issue of the Catholic that votes for the politician who supports abortion and euthanasia. The words in question are:
[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.]
The problem is, people are giving this paragraph an interpretation without even knowing what the terms in question actually mean. Instead, they treat it as if the then cardinal meant that it was OK to do what they feel like doing. But that is not what the terminology means. There are three categories to consider:
- Material Cooperation (as opposed to formal cooperation)
- Remote Action (as opposed to direct action)
- Proportionate Reason
Obviously, if the act by which a person materially cooperates is itself sinful, the material cooperation also is sinful. But even if that act otherwise would be morally acceptable, the material cooperation sometimes is not permissible. Material cooperation in others’ objectively wrong acts involves accepting as side effects of one’s own acts both their contribution to the wrongdoing and its harmful effects; however, one is responsible not only for what one intends and chooses, but also, though not in the same way, for what one accepts as side effects (see CMP, 9.F). In materially cooperating in others’ wrong acts, therefore, a person bears some responsibility, and it is necessary to consider whether one is justified in accepting the bad side effects or not.
The engineer, the locksmith, and the legislators of the preceding examples may well be justified in their material cooperation. But suppose the owner of a gun store happens to learn that a regular customer uses guns and ammunition purchased there to fulfill contracts for murder. In continuing to sell the merchandise simply for the sake of profit, the owner would only materially cooperate in bringing about the victims’ deaths, but would hardly be justified in accepting that side effect.
Assuming cooperation is material and the act by which it is carried out otherwise would be morally good, the question is whether one has an adequate reason to do that act in view of its bad side effects. Often, one bad side effect of material cooperation is the temptation to cooperate formally. For someone who begins by cooperating materially in many cases already has or soon develops an interpersonal relationship with the wrongdoer and thus is led to deeper involvement, including a sharing of purposes. For example, whenever friends, relatives, or members of any group or society materially cooperate, solidarity inclines them to hope for the success of the wrongdoing which they are helping. Thus, material cooperation easily becomes the occasion of the sin of formal cooperation. Then it should be dealt with in the same way as other occasions of sin (see 4.D.3), and may be excluded on this basis alone.
Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Volume Two: Living a Christian Life (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1997), 441–442.
To apply it to our issue, voting is not a sinful act by itself. But the way we vote may indeed be sinful if we cause harm in doing so. Just because a voter may not be voting for a pro-abortion politician because of their stand on abortion, this does not excuse the voter’s action. One has to consider the consequences of their vote, even though they do not personally support that consequence. Given that abortion in America alone takes over one million human lives each year, that’s a pretty serious reason that has to exist to justify voting for a politician who openly states they will continue to keep this legal.
Likewise, remote cooperation involves actions which do not directly cause the act, but still make it possible for the act to happen. If a person knows the results of his actions will bring about evil, even if unintended, the person has an obligation to try to avoid causing that evil to the best of their ability.
Finally, the term “proportionate reason” does not refer to the personal opinion of what an individual wants. It works more like this—if a limb is gangrenous, removal of that limb is a proportionate reason for amputation. If the limb is healthy, removal of the limb is not justified. So, when it comes to voting for a pro-abortion candidate, one has to ask what sort of condition exists that gives a proportionate reason for voting for a pro-abortion candidate.
So, when we see then Cardinal Ratzinger’s phrase, “it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons,” what it really means is this:
The action of voting for a pro-abortion politician without directly supporting abortion does make the moral evil possible (material cooperation). That action is remote because, while it does not directly cause abortion, it still makes the continuation of abortion possible. Therefore, a vote for such a candidate requires a reason that justifies electing a person who will defend the right to abort over one million babies a year.
Archbishop Chaput has really laid it out on the line on what this proportionate reason involves, and his description really points out how superficially people have interpreted the memorandum. In 2008, he wrote:
One of the pillars of Catholic thought is this: Don’t deliberately kill the innocent, and don’t collude in allowing it. We sin if we support candidates because they support a false “right” to abortion. We sin if we support “pro-choice” candidates without a truly proportionate reason for doing so—that is, a reason grave enough to outweigh our obligation to end the killing of the unborn. And what would such a “proportionate” reason look like? It would be a reason we could, with an honest heart, expect the unborn victims of abortion to accept when we meet them and need to explain our actions—as we someday will.
Chaput, Charles J. (2008-08-12). Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (pp. 229-230). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
And that is the long and short of it. Exactly what is the reason that is so serious that it justifies temporarily setting aside the fight against the evil of abortion? It would have to be a serious reason. But when you ask the Catholic who plans to support a pro-abortion candidate what this great evil is, they don’t answer. Why aren’t these people sharing their information with the rest of us?
I think what this behavior shows is that the Catholic who votes for the pro-abortion politician “for other reasons” [†] is not really convinced that abortion is such a grave moral evil. Perhaps they give the teaching lip service, but they think that it is only one issue among many. They misuse the seamless garment imagery by promoting the causes they care about as being equally important as abortion, when they are not. Indeed, all other rights depend on the right to life. St. John Paul II made clear that without the defense of life, the rest of the issues become meaningless:
38. In effect the acknowledgment of the personal dignity of every human being demands the respect, the defence and the promotion of therights of the human person. It is a question of inherent, universal and inviolable rights. No one, no individual, no group, no authority, no State, can change-let alone eliminate-them because such rights find their source in God himself.
The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fínds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights-for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture- is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination. (Christifideles Laici #38)
I’ll leave you with this thought: St. John Paul II called the other concerns “false and illusory” when the right to life is not defended. I think that, if we are honest with ourselves, we cannot call our current partisan political concerns a proportionate reason to justify a vote for a pro-abortion candidate. Yes, all of the current slate of candidates fall short on one issue or another and, regardless of who is elected, we have to oppose that person where they fall short. But we cannot set aside the issue of life in favor of our favorite positions. We cannot let our ideology take priority over our moral obligation as Catholics, even if it means we have to make hard decisions on how to cast our ballot.
[†] The Catholic who votes for a candidate because they support “abortion rights” is guilty of formal cooperation with evil and therefore shares in the crime.