Thursday, August 11, 2016

Further Thoughts on Understanding the Ratzinger Memorandum

[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.]

Since 2004, some Catholics have cited the above section from the Ratzinger Memorandum to justify voting for a pro-abortion candidate. One of the problems I see is this appeal doesn't understand the significance of the phrases remote material cooperation and proportionate reasons. The result is the term gets twisted out of context and cited to justify what then Cardinal Ratzinger had no intention of justifying. 

I want to make clear I am not writing about people who willfully distort Church teaching here. I am writing about an error made by sincere Catholics who are deeply troubled by the poor choices for president, but do not understand the moral theology behind his words. When people cite to claim that their vote for a pro-abortion candidate is in line with the Church because of this document, they usually misunderstand what the Church means by “it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.” It is my hope that this article, accompanied by my previous work, might help people understanding the theology then-Cardinal Ratzinger uses as the framework.

Remote material cooperation is cooperation that helps make the evil possible, but is not evil in itself and was not done with the purpose of helping the wrongdoing. We distinguish that from direct cooperation which intends to make an act possible. Voting for a politician because he will promote abortion is direct cooperation. But if the Catholic doesn’t vote for a pro-abortion candidate because he is pro-abortion, the vote still allows the politician to do evil. The question becomes, can we do this?

The memorandum says it “can be permitted,” but we must understand the concept of Proportionate Reason as part of the concept of double effect. Here we seek a good effect but an unavoidable evil effect also happens. If we want to avoid sin, we cannot intend the evil effect. But that’s not all. We also cannot choose an act where the evil effect outweighs the good we want to achieve. So, under double effect, we have to consider the reasonable consequences of our action. If we choose an evil act or an act where we know the evil outweighs the good, we sin if we choose the act.

This is not a matter where we can decide for ourselves what qualifies. This is about objective moral principles. For example, in the case of self-defense, we can use force to drive off an attacker. It is possible that the we might have no choice but killing the attacker. But we can only use the minimum force necessary to defend ourselves. In a life or death struggle, killing the attacker may be a proportionate reason to save your life. But shooting an attacker who swings his fist at you is not a proportionate reason for killing your attacker (See CCC #2269).

So, when we look at this paragraph, understanding these terms shows that this is not a permission to do what you will as long as you don’t cross the line of supporting abortion. He wrote with the purpose of explaining what separates sin from justified behavior. If one doesn’t vote for a pro-abortion candidate because the candidate supports abortion, that is remote material cooperation. It doesn’t directly cause the death of the unborn. But the candidate will support the evil of abortion. Therefore, the proportionate reason (the desired good) must be to stop an evil which outweighs the evil the candidate will do in promoting abortion if elected.

And that’s where some Catholics went wrong. This isn’t about how we rank abortion personally. This isn’t about what we hope candidate A will do or what we fear candidate B will do. This is about the Catholic Church consistently condemning abortion in the strongest possible terms. Homicide. Unspeakable crime. These are not the words of politicians. They are terms used in the official decrees of the Church. Our obligation to oppose abortion is crystal clear:

2272 Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,” “by the very commission of the offense,”78 and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law. The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society. 


 Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 548.

If the Catholic Church condemns abortion in such strong terms, it means that the proportionate reason would have to be even worse if we would treat the unwanted evil of abortion as less. The problem is, no such evils exist today. I could see Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot as greater evils than a pro-abortion candidate. But outside of the uninformed rhetoric of those who post “[Name] = Hitler” on Facebook, nobody sees that as a serious threat today.

Once we understand the concept, it is clear that the memorandum doesn’t give permission to decide whether or not to vote for a preferred candidate who is pro-abortion. It tells us the conditions that determine if an act is sinful or not. Since the conditions justifying such a vote do not exist at this time, we cannot use the Ratzinger Memorandum to justify voting for a pro-abortion politician

That usually leads to a change of tactics. Some Catholics will then argue that no candidate is pro-life, so we are free to vote for whoever we think is less evil. That’s a topic for another time and beyond the scope of this article. But a short answer for this time would be that such a claim has to be proven, not just assumed to be true.

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