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ABORTION-JOHNSTONE Sep-24-2004 (810 words) xxxi

Theologian says difficult to judge politicians sinful over abortion

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- It is generally very difficult for theologians to impute sinful behavior to politicians based on their position on abortion, and even more difficult when it comes to voters, said a respected theologian.

Redemptorist Father Brian Johnstone, an Australian moral theologian, said that in the current U.S. debate over politics and abortion, church authorities should be careful not to prejudge the consciences of whole categories of people.

The circumstances of the abortion-politics issue are often so complex that ultimately it's the individual Catholic who must weigh all the factors and "take personal responsibility for his own seeking the truth," Father Johnstone said in an interview Sept. 23.

Father Johnstone, who teaches at Rome's Alphonsianum University, has a special interest in the issue. It was the founder of the Redemptorist order, St. Alphonsus Liguori, who in the 18th century refined the theological concepts of "formal cooperation" and "material cooperation" in evil -- terms that are at the center of the current controversy over abortion and politics.

The application of these terms to politicians and voters is unusual in classical theology and was not envisioned by St. Alphonsus, who lived at a time when the legality of abortion was not an issue, Father Johnstone said.

Father Johnstone said the complexity of the modern political system and the distance that separates politicians and voters from the actual act of abortion need to be taken into account.

"Basically, what it gets down to is this: You cannot just establish immediate connections between politicians and the sinful act of abortion. That's the way I would see it," he said.

"The connection with voters is even more distant -- if we're talking about voting for a politician (who supports legal abortion). A voter could have serious reasons for voting for this politician: He might have strong positions on eliminating poverty or have a strongly worked out policy of supporting marriage, for example," he said.

Father Johnstone said "formal cooperation," which is considered sinful, classically has been applied to those directly involved in the sinful act, in this case procured abortion. He said that in addition to the person having the abortion and the surgeon who carries it out, it is possible that others formally cooperate -- for example, a boyfriend or spouse who talks the woman into having an abortion, or a hospital director who actually intends that abortions should be carried out.

But for politicians, the connection is much less clear, he said. For example, he said, sometimes politicians vote for a law permitting abortion with some restrictions, knowing that otherwise a less restrictive abortion law might be adopted.

There are also politicians who say abortion should be legal but they hope the number of abortions will decline -- and some may even work toward that end.

"So there are cases where simply voting for a law on abortion doesn't necessarily involve willing abortion," Father Johnstone said.

"In brief, I would say that it's not certainly clear that a politician, simply by the fact of voting for a certain law, is involving himself in formal cooperation. You'd have to know what his reasons are," he said.

Material cooperation, on the other hand, involves providing some sort of assistance to the sinful act of abortion, Father Johnstone said. The general theological principle is that one can allow material cooperation if the person has "proportionate reason."

"Of course, the difficulty is how you assess 'proportionate reason,'" he said. That is especially true when trying to decipher the political process, he said.

"In terms of classic moral theology, what it comes down to is that I don't think you can, in the abstract, judge that such a politician is guilty of formal cooperation. Nor do I think you can judge in the abstract that he doesn't have a proportionate reason for material cooperation," he said.

Father Johnstone said that does not exclude clear-cut instances of sinful behavior by Catholic politicians -- if he's deliberately involved himself in the process of promoting abortion, for example.

Or it may be clear that a politician's reason for voting for legalized abortion is not "proportionate" in the eyes of the church -- for example, if the vote was made in order to gain his party's nomination for office, he said.

The problem is that each situation, for politicians or voters, may be different. And much depends on the state of the person's conscience, Father Johnstone said.

That's why theology in general is careful about declaring people sinners, he said.

Refusing Communion is foreseen under limited circumstances by church law and implies that church authorities have determined an individual's state of sin, he said, adding he did not think this could be done on a collective or categorical basis.


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