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ABORTION-THEOLOGIANS Sep-29-2004 (1,760 words) Backgrounder. xxxn

Theologians discuss criteria for voters when candidates back abortion

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A Catholic would be cooperating in evil by voting for a candidate for public office simply because of the candidate's support for legal abortion or euthanasia, said moral theologians contacted by Catholic News Service.

But -- with one major exception -- most of the theologians also concluded that a Catholic might still find morally acceptable reasons to vote for such a candidate in spite of the candidate's support for abortion or euthanasia.

A public debate on the moral responsibility of Catholic voters arose this year after the publication of a footnote in a leaked private memo this past summer from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington.

Cardinal McCarrick received the memo as head of a task force of U.S. bishops exploring guidelines for dealing with Catholic politicians whose public policy positions conflict with church teachings on fundamental life issues such as abortion and euthanasia.

Most of Cardinal Ratzinger's memo dealt with Catholic politicians' responsibilities in public life on such issues. The footnote addressed voters' responsibilities.

Although it was only a bracketed footnote in a memo Vatican sources have described as an unsigned "staff document" that was not intended to explore the issue exhaustively, the two-sentence text has provoked enormous attention and controversy across the United States.

The first half of the footnote said a Catholic voter would commit a grave sin of formal cooperation in evil "if he were to vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate's permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia."

Theologians contacted by CNS had no problem with that.

"I don't think there's any need to consider whether from a Catholic standpoint it's OK to vote for candidates precisely because of their permissive stand on abortion. We all know that," said Lisa Sowle Cahill, who has taught theology and Christian ethics for nearly 30 years at Boston College.

"The premise is almost self-evidently true. It's a tautology," said Jesuit Father James T. Bretzke of the University of San Francisco theology faculty. "If X is formal cooperation (in something evil), then doing X is a sin." In moral theology the term "formal cooperation" means that a person not only joins in some way in the evil being done, but does so intentionally.

The second half of the footnote said, "When a Catholic does not share a candidate's stand in favor 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 theologians had no problem with that, either. But they differed in the ways they addressed how "proportionate reasons" should be interpreted.

Dominican Father Kevin O'Rourke, Christian ethics professor at the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy at the medical school of Loyola University in Chicago, said when the footnote speaks of a "proportionate reason" needed to vote for a candidate who supports permissive abortion or euthanasia laws, it refers to what moral theology calls "an application of the principle of double effect."

"When you foresee that your good action will also have an evil effect which you don't intend," he explained, "you justify that evil effect by saying there's a proportionate reason -- or, what I like to say, there's an adequate reason -- for allowing the evil."

But moral theologian Germain Grisez of Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., argued in effect that there would be almost no proportionate reason to vote for a candidate who opposes banning abortion over one who supports a ban, in view of the scope and horror of abortion.

He said the idea of "proportionate reasons" means that a voter has to "make a judgment, bringing to bear all the moral judgments" about two candidates, something that Grisez did not think could be laid out in the abstract.

But he said that "any voter who is thinking about a candidate who says I'm going to support or be against a constitutional amendment to ban (abortion) should consider this: ... There's a very fundamental and radical injustice in the attack against human life that's involved here. It's comparable to the situation in Germany once it was clear what Nazism was."

"I'm not making a subjective judgment about a person's moral condition, but objectively, anyone who's supporting abortion in this country is a very unjust person," he added. "To justify voting for a person like that, one has to be in a situation where the only alternative is someone who's just as bad as that and worse. ... It goes straight to the character of the person and it's a very fundamental, horrible kind of wickedness -- someone who's willing to tear apart little babies and rip them to pieces and flush them down and do it on a grand scale, day after day, millions and millions of them, that's sickeningly wicked."

Father O'Rourke said, "To me, abortion is that serious (an evil), I'd need a hell of a good reason to justify voting for someone (who supports it). But on the other hand, I understand the other judgment ... made by other people that this is one of many different issues, social issues for example, that are important.

"I think universal health care is a great social issue," he continued. "It hasn't been really focused in the people's consciousness, but it's coming that way. I think that not having universal health care is a very serious deprivation in any political party's agenda, but I can understand how other people make a different prudential judgment in that regard."

Father Russell E. Smith, former director of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston and now a pastor, tribunal official and diocesan theologian of the Diocese of Richmond, Va., said proportionate reason does not imply "some utilitarian calculus" but finding "a constellation of other important realities that would turn one away from the person otherwise promoting a culture of life."

A candidate's abortion stand "would be a fundamental factor in determining my vote, but not exhaustive. ... There are other things that I would look at as well," he said.

Cahill argued that in light of the Supreme Court's 1973 decisions making legalized abortion the law of the land, "the most important way to combat it (abortion) is to provide other alternatives."

"It's not very likely in the near future that a much more restrictive law on abortion is going to be enacted," she said. "Even if people would like to see that -- which not all Catholics, for a variety of reasons, would -- it would be questionable if that's a prudent use of our social and political resources because it probably isn't going to go anywhere. So where can the church really spend its moral authority?"

She said one way the church might combat abortion more effectively -- and make people more receptive to its teaching on abortion -- is to work more strongly for women's equality. "Many people who support abortion support it not because they're attracted to killing unborn life but because they see it as a necessary instrument for women's equality in what is still a patriarchal society and one that is violent against women," she said.

She cited housing, child care, health care and educational opportunities as areas where a candidate's "package of social policies" may contribute to increasing or decreasing the incidence of abortion without changing its legality.

Father Betzke, author earlier this year of a new book, "A Morally Complex World," said it is important to realize that it is not a matter of absolutes, but of prudential judgment, when a voter chooses between two political candidates.

He objected to efforts in some quarters to argue that when a Catholic citizen must decide whom to vote for, a candidate's stand on abortion trumps all other issues.

"I would agree abortion has a special urgency in our country," he said, but "I say no, abortion does not trump every other issue. That is methodologically impossible. Abortion can be a very important issue. But no one issue in politics can trump every other issue."

Father Smith, the Richmond theologian, said he preferred to discuss the basic division confronting America in terms of "the culture of life and the culture of death."

He posed a "hypothetical" candidate who "would be pro-life but would be for the dismantling of the American democratic society by turning it into a socialist or communist country."

"That would be something that you say, well, the pro-life issue doesn't decide in an exhaustive way," he said. "But it would have to be a number, or a constellation, of other significant political issues that would bring one to the difficult decision to vote for someone who has based his career on a culture of death."

Cahill said, "I think it's also important for us as Catholics, especially on the basis of our social teaching, to look not just internally at the United States, but at life and threats to life globally."

She cited the millions dying of AIDS in Africa because of a lack of affordable drugs and those dying from other causes who could be saved by changes in U.S. policies. "There's a huge range of issues related to life, not just abortion, that have to be on the table," she said.

Citing Pope John Paul II's repeated emphasis on structures of sin and the need for human solidarity, she said, "I think one reason abortion is held up as a unique case is because it's direct taking of innocent life. There are lots of other types of taking of innocent life that occur because of sinful social structures. Some would say that's not the same because we didn't kill them directly, that was indirect. I'm saying that breaks down. That's not as clear as people hope and it's really not the line of argument that the pope takes."

Father O'Rourke said that when he talks with Americans who think abortion should remain legal, "they say to me, 'Well, nobody's in favor of abortion.' They accept that you can do one evil to avoid a greater evil.

"Well, I don't think you can," he said. "I think that's a great evil ... but that's the mentality of the public and the first thing you've got to do is counteract that mentality. ... The pertinent question is how do we change the hearts and minds of people."


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