"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Why a vote for McCain isn't a vote for cannibalism

In June 2004, just as the American presidential-election campaign was ramping up, then-Cardinal Ratzinger issued a "memorandum" to the U.S. bishops entitled "Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles." Undoubtedly timed to address the specific controversy about the worthiness of pro-Roe Catholic politicians, such as John Kerry, to receive the Eucharist, the memo also if briefly addressed the more general question whether, and if so under what conditions, Catholics can licitly vote for candidates who favor liberal abortion or euthanasia laws. Meant to be confidential, the memo got leaked; any Catholic can read it. Indeed, any Catholic who is literate enough to understand it probably should read it, for the same issues have come up again this election year. Yet now there's a special twist.

It is of course nothing new that we have a Democratic candidate who not only favors the Roe regime but also opposes banning partial-birth abortion. Without judging the consciences of Catholics who will vote for Obama anyhow, I cannot do so in conscience, and many American bishops seem to concur (see the USCCB PDF). For Catholics have a duty to oppose abortion by any and every morally legitimate means within their power as individuals; in a democratic society, that includes trying to persuade people to approve laws forbidding abortion, or at least voting for candidates who would favor such laws. But candidates who support the Roe regime are logically committed to holding that abortion should remain a "constitutional right," immune from infringement by legislation; hence, they are committed to refusing to return the issue to the people, where the normal processes of moral and political suasion can be put to work against the worst form of social injustice in contemporary times. That stance, to my mind, is morally indistinguishable from formal cooperation with abortion; and I do not believe there are any "proportionate reasons" weighing clearly in favor of voting for such candidates despite their formal cooperation with abortion. Even though that is an old debate, I shall have recourse to it in considering the new twist: the Republican candidate, John McCain, though morally opposed to most abortions and also anti-Roe, also favors, and hence favors Federal funding of, embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR).

That is morally objectionable inasmuch as ESCR entails killing the embryos from whom the stem cells are taken. Given as much, some in the Catholic blogosphere call McCain a "medical cannibal" and/or "baby harvester," morally no better than his opponent. They are wont to conclude not only that they personally cannot vote for McCain, but that it would be at best inconsistent, perhaps even hypocritical, for Catholics who oppose any-and-all pro-Roe candidates to vote for McCain. My aim here is not to persuade them that they ought to vote for McCain—a matter best left to their own consciences—but to argue that it is neither inconsistent nor hypocritical for a duly pro-life Catholic to do so.

I begin with the Ratzinger memo. Here's the first part to note:
The Church teaches that abortion or euthanasia is a grave sin. The Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae, with reference to judicial decisions or civil laws that authorise or promote abortion or euthanasia, states that there is a “grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. [...] In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propoganda campaign in favour of such a law or vote for it’” (no. 73). Christians have a “grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law. Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil. [...] This cooperation can never be justified either by invoking respect for the freedom of others or by appealing to the fact that civil law permits it or requires it” (no. 74).
Undeniably, what Cardinal Ratzinger said above about abortion and euthanasia applies just as well to ESCR, a practice which involves directly killing the innocent. Catholics may not vote for legislation permitting or funding ESCR, or even in "take part a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law." Accordingly, the question be to considered is whether Catholics can, in good conscience, vote for a candidate who favors ESCR even if the candidate opposes most or all forms of abortion or euthanasia, as does McCain.

It would seem not. The memo concludes:
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.
So, it is immoral for a Catholic to vote for a candidate on the grounds that the candidate favors permissive laws about abortion or euthanasia. And the same considerations apply in the case of ESCR. But it does not follow that no Catholic can, in good conscience, vote for a candidate in spite of the candidate's favoring abortion or euthanasia or ESCR. A Catholic may do so given sufficient "proportional reasons" to do so; in that case, the voter would only be involving herself in "remote material cooperation" with the intrinsic evils in question, which is not itself sinful. When a candidate favors laws permitting, even funding, the killing of the innocent, could there be such proportionate reasons?

Pro-Obama Catholics, such as Prof. Douglas Kmiec, say yes. In their view, the sum of Obama's policy positions would, if adopted, tend to reduce abortions by reducing the costs of childbirth for women, thus making abortion a relatively less attractive option for many women than it now is. Couple that with McCain's less generous, more typically Republican social-policy stances, along with his support for "wars of choice," and you get a calculus according to which Obama comes out de facto as the more pro-life of the two major presidential candidates. Now for many reasons, I don't find such a calculus credible. Not in the slightest. But this is not the place to explain why; the bishops and others have already done a reasonably good job of that. The point is that it is quite possible for a Catholic to accept such a calculus in good conscience. Such Catholics are, from my standpoint, just as mistaken as other loyal Catholics believe me to be mistaken about the Iraq war or capital punishment. But I wouldn't say they are committing sin just for being mistaken in that sort of way and voting accordingly. For all I know, their error could be perfectly innocent. So, voting for Obama in spite of his favoring permissive laws on abortion, euthanasia, and of course ESCR is not necessarily immoral even if it is objectively mistaken. In the circumstances, one can see why a loyal, informed Catholic might think there are proportionate reasons to vote for Obama even though, in my strongly-held opinion, there are not.

The same holds a fortiori in the case of McCain and ESCR. McCain does not believe that ESCR should be a constitutional right insulated from legislative infringement. He believes that, given the pre-existing stem-cell "lines" and the therapeutic promise of further research, ESCR should be conducted and funded. He is objectively and gravely mistaken, for scientific as well as moral reasons. But given how and why he's made this mistake, I believe McCain is educable on the subject—unlike Obama on abortion. So I believe a Catholic can, in good conscience, vote for McCain in spite of his ESCR stance, because there are arguably weighty "proportional reasons" to do so. He is morally opposed to abortion and anti-Roe, and he favors many other policies that I believe would, on the whole, be good for the country. Of course he is far from sainthood. In the USA, we will almost certainly never get a president whose policies comport perfectly with the social teaching of the Church. As always, the question is whom to hold our nose and pull the lever for. I don't believe that loyal, orthodox American Catholics would be either logically inconsistent or personally hypocritical in doing so for McCain.
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