Perfect vs. Good

From Red Cardigan:

A fascinating discussion, in which I’ve been privileged to participate, has been taking place here and here at Mark Shea’s blog on the general topic of voting and Catholic morality. Specifically, the question concerns the following matter: is it morally acceptable for a Catholic to vote for a candidate who supports that which is intrinsically evil?

The formulation which seems to be developing among those who think that Catholics should not vote this way might be stated as follows:

  • Catholics must never support intrinsic evil
  • Catholics must never vote for someone who supports intrinsic evil
  • Catholics must especially not vote for someone who supports killing innocent humans
  • Obama supports this intrinsic evil (abortion, infanticide, etc.)
  • McCain supports this intrinsic evil (ESCR)
  • Therefore, Catholics must not, from a moral perspective, vote for either of these candidates.

I’m sympathetic to this viewpoint, but unfortunately, my mind working in the odd way it does, I soon came up with a dilemma, which is this:

  • If Catholics must never vote for someone who supports intrinsic evil, and
  • If contraception is intrinsic evil, and
  • If Catholics must especially never vote for someone who supports killing innocent humans, and
  • If many if not most forms of contraception are abortifacient, and
  • If every candidate running for President, including 3rd party candidates, supports the continued federal government funding of abortifacient contraceptives through Medicaid and other federal programs, then
  • Catholics may not morally now vote for any person who is running for President, and
  • Catholics will be unlikely for the foreseeable future to be able to vote for any person who is running for President without objectively doing that which is immoral.

Now, there are three problems with this sort of reasoning. The first two can be discovered by looking at this excerpt from the statement from the USCCB on Faithful Citizenship:

34. Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods. A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.

35. There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.

36. When all candidates hold a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.

The two problems I see here are: 1) It is clear that the U.S. bishops believe that deciding not to vote for any candidate should be an “extraordinary step,” not the default mode for voters in America until abortifacient contraception is no longer funded by the government or supported by candidates, and 2) section 35 outlines the possibility of voting for a candidate in spite of his unacceptable position and for other “morally grave reasons.” I’ll get back to that in a moment, but first, I want to point out that if it were indeed morally wrong ever to vote for any candidate who gives any level of support for any intrinsic evil, the bishops could not permit the option.

The third problem has to do with both the Catechism’s words on voting and the notion of limiting evil. The Catechism, #2240, says this:

“Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country…”

And from Father Z’s blog comes this letter from the Kansas City bishops on principles of moral responsibility of voting, which contains the following:

Limiting Grave Evil

In another circumstance, we may be confronted with a voting choice between two candidates who support abortion, though one may favor some limitations on it, or he or she may oppose public funding for abortion. In such cases, the appropriate judgment would be to select the candidate whose policies regarding this grave evil will do less harm. We have a responsibility to limit evil if it is not possible at the moment to eradicate it completely.

“We have a responsibility to limit evil if it is not possible at the moment to eradicate it completely.” I’m repeating that line because it seems to be particularly germane to the matter at hand, which leads to a new syllogism of sorts:

  • If Catholics have the moral obligation to exercise their right to vote, and
  • If Catholics have a responsibility to limit evil when it’s not possible to eradicate it, and
  • If morally grave reasons exist to choose the candidate whose position in favor of intrinsic evil are less extreme and who will work to limit or eliminate other intrinsic evils, and
  • If the decision not to vote at all is not the clear moral choice (i.e., between two candidates who both favor intrinsic evil neither one of whom will eliminate intrinsic evil in any way), and
  • If no candidate even in third-parties is completely free from the support of intrinsic evil, then
  • The Catholic voter may indeed vote for the candidate who, despite a position in favor of some intrinsic evil, is credibly pledged to eliminate or limit other intrinsic evils.

Let’s go back to those “morally grave reasons” for a moment. What kind of reasons could be morally grave enough to allow a Catholic to vote for a candidate who expresses at least some level of support for some intrinsic evil?

I think the candidate would have to be seen as being capable of and committed to the elimination of some other intrinsic evil, or of preventing further harm from taking place. So if a candidate were credibly thought to be more likely to appoint SCOTUS nominees who might eventually limit or even overturn Roe v. Wade, that would be a “morally grave reason” that would not make the candidate’s support of, say, ESCR or the federal funding of abortifacient contraception, a situation that would mandate not voting for that person.

Of course, now we get to the point where we’re talking about prudential concerns. Will McCain, for instance, appoint SCOTUS judges who are strict constructionist and likely to support the right to life? Is it credible to believe that he will? Will McCain and his administration do anything else to attempt to limit or eliminate even some abortions? Is it credible to believe that he will? Are other things McCain supports intrinsically evil or morally unsound? How does that enter into the calculations?

These are conversations we should have, I think. But unless someone can illustrate otherwise, I am starting to think that the idea that Catholics have a positive moral obligation never to vote for any candidate who supports any intrinsic evil is not founded on sound moral theology. I should note that I’m not at all opposed to having the opposite illustrated or explained, especially with recourse to various Church documents, so if you believe I’m wrong here, I’m completely happy to let you prove it!


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