With an Obama win looking increasingly likely, Catholic Republicans are pulling out all the stops to press the argument that Catholics cannot in good faith vote for a pro-choice candidate, or at least a candidate whose positions on abortion are as stark as Obama’s. George Weigel takes a crack at this in a column in Newsweek. Lots of interesting stuff in there, but this paragraph struck me as particularly important and wrong:
The pro-Obama, pro-life Catholics would doubtless reply that that standard has been met in this instance. But that claim still leaves them with a problem. As Cardinal George’s letter indicated, the Catholic Church’s teaching on the intrinsic evil of abortion involves a first principle of justice that can be known by reason, that’s one of the building blocks of a just society, and that ought never be compromised—which is why, for example, Catholic legislators were morally obliged to oppose legal segregation (another practice once upheld by a Supreme Court decision that denied human beings the full protection of the laws). Questions of war and peace, social-welfare policy, environmental policy and economic policy, on the other hand, are matters of prudential judgment on which people who affirm the same principles of Catholic social doctrine can reasonably differ. The pro-life, pro-Obama Catholics are thus putting the full weigh of their moral argument on contingent prudential judgments that, by definition, cannot bear that weight.
Two things about this argument. First, he is attempting to press the point that it is impossible, as a matter of self-evident principles, to be morally opposed to abortion but at the same time oppose codifying that opposition in law. I’ve already posted on numerous occasions about the distinction between morality and law in Catholic legal theory. The letter by Cardinal George to which Weigel refers blurs that line, asserting that it intrinsically evil not to have laws prohibiting abortion. (John Paul II makes the same move in Evangelium Vitae at 73.) The confusion that results from this failure to give adequate attention to the distinction between law and morality is wide and deep.
Consider, for example, Weigel’s reference to legal segregation. This is inapt, since in that case it is the law itself that is doing the intrinsic evil (i.e., racial subordination), whereas in the context of abortion, it is private parties doing the evil, with the law merely failing to stop them. A better analogy from the civil rights context would therefore be to laws (such as Title II or Title VII) that prohibit discrimination by private actors. Were such laws necessary in the United States, given its traditions of private racial subordination? You bet. Would it be intrinsically evil for a society not to have such laws? I don’t think so. A society that had no history of private discrimination might legitimately decide not to qualify private exclusion rights in the way that Title II does. And even a state that does have a history of private discrimination might (as Title II does) exempt certain very private activities from the law’s reach (as with the private clubs exception from Title II’s prohbition of racial discrimination). So, to recap, racial subordination is intrinsically evil. The state must never do it. But the state may sometimes choose (for any number of valid reasons) not to interfere with private conduct, even though that means that some private parties might thereby be permitted to engage in racial subordination. I find Weigel’s (and others’) equation of the law and morality of abortion to be in tension with traditional Catholic thinking about how much morality to mandate by law, but let’s leave that to one side. (None of the foregoing, by the way, has any bearing on the question whether we, here and now, ought to legally prohibit abortion. I’m just questioning the use of the language of intrinsic evil to describe the absence of such a law. I understand that I’m swimming against the recent authoritative current here, but, as I explain in the rest of this post, Weigel’s argument in the quoted paragraph fails, even if we accept the notion that laws prohibiting abortion are required always and everywhere.)
The more problematic claim in this paragraph is his assertion that “[q]uestions of war and peace, social-welfare policy, environmental policy and economic policy, on the other hand, are matters of prudential judgment on which people who affirm the same principles of Catholic social doctrine can reasonably differ. The pro-life, pro-Obama Catholics are thus putting the full weigh of their moral argument on contingent prudential judgments that, by definition, cannot bear that weight.” This argument fails badly. It would only work if pro-life Democrats were trying to do what Weigel (and Robby George and others) are trying to do — which is to argue that a Catholic cannot in good conscience vote for the other party’s candidate. If that were the argument we were trying to make, Weigel’s point would be well taken. Since people of good will can disagree about these prudential judgments, we cannot establish that it is contrary to Catholic teaching to vote for McCain even though he suports continuing our involvement in an unjust war. But that is decidedly not the argument pro-life Democrats are trying to press. Instead, we are merely arguing that it is permissible for a Catholic in good faith to vote for Obama, and on that score, these prudential judgments about the morality of war or the need for prompt action on climate change absolutely can bear the weight we want to place on them. For Weigel to be able to make the case that this is impermissible, he needs to focus, not on the prudential nature of the questions, but on the relative importance of the issues about which voters are reaching prudential conclusions. And that weighing of the relative importance of the issues remains in the prudential column, even if, internally, the determination of the “Catholic” position on the issue is not itself prudential. It is important to note that the evils on both sides don’t have to be intrinsic to rebut Weigel’s argument. To say an evil is intrinsic is only to say that it is evil at all times and places. Something that is only evil sometimes (e.g., war) is still evil (and gravely so) when determined (prudentially) to be evil. The fact that a conclusion that some position or policy is evil is based on prudential reasoning does not somehow reduce the gravity of its evil. Put another way, Weigel seems to be confusing intrinsic evil and grave evil. Something can be intrinsically evil and not gravely evil or evil only at certain times and places, and yet, nonetheless, gravely evil.
Take just the example of the Iraq war. Once one makes the prudential determination that a war is unjust, then killings that occur as part of that war are, morally speaking, the same as state-sponsored murder of the innocent, a grave evil. Accordingly, from the point of view of a pro-life person who (based on his own prudential reasoning) views the war as unjust, voting for someone who, although he favors abortion rights, promises to end the war as soon as possible can be a reasonable position to take, even if that pro-life voter accepts everything Weigel says about the impermissibility (at all times and all places) of laws permitting abortion. Such a person is choosing between a candidate who, among other things, will not take decisive action to stop such state-sponsored murder and a candidate who will not take decisive action to erect new legal barriers to private killing and who, in fact, has promised to remove existing barriers. Even accepting Weigel’s assertion that it is categorically impermissible to do what Obama is proposing to do with respect to abortion laws, those who have made the (admittedly prudential) determination that the war as unjust are confronted with grave evil on both sides of the political equation. Now, Weigel will reply that the deaths in Iraq pale in comparison to the deaths from abortion, but then we have shifted away from questions about intrinsic evil versus prudential judgments and into the domain of how to weigh the likelihood of progress on abortion against the likelihood of progress on Iraq. And that seems to be clearly a prudential question properly left to the conscientious reflection of individual voters.