Bainbridge on Kmiec
Last week, Steve Bainbridge posted a lengthy discussion of rumors that Doug Kmiec might be a candidate for the ambassadorship to the Vatican. Some of his reasons for counseling against such a move made some sense — e.g., according to Bainbridge’s post, some well-connected people at the Vatican have expressed opposition to Kmiec, who is now (apparently) viewed by some there as a “traitor” (querry — traitor to what?). If this is in fact the case (and I have my doubts), it’s probably not a good idea to send an ambassador to a country when that country has already indicated that the person would be unwelcome. Point taken.
But, while some of Bainbridge’s reasons made some sense, others made, um, somewhat less. For example, as he put it in his original post:
Obama may have won the vote of a majority of America’s cafeteria Catholics. Even so, to appoint Doug Kmiec as ambassador to the Holy See would be an insult to both the Vatican and to “serious, loyal” Catholics everywhere.
It’s hard to know what to make of this line. Read in the context of the post, Bainbridge seems to be saying that only “cafeteria Catholics” supported Obama, and that “serious, loyal” Catholics are (or ought to be) offended by Kmiec’s public support for him. (Bainbridge expresses disappointment with Steve Benen for reading his post as expressing this hard a line, but I find it hard to understand how else Benen should have read it, given Bainbridge’s intemperate language.)
Henry Farrell, over at Crooked Timber, took Bainbridge to task for his analysis of Kmiec’s conduct. As Farrell put it:
as best as I understand these matters, … Kmiec is a Catholic in perfectly good standing, no better or worse in the eyes of the church than those who adopt a more conservative position on these issues (to the best of my knowledge, the general class of ‘cafeteria Catholic’ has yet to be properly defined under canon law ;) ). In principle, the appointment of Kmiec should be no more or less insulting to either the Vatican (as a state governed by the Catholic church) or to the Pope (as head of the Catholic church) than the appointment of any other Catholic. Very obviously, Kmiec’s appointment might be construed as an insult to a particular (and quite powerful) conservative faction within Catholicism – but in the absence of a formal church statement to the contrary, that faction’s opinion of Kmiec’s position is no more binding than any other opinion within Catholicism’s internal debate on these issues.
In his reply to Farrell, Bainbridge clarifies (or, perhaps, back-pedals) quite a bit. First, he admits that a faithful Catholic could have chosen to support Obama. He doesn’t expressly refer to Catholic Obama supporters as “serious” or “loyal,” but I’m willing to assume that he would concede we might be. He then says that it wasn’t Kmiec’s vote for Obama that made him anathema as an ambassador, but rather the public nature of his support:
In my view, however, there is a difference between simply voting for a pro-choice candidate and being a highly public supporter of that candidate. Kmiec went so far as to write a book trying to persuade pro-life Catholics that it was okay to vote for Obama. In doing so, I believe he gave Obama significant political cover. Kmiec’s high profile position allows Obama to make an argument by appeal to authority to people who aren’t as informed on these issues or have failed to make a close study of the relevant doctrines as has Kmiec.
This is a new argument, as far as I can tell. Bainbridge seems to be taking the position that Church teaching permits someone to make the conscientious assessment that, all things considered, it was correct to vote for Obama, but those people cannot attempt to persuade others to make the same decision. Does the same hold true, I wonder, for those who made the conscientious assessment to vote for McCain? I assume not. So the problem is not with the attempt to guide others through a complex moral topic, as such. I might understand such an argument: i.e., that the decision for whom to vote is such a complex and uncertain one that we should not attempt to persuade others at all on the topic because to do so would be to communicate an unwarranted certainty about the correctness of our own position. I wouldn’t agree with this argument, but I could at least understand it. Instead, Bainbridge’s position appears to be a more content-based assessment that only those who reach a certain decision (i.e., to vote for Obama) should have refrained from trying to influence others to do the same, particularly if they, like Kmiec, were likely to be persuasive.
I can understand that Bainbridge disagrees with Kmiec’s prudential assessment, but I am puzzled by the notion that, while it is not contrary to Church teaching for Kmiec to have made that assessment (as Bainbridge rightly concedes), it somehow crosses the line for him to have publicized that decision and to have tried to persuade others that it was the all-things-considered correct moral judgment. I can’t think of any other situation in which this distinction has been made (i.e., it’s OK to make the decision, but not OK to try to get other people confronting the same decision — i.e., people trying to decide how to cast their vote in the same election — to make the same one). Perhaps commenters can come up with an example I haven’t been able to think of.
Even more puzzling to me, Bainbridge says that the public nature of Kmiec’s support brought him closer to the line between material and formal cooperation. Here’s a definition of formal cooperation from Catholic Culture:
The deliberate concurrence in another person’s usually sinful action. The co-operation is formal and always sinful if, besides giving external help of whatever kind, one interiorly wants the evil action to be performed. Formal co-operation is at least a sin against charity by doing spiritual harm to one’s neighbor; frequently it is also a sin against another virtue, especially of justice.
Applying this definition, I find Bainbridge’s assertion almost impossible to understand, particularly given Kmiec’s many statements that he supported Obama despite (and not because of) Obama’s support for abortion rights.