Archbishop Charles Chaput has been reviled by some liberal Catholics, here and elsewhere, for suggesting that Catholics who vote for prochoice politicians will have to answer to the unborn victims of abortion.

But [Catholics who support pro-choice candidates] also need a compelling proportionate reason to justify it. What is a proportionate reason when it comes to the abortion issue? Its the kind of reason we will be able to explain, with a clean heart, to the victims of abortion when we meet them face to face in the next lifewhich we most certainly will. If were confident that these victims will accept our motives as something more than an alibi, then we can proceed.

Some of the archbishops critics seem to be put off by the strangeness of this thought experiment; and it is strange, or at least unusual, to find this kind of eschatological speculation in a debate about politics. That does not make it ridiculousor useless. In a comment about a very different subject, a reader of our blog, Ann Olivier, ventured a similar speculation about how moral responsibility will play out in the life to come. I have my own personal belief about Purgatory, she wrote. It will be right here on this Earth, and we will literally have to face everyone whom we have injured, and if we try to lie or make unjustified excuses Jesus will set off some sort of siren, adding another level of humiliation. Absurd? I dont think so, and maybe not so speculative either. The church has always taught that, whatever else the Last Judgment consists of, it will require us to face the hidden or forgotten consequences of our actions. So, while I understand why unbelievers might find the archbishops reference to the next life fanciful or sectarian, I think Catholic votersto and about whom the archbishop was writingought to take it seriously.But as soon as one does take it seriously, one notices some strange features of the archbishops argument. First, there is its imprecision. Maybe the archbishop meant that a Catholic who votes for a prochoice candidate will have toface those who were aborted because the candidatehe voted for was elected. But that of course is not what he wrote. He wrote, without qualification, that such avoter would have to explainhis actions to the victims of abortion. Why? In some cases, if not most, a prolife voter may reasonably believe that the election of a particular prolife politician over his prochoice opponent will probably not have the effect of decreasing the number of abortions, or even of changing the laws that permit or encourage abortion. If the voter is wrong about this, then it may make sense to imagine what he would say to the victims of his error. It makes no sense to imagine that he is therefore answerable for every abortion. This lack of rigor turns what might have been a useful thought experiment intolittle more than arhetorical conceit.If the archbishops speculation is in one way inadequately specific, it is in another way too specific. Why would the Catholic voter have to answer only to the victims of abortion, and not also to the victims of every other injustice his vote may have facilitated? The U.S. regime of abortion on demand is an especially grave injustice, but it is hardly the only injustice with eschatological implications. To write about it as if it were falsely simplifies the complicated choices Catholic voters have to make.So what counts as a compelling, proportionate reason to vote for a candidate in spite of the fact he or she is prochoice? It is worth noting that the archbishop acknowledges that there could be such reasons, at least in theory. And here he is in agreement with the U.S. Bishops Conference and with Pope Benedict XVI, who has written:

When a Catholic does not share a candidates 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.

Many conservative Catholics brush this off by saying that almost no reasonand certainly no reason available to voters in this electionis proportionate to the evil of abortion. But most of these conservatives happen to agree with the Republican Party about most, if not all, of thebig issues that are at stake in this election. It is easier to say that abortion always trumps all other issues when, for you, it never needs to trump anything. This is not the archbishops own position: he has spoken often and eloquently about some of the other grave injustices Catholics in this country need to address, including poverty. He simply doesnt believe that any of these injustices are more serious than abortion. Nor do I. But that doesnt mean that in a given election other issuesmay not be as politically important as abortion. It is, after all, possible to believe thatthe unlimited abortion licenseis a uniquely grave injustice in our country and to believe, at the same time, that whilethis presidential election is very unlikely to have much effect on our abortion laws, it is almost certain to have an effect on other importantissues. Thoughtful voters may have to make a hard calculation, and they won't be able to demonstrate conclusively that they've made the right calculation until after the fact. Practical judgment almost always involves some uncertainty. But to some prolifers, every disagreement about practical judgments is a disagreement about principles, and one is either a single-issue voter or a squish. The problem with such prolifers is not that they care too much about abortion, but that they care too little about anything else.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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