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Yes You Can

As we approach next weeks election, Catholic voters are being inundated with messages that suggest that it would be gravely sinful to vote for President Obama.This is not necessarily true.In saying this, I want to make clear that I am not arguing that one should vote for President Obama or that there are no compelling reasons to vote against him. What I am arguing is that it is incorrect to claim that voting for Obama is necessarily sinful.Catholic moral theology understands the act of voting as a form of cooperation in the acts of others. As I noted last week in my discussion of the HHS mandate, we generally speak of two types of cooperation, formal and material. Formal cooperation is when we share the intent of the person we are cooperating with, i.e. we want their act to succeed. Formal cooperation in evil is always morally wrong.Material cooperation, by contrast, exists when our own actions enable an act which we do not directly intend. An example of material cooperation might be a decision to purchase a pair of sneakers made in a factory with substandard working conditions. The purpose of my act is to obtain footwear and not to exploit workers. Nevertheless, my act of purchasing the sneakers does play a small role in perpetuating this injustice.

There are circumstances under which material cooperation in the evil acts of others can be morally licit. The general rule is that a) my own act of cooperation cannot, in itself, be evil and b) there must be a proportionate reason, i.e. the goods obtained by my cooperation must outweigh the evils and cannot be obtained through a feasible alternative (e.g. if my only alternative to buying the aforementioned sneakers was to make my own shoes).This is the framework that the U.S. Catholic Bishops and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have applied to the act of voting. As (then) Cardinal Ratzinger noted in a 2004 letter to Cardinal Francis Stafford: A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil...if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidates permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidates 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.Those who argue that a Catholic cannot vote for a pro-choice candidate are essentially arguing that there is no good that can outweigh the intrinsic evil of directly taking innocent human life. While this may be true at the level of principle, an assessment of the goods and evils arising from the election of a particular candidate must take into account not merely the candidates philosophical positions, but also the specific policies the candidate supports and the likelihood that they can be implemented (c.f. Faithful Citizenship #37).Governor Romneys evolving position on abortion is an instructive example. In 2002, when running for governor in Massachusetts, Romney said I will preserve and protect a womans right to choose. Five years later, during his first campaign for president, he repudiated his earlier views, saying on abortion, I was wrong and that Im proud to be pro-life. After winning the Republican nomination earlier this year, however, he appeared to moderate his views again, telling an interviewer that there's no legislation with regards to abortion that I'm familiar with that would become part of my agenda. Romney quickly backtracked, but was embarrassed earlier this week when one of his spokespersons reassured a group of voters in Ohio that Roe v. Wade would not be at risk during a Romney Administration.A reasonable person surveying this history could certainly question the depth of Romneys commitment to the pro-life cause. Its not unreasonably, of course, to take him at his word. It seems clear, though, that people of good faith can disagree about the concrete impact a Romney presidency would have on abortion in the United States.A similar degree of uncertainty surrounds almost all the goods and evils that Catholics might associate with the two candidates. Romneys proposed cuts to SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps), for example, might seem draconian and unconscionable, but there are reasons to deem such a radical restructuring of the program unlikely (hint: farming interests support the program). With respect to war and peace, its not clear that either candidate can be fully trusted to keep us out of a potentially disastrous war with Iran. The fact that the bishops may have a range of morally acceptable options for mitigating the harm of the HHS mandate blunts the force of the argument that removing President Obama is the only way to deal with the problem.It is rational to discount future benefits by the probability of obtaining them. This principle can also be applied to the promises that candidates make when running for office. Catholics acting in good faith can certainly come to different conclusions about probabilities in question, which would lead them to different conclusions about whether the proportionality test described earlier had been met. They could do this without necessarily disagreeing with the bishops that some evils are certainly more serious than others.To make these kinds of calculations is part of the work of conscience. While conscience certainly can err, we should always be wary in concluding that others are not acting according to conscience. Such a conclusion requires the deep knowledge of an individual that arises from a personal relationship. It is work best left to the confessional not the ballot box.



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For me, this blog post by J. Peter Nixon could serve as a good example of why I am really grateful the founders were determined to establish a secular state. God knows, we haven't always been faithful to that vision.It is just plainly bizarre to apply notions of "gravely sinful" and "Catholic moral thinking" to the exercise of voting in a democratic society.Voting is the ultimate act of free speech and the exercise of a political CHOICE. In life, as in politics, sometimes the choices are between or among candidates or positions that are less than good. To choose is to live in the public commons, to find communality within a wide diversity.There is a reason why Thomas Jefferson wrote: "I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."That applies equally well to either Catholic bishops or Mormon presidential candidates.

Thanks for this post. Speaking just for myself, I disagree somewhat with Jim Jenkins (11/1, 1:56 am) on whether it's appropriate to apply Catholic moral thinking to the act of voting.However, what's most striking to me about Bishop Jenky's letter is its conclusion. After speaking in blunt language about the unprecedented assault on religious freedom, and after comparing Catholics who vote for, say, candidates who support the Hyde amendment (if I'm reading the bishop's letter correctly) to the crowd that called for Jesus' death, Bishop Jenky's stirringly concludes, "I therefore call upon every practicing Catholic in this Diocese to vote."Really? That's all? Just "vote"?If things are as bad as this bishop says they are, it seems to me the situation calls for a greater response. I don't know what that would be, but I fear that the gap between rhetoric and action does nothing (at best) to bolster the Church's witness, and may even weaken it.

Peter, bravo. I agree 100%.

As a union man, frankly my economic interests are with the Democrats, however as a matter of priorities, morals must come before money.Just as I could make due under a socialist state that was pro-life, I can make do under the market capitalism the Republicans advocate. With that in mind, since the Democrats are actively pro-choice, since they have refused for decades now, to remove that clear statement from their party platform, while I do give them credit for being honest about being pro-choice, I cannot support that. Since I cannot morally vote for the principles of Mr. Obamas party (i.e. that the ends justify the means), I will not vote for him.If Democrats would stop promoting abortion like they do, I could and probably would vote for some of them. As it stands, at least for the higher, more influential offices, as I have since the Reagan days, I will vote for the Republican.

"With respect to war and peace, its not clear that either candidate can be fully trusted to keep us out of a potentially disastrous war with Iran'Really?... lets look at Romney foreign policy advisers.. Say hello to Fmr UN ambassador Bolton and Fox news.

I think most Americans are war-weary and that both Obama and Romney would know enough to keep us out of foreign entanglements for the next four years.

@Ken (11/1, 11:41 am) I agree that most Americans are war-weary. I'm curious to know why you think Gov. Romney "would know enough to keep us out of foreign entanglements" if he's elected president.

Anti abortion candidates are not necessarily pro life. Have we already forgotten about the "consistent ethic of life"? the "seamless garment" that Cardinal Bernardin and others explained to us. When we look at demographic information, the countries with the lowest rates of abortion are those with universal healthcare and a strong social safety net-----those with the highest rates are those which criminalize abortion and provide no social support for the poor and disenfranchised.In voting for President Obama my motive in part is to support programs and policies which I believe will help reduce the number of abortions in our country. Making abortion criminal will make it less safe, but will not necessarily reduce the number of abortions.And too, how realistic is it for us to expect abortion to be outlawed? The Supreme Court has decided that women have a constitutional right to privacy when it comes to abortion. Therefore, we will need a constitutional amendment (highly unlikely) or a Supreme Court willing to vote against "stare decises." Even if the Supremes overturn Roe v. Wade, abortion is still legal. It will then be up to each state to determine whether or if abortion will be against the law. All this is very remote and unlikely.Isn't the better path to work with those who will help mitigate the conditions which make abortion more likely?President Obama's stated position is that he would like to make abortion rare, but safe. If the anti choice forces were not so strident, perhaps pro-choice and anti-choice could sit down at a table and agree to policies that might actually do something about the problem

With respect to war and peace -- with respect to war and peace, the last Republican president has gotten the US into two wars, and the current president has gotten the US out of one and is in process of getting out of the other. Forget political campaign words, lies, and empty promises, and judge the parties by their actions in the last few years: it is obvious which party is a peacemaker. No question!

Am I am so stupid that I cannot read between the lines and see that letters like Bishop Jenky et al are trying to influence me to vote for Romney/Ryan and not for Obama/Biden? It's a no-brainer. Vote the Republican ticket, but I'm not telling you how to vote. It's the height of deception.The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2464)

Susanne At over 1 million abortions per year in the USA alone, abortions is hardly rare. As for being safe, since the successful result of an abortion is a dead baby, it can hardly be called safe.As for being less strident and sitting down at table to agree, lets see; one person wants to dig a baby out of a womens womb and kill the child (or kill the baby first and then dig it out in pieces), and the other person understands that is murder. Not much common ground there . . . as with slavery, or WW2 Germany (how many slaves is an acceptable number? how many Jews per year is it Ok to push into the gas chambers?), there really cannot be much compromise.

Helen, Susanne and Claire have seen through the hype. Women intuition at work.. I think that the few bishops who try to do the GOP heavy lifting bidding on Catholic voters are not fooling anybody and are losing what ever credibility the entire hierarchy has left. Moderate bishops have kept silent on these bishops' 'shout outs' so they too will lose their credibility and I will waste no sadness on what befalls them. Most pastors are wincing at these developments, because they see that the probable Obama win will leave all bishops, both the noisy and the silent with no ground to stand on as the GOP takes four years to re-group or plunge into a small right wing party. Did the bishops really think Catholic Taco Bell frachiseees would reward them if they could keep their 'no health insurance' for the counter girls?

Mr. Nixon,Far be it from me to disagree with you (and I don't), but Catholics are being pressured right from the pulpit not to vote for the Democratic ticket. NCR has the story about Bishop Jenkey, of Peoria, DEMANDING, by virtue of their vow of obedience to the bishop, that all the priests in his diocese read his letter this week-end. In this letter, Jenkey tells the people that they are in grave sin if they vote for (and he doesn't name the party---but everyone over the age of 10 will know what political party he's referring to).And Bishop Jenkey isn't just 'suggesting' that Catholics will sin gravely----he's saying it outright. His letter should be sent to the IRS as soon as possible---and he should loose his tax exempt status.

"A reasonable person surveying this history could certainly question the depth of Romneys commitment to the pro-life cause."I would change "a reasonable person" to "a person with her eyes open." Romney is pro choice. He is just going along with this political football trickery. W Bush was also pro choice. He just used it to gain votes. His wife Laura was clearly pro choice. This is a fraud issue started by the Catholic bishops who convince Falwell and Robertson of its political value. We really shame ourselves that we take the bishops seriously in this. When are we going to visibly confront the bishops on this fraud. Meanwhile, as the trumpets sound for all us to vote for Romney, the bishops are not "active" in helping with Sandy. " Archbishop Chaput explained that the archdioceses Catholic Human Services would work to provide shelter during the storm.Added the archbishop, While we do not have active disaster relief in place during the storm, we will cooperate fully with the Red Cross and government agencies to provide food, alternate shelter and financial relief as needed after the storm.

I always rely on the guidance of the bishops such as Jenky, Morlino, Crocodileone, Vasa, Bruskewitz ad nauseum when it comes to my vote. What they say not to do, I do. To the average voting Catholic, such ideas as remote material cooperation and direct material cooperation are about as material as the cost of eggs in Uzbekistan.And, yes, the visible lack of material cooperation on the part of the Catholic church, particularly outside of the areas affected by Sandy, rings deathly clear. Southern Baptists are sending aid and I am sure that the LDS church is aiding at least its own storm-damaged church members. What say ye, One True Church? Where are you now?

@Ken (11/1, 1:52 pm) If, as you seem to suggest, current U. S. law with regard to abortion is analogous to chattel slavery and the Holocaust, does Bishop Jenky's action---requiring his priests to read a letter urging Catholics to vote---seem to you a proportionate response?

Take heart, all! Things are getting better. Or less worse.Only a few centuries ago, Catholic bishops, staunch defenders of life from conception to natural death, were burning heretics. They threatened to torture one of the first modern men for espousing an understanding of astronomyastronomy!that only a few burbling lunatics deny today, and they did in fact, being lovers of freedom, force him to recant and then punish him with years of house arrest.Later versions of those bishops were hugely influential in encoding in law their beliefs about a wide range of social issues and imposing them on diverse populations.Today Bishop Jenky, unacknowledged Romney surrogate, stands with Newt and Rick and what's-her-name, persuading the already persuaded and disheartening everyone else. He has, as I have, one vote.

While casting the problematic stances of ones preferred candidate in as favourable a light as possible is to be expected, we should be careful not to go so far as to give scandal. No serious person believes Obama is not significantly more pro-choice than Romneyjust ask NARAL, or Planned Parenthood, or Nancy Pelosi...

A few years ago when a tree hit my car the insurance adjustor called it "an act of God." When I told him God did not do it, the wind did it, he said: "Oh that's just what we call it."Now, if hurricane Sandy can be seen as an "act of God" and if it contributes to favorable voting for Obama, can we conclude that God wants Obama to be reelected? ;-)

Ken, We all mourn the millions of babies who have never had a chance at life. We also mourn for the mothers who believed that abortion was the answer to their problem. For most women who choose abortion, it is a painful and difficult decision. I know from my work with women with substance abuse problems, we can make a difference, helping women to take responsibility for their life and their sexuality. Other programs which address the causes rather than imposing punishments also help to make abortion less likely. There are two ways (at least) of addressing this is pastoral the other is proscriptive. Regardless of the way we address the problem, abortions will continue. I am old enough to remember what it was like before Roe v. Wade in a state where abortion was illegal. Abortion was frequent, and deadly for both mother and child. Surely we can do better than just say "Thou shalt not...."

Jim, to your rogues' gallery, add Thomas Wenski, bishop of Miami. In 2004, when he was bishop of Orlando, he all but ordered his flock to vote for Bush over Kerry because of the abortion issue. (As an aside, his statements about the pedophile scandals sound so much like Bill Donohue's that many of us would be hard-pressed to tell them apart.)Like a lot of the bishops, Wenski has a favorite talking point: namely, "If you don't have the right to life, then all your other rights are meaningless." The bishops love this because they think it precludes any possible answer. Au contraire: I say that if you don't live on a planet which is capable of sustaining homo sapiens, then your right to life is meaningless.One political party is closer than the other to accepting that climate change is real, it's man-made, and it's long past time to start doing something about it. It's not the party whose candidates take donations from Big Oil PACs, sneer at renewable energy, and chant "Drill, baby, drill."

The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2464)Oh, darn it!:-)

"I always rely on the guidance of the bishops such as Jenky, Morlino, Crocodileone, Vasa, Bruskewitz ad nauseum when it comes to my vote. What they say not to do, I do."By golly, these guys must be good for somethin', after all!:-)

KEn --While you're looking down from your high horse at the people you say are pro=abortion and permit murder, look carefully and you will see that among those whom you disdain so scornfully are dozens of popes and the Saints Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas, not to mention other theologians who agreed, or disagreed with them. The point there has never been a unanimous Catholic teaching about abortion. Until there is, honest people can disagree if their consciences tell them they must..If you could possibly grant that there might -- just might -- be something left for you to learn, you might find it profitable to sit down with Church historians and theologians with more knowledge of Church history than you and some of the bishops and recent popes have had.The matter is not settled, and don't you forget it.

"I always rely on the guidance of the bishops such as Jenky, Morlino, Crocodileone, Vasa, Bruskewitz ad nauseum when it comes to my vote. What they say not to do, I do."Jim McCreaSounds like a good system.I often use a similar secular voter guide. When I'm too tired or lazy to wade through the thrilling text of a California ballot proposition, I check whose for it. League of Women Voters? Big plus. Any chamber of commerce? Uh-oh. Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association? Definitely go the other way.It lowers my conscientiousness quotient somewhat, but I've found that it's pretty reliable and a lot faster.

"Forget political campaign words, lies, and empty promises, and judge the parties by their actions in the last few years: it is obvious which party is a peacemaker. No question!"That's actually quite a good point which many people do not realize. As the Editors have astonishingly said, the drones which are used to assassinate Muslim civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen with Hellfire missiles are not "tool[s] of war". Therefore, the "peacemaker" label, as sickening as that may sound, especially given today's Gospel, is quite appropriate.

Very good post and completely agree. (notwithstanding that I have a clear conscience in favour of Romney ;)And certainly agree that Catholics could with a good conscience vote for Obama. Many already have and will.It is important, also, that Catholics engage in public life and it is the duty of bishops to voice their views on what that should look like broadly speaking.As Catholics, we do have a duty to listen respectfully to their voices. At the same time, Bishops do need to understand that there are complexities to secular life that they do not face in the same way that lay people face them. They need to trust that Catholic lay people will, in fact, arrive, at the most appropriate means, given the circumstances and politics of the moment to ensure that the gospel is lived out in the world. They can help by providing the language and framework for Catholics to discern. I do not like abortion but I understand that there are limitations on what politicians can realistically do.

MAT, I agree that drones are scary and that their use for assassination must be condemned.However I am convinced that it is not a Democratic/Republican issue and that, were the president Republican, they would be used just as much. It's a US issue, not a partisan issue.

"I would change a reasonable person to a person with her eyes open. Romney is pro choice. He is just going along with this political football trickery. W Bush was also pro choice. He just used it to gain votes. His wife Laura was clearly pro choice. This is a fraud issue started by the Catholic bishops who convince Falwell and Robertson of its political value. We really shame ourselves that we take the bishops seriously in this. When are we going to visibly confront the bishops on this fraud."That sounds true.

Romney is a deliberate flip-flopper, will say or do anything to occupy the White House."Tell me what you want me to say, and I'll tell you what you want to hear."

"We all mourn the millions of babies who have never had a chance at life. "And I hope we all mourn those millions of children who have been born behind the power curve, primarily because their birth was an accident or the result of rape or incest, and the post-birth life has been nothing more than one unfortunate circumstance after another. A few have had the ability to rise above it all and succeed, but their numbers are dwarfed by those who spend their lives in poverty, disease and/or jail. There is a lot more to life than the birth moment.

From a sister publication across the Atlantic: Tablet Blog: Jesus would have voted in the US electionLiz Dodd2 November 2012, 9:00Would Jesus vote in next Tuesday's US Presidential Election? At a debate in London this week Revd Giles Fraser, former Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, managed to convince 214 people (the winning majority) that Jesus would have abstained.I find that hard to believe.The percentage of Americans living in poverty is at an all-time high. Some 46.2 million Americans live below the poverty line - that's equivalent to the population of Spain. Six million people have no income other than food stamps, the New York Times reported in July. Around 27 per cent of African-Americans, Latinos and American Indians are poor, contrasted with 10 per cent of whites.I can't believe Jesus would feel apathetic about poverty, war, health care or the environment - issues that are at the heart of the fight for the presidency. Nor would he withhold his vote, which, to pollsters, is indistinguishable from apathy anyway. In a democracy, your vote is currency, and if you're not apathetic about the issues at stake you have a responsibility to use it.The Commonwealth Fund, a non-partisan health care foundation, revealed the possible impact the Presidential election could have on health care, just one election issue, in a recent report on its website.Governor Mitt Romney has pledged to repeal 'Obamacare' (the Affordable Care Act) and replace it with the Romney Plan on his first day in office. If this happens, the Commonwealth Fund predicts that 72 million Americans will be without health insurance by 2022.A separate study by health advocacy group Families USA found that 26,000 Americans (aged 25-64) died prematurely in 2010 because they did not have health insurance. In 2010, 50 million Americans lacked health insurance. People die because they lack access to health care - and access to health care will be determined by the Presidential election.Not all Catholics agree that Obamacare is a means to help poor Americans escape poverty. Many think that it's inherently wrong because it mandates abortion and contraception. But too much is at stake - whatever side you're on - and refusing to pick a team is no way to absolve yourself from the debate and its ramifications.Jesus was not afraid of debate. Sometimes voting means aligning with controversy - whether in the form of rights for the poor, the sick, the unemployed. Jesus sided with these people in his life - and he would have sided with them with his vote.

Peter NIxon gives a clear expression to the distinction between formal and material cooperation in evil. On an earlier thread I offered objections to the distinction between remote and proximate material cooperation. Here let me raise another, probably more important point about the sufficiency of the distinctions in play in moral reflection on actions.Often, people talk as though all of our morally relevant actions can be viewed as discrete performances. Consider the child's confession of disobedience. "I disobeyed my mother THREE (not two) TIMES." Such a remark mirrors criminal law talk. "Charlie is charged with three counts of theft." He may be convicted of two and acquitted of the third. Legal talk about legally actionable acts may have very good reason for treating these acts as discrete, as independent of one another. This won't do for all morally relevant acts. Much of the morally relevant conduct of many adults takes place within the framework of durable commitments. Among such commitments are marriages, business partnerships, political party affiliations. To understand and evaluate the specific acts, one has to recognize that they are pare of living out commitments of this sort.Suppose I am interested in playing a significant role in the political life of my community. I join and participate in one of the established political parties. Experience shows that if I am to have any reasonable expectation of being effective, I will have to make compromises of various sorts. I have "to pay my party loyalty dues." This may mean that to get some body of legislation enacted, I have to support the inclusion of some things that are morally bad, e.g., politically accepting a party platform that legalizes abortion, that supports military action that does not meet just war requirements., etc. I do so in the hope that overall my party's programs are better for the common good of my society than are the programs of the opposition.Take another example. I'm a youngish married man with three young children and a wife who has a medical condition that would make another pregnancy for her be very dangerous to her life. Doctors clearly discourage her from getting pregnant. How should she and I deal with each other sexually? Suppose using contraceptives is medically safe. Would our using them in these circumstances be sinful? If so, please explain.These two examples are by no means "exotic." they're the stuff of a great deal of our dealings with one another, dealings that are to be animated by live and solicitude. Unquestionably, some deeds, e.g., murder, abortion, are always off limits. But the list of such deeds is much shorter than one might be led to believe if they simply think in terms of discrete acts along the lines of legal prohibitions. Notice that the commitments that I am talking about here are all commitments that are generally regarded as being morally good. I'm not talking about commitments made to loyalty to mobsters, etc.

Bernard --I think you're touching on a point I tried to make sometime back when I said that the theology of sin needs to be revisited. This division into venial and mortal sin needs more attention, and I think that looking at sins from the point of view of betrayed commitments would probably be a good start.

Ann, you may well e right about the theology of sin. My comment grows out of the philosophy of action. There is no such thing as a human action that is wholly independent of other actions, both past and likely to follow. Furthermore there are no genuine human actions that are totally devoid of complex motivation, which motivation is regularly not fully transparent to the agent or to anyone else.If I make a durable morally appropriate commitment to anyone else, then the recipient has a real stake in my subsequent conduct that is relevant to that commitment. This follows from the nature of a promise. All this is relevant to determining the moral quality of many human acts.

Bernard --Very interesting. It reminds me of a remarkable scene in the first of the great English TV series, The Forsythe Saga. A betrayed wife says angrily to her husband, "You are too much!" Simple words, of no intrinsic power, even trivial, but in the context, given what we know about their relationship, it was a powerfully damning statement. Things can be magnified, or minimized, by context.

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