Abortion and voting: a response to @CatholicRevivl

This is a subject on which I’ve wanted to write for a long time, but certain occupational commitments in a foreign country have forced me into a brief, unwelcome hiatus from this site. Over the past few weeks, brief intervals of peace between the thunder of Paladins, the blast of Abrams, the staccato beat of Bradley chain guns, and gentle hum of A-10s afford me little opportunity to articulate my thoughts; now, with a momentary pause in operations, I hope that I can ably switch gears from the cold diction of tactical language to the abstract and nuanced prose of theological-philosophical speculation.

Qui bene distinguit bene docet: he who distinguishes well teaches well. While this axiom is certainly true in all things, and even more so in matters of the faith, I’ve found that the importance of this rule is never more important than when weighing the moral implications of concrete acts. Applying abstract moral and ethical norms into the real situations of day-to-day existence require a well-formed mind and a discerning conscience capable of weaving through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Here, I intend to make a critical distinction concerning the appropriate Catholic response to political candidates who support abortion.

Before continuing, let me reiterate that, in line with the teaching of the Church and with the consciences of good people everywhere, I condemn abortion as a grave, objective evil. Readers of this page and people familiar with me know that I have no tolerance for the direct murder of unborn children; the previous post, Non Loquendo, is an expression of anger at Planned Parenthood’s complicity in the commerce of baby parts. In that poem, I wrote:

But ora et labora is our cry
as we advance and raise this noble strain
for those who in the womb still soundly lie:
that they will not have been conceived in vain.
The clinics where death sentences are penned—
O, would that we might live to see at end!

There is no doubt as to which side I take in this debate.

However, there is a tendency among many Catholics of good will, who despise abortion as I despise it, to make of abortion an issue of singular importance, to the detriment of all other issues. The question is often asked: can a Catholic, in good conscience, vote for a political candidate who supports abortion? 

Many Catholics, especially good American Catholics, will answer with an emphatic “NO”. I respond that, yes, there are cases in which Catholics may conscientiously vote for a pro-choice candidate.

Jake (twitter: @CatholicRevivl), one of my more frequent and enthusiastic interlocutors, typifies the former position. An intermittent tweet showdown on this issue has led to his most recent post on his blog The Catholic Revival. In the post, “Catholics and Abortion: Why we must vote pro-life“, Jake gives a few responses to some objections raised by me and others.

My opposition to the position held by Jake (and others) is based on the fact that it betrays a deficient understanding of participation in evil according to established principles of Catholic moral theology; furthermore, this position risks conflating the moral obligations of American Catholics with the platform of a single political party– a proposition which, frankly, is neither American nor Catholic.

I agree wholeheartedly that legalized abortion should be abolished as soon as possible, because the right to life is indeed the first and most fundamental right of the human person. However, does it logically and necessarily follow that Catholics are morally prohibited from voting for a pro-choice politician in any and every case? The burden is on Jake (and on the sources he cites) to prove this logical necessity.

I don’t think they’ve succeeded in doing that.

Jake lauds the power of the vote in the fight to end abortion in these United States of America and treats the work of Republicans with a largely uncritical eye:

In fact, there has been considerable progress since 2010, with many states vastly increasing abortion restrictions. If the date sounds insignificant, look closer. 2010 was the year that Republicans, most of whom are pro-life, began winning elections in droves. The direct consequence of electing pro-life candidates has been the institution of increasingly pro-life laws.

Just as pro-life politicians have been instrumental in the incremental steps toward an abortion-free society, liberal pro-abortion candidates have been key in fighting them every step of the way. In 2003, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act was overwhelmingly opposed by Democrats, with only a few exceptions, but was passed and signed into law by a pro-life President Bush and a Republican majority…

It is a fact that pro-life politicians are working toward this goal, just as it is a fact that pro-abortion politicians are working against it. A Catholic’s power to vote pro-life politicians into office is one of the most effective legal ways to affect meaningful change for this nation. Using that power to vote for a pro-abortion candidate is to willingly support and enable the legislative, executive, or judicial acts of that individual, making you complicit in the act abortion. It is sinful.

The phrase in that last paragraph in bold encapsulates Jake’s thesis; unfortunately, it also encapsulates his erroneous understanding of participation in evil. I’ll demonstrate this point with the help of six counterexamples.

First: In January 2015, three GOP pro-life Representatives [Renee Ellmers (R-NC), Charlie Dent (R-PA), Jackie Walorski (R-IN)] effectively killed a bill that would have outlawed abortions past the 20th week of pregnancy. These three helped to ensure that the bill lacked the support for a floor vote, even in a Republican-majority House.

Second: In May 2015, when the 20-week abortion ban was raised again in Congress, four GOP representatives [again including self-professed pro-lifer Charlie Dent (R-PA), with Bob Dold (R-IL), Richard Hanna (R-NY), and Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ)] voted against the bill.

Third: Thirteen Representatives, all Republicans [Mike Coffman (R-CO), Ryan Costello (R-PA), Carlos Curbelo (FL-26), Charlie Dent (R-PA), Bob Dold (IL-10), Chris Gibson (R-NY), Richard Hanna (R-NY), David Jolly (R-FL), John Katko (R-NY), Martha McSally (R-AZ), Patrick Meehan (R-PA), Tom Reed (R-NY), Elise Stefanik (R-NY)], have at one point or another in their political careers described themselves as pro-life. Despite the anti-abortion platform which helped get many of them elected, these thirteen Republicans in May 2015 voted against a Resolution condemning a D.C. law which would force all employers (including religious organizations) to provide contraceptives and abortifacients to employees.

Fourth: In 2006, President George W. Bush vetoed the 2005 Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, a bill that would have opened Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Under the patronage of prominent Republicans like then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, this Act was brought to the President’s desk by a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, including many pro-life legislators who voted for the 2003 Partial Birth Abortion Ban. After Bush refused his signature, GOP Congressional leaders launched a failed attempt to override the President’s veto.

Fifth: A year later, President Bush vetoed the 2007 Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, a bill similar in content to the 2005 version. Again, this Act was brought to the White House by a Republican-majority Congress, including many nominally pro-life legislators who voted for the 2003 Partial Birth Abortion Ban.

Sixth: On 9 August 2001, early in his first term, President Bush announced that 78 lines of stem cells, procured from destroyed embryos, would be opened for Federally-funded research.

What do these six counterexamples (and many others like them) demonstrate? For one, running on a pro-life platform in a pro-life party does not necessarily translate into consistent pro-life policies in the floor of Congress or in the White House. Does it then logically follow that the electorate who voted for those pro-life Republican politicians are now ex post facto morally complicit in the harvesting of embryos and the provision of abortifacients?

Of course not. 

Remote material cooperation vs. formal cooperation

Between casting a ballot for a candidate and a politician’s actual vote on the floor of Congress lies a series of free choices made by free people, and the element of human freedom at each stage cannot be diminished. The gulf between an individual person’s vote on Election Day and a politician’s legislative actions, separated by that chain of free choices, is so vast that the individual voter cannot possibly share an equal responsibility with the politician in every choice which the politician makes. Yes, the ordinary citizen has participated in some tangential, ancillary way in the legislative process– but the overwhelming burden and responsibility for legislative action lies on those empowered by the people to make those decisions. Therefore, to say as Jake does, that “the duty to uphold life falls squarely on the shoulders of morally upstanding citizens,” is to ignore the basic structure of our Republic— and it is a Republic, not a direct democracy— in which the people relinquish the responsibility of governance to a representative political class for a period of time.

What I’ve tried to illustrate through concrete examples is the meaning of the phrase “remote material cooperation”, a phrase often used in moral theology to describe the diminished responsibility and culpability of those who, in a very indirect manner, contribute to some evil act without willing the evil act itself. This is often described in contrast to “formal cooperation,” in which the accomplice or participant wills the same evil as the principal actor. The old Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on “Accomplice” (with the imprimatur of the late great John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York) puts the distinction quite plainly (my emphases added in bold):

It is necessary to distinguish first of all between formal and material cooperation. To formally cooperate in the sin of another is to be associated with him in the performance of a bad deed in so far forth as it is bad, that is, to share in the perverse frame of mind of that other. On the contrary, to materially cooperate in another’s crime is to participate in the action so far as its physical entity is concerned, but not in so far as it is motived by the malice of the principal in the case… Then it must be borne in mind that the cooperation may be described as proximate or remote in proportion to the closeness of relation between the action of the principal and that of his helper. The teaching with regard to this subject-matter is very plain, and may be stated in this wise: Formal cooperation is never lawful, since it presupposes a manifestly sinful attitude on the part of the will of the accomplice.

Jake’s tenuous grasp of remote material cooperation vs. formal cooperation carries over into two of his responsa ad dubia. The first:

[Objection]: We’re already complicit in abortion because our tax dollars fund Planned Parenthood. So why does it matter if we vote for pro-choice politicians?

[Jake’s response]: This is not a valid way to approach the issue. In fact, this kind of mindset is a dangerous and defeatist point of view; one which denies the ability of ever uprooting the problem. First of all, all citizens are required to pay taxes. This is not a willing participation in the act of abortion. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say on the matter of taxes:

“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” – CCC, 2240

A remote material cooperation, that is only brought about by a citizen’s moral obligation to pay taxes, is not morally equivalent to willingly supporting a candidate whose actions in government will most likely end in the advancement of a pro-abortion agenda. Therefore, it matters. It matters greatly. The fact that pro-life congressmen are currently fighting to remove such federal funding for abortion providers is proof that this power to vote matters infinitely.

In short, Jake suggests that paying obligatory taxes which fund Planned Parenthood constitutes remote material cooperation, while voting for a candidate with a pro-choice position constitutes formal cooperation. This proposition is neither self-evident nor self-proved; on the contrary, it’s patently false, since formal cooperation requires the participant to will the evil end, namely, abortion. In any case, the fact that taxes are obligatory is not the mitigating factor which determines remote material cooperation; rather, it is precisely the taxpayer’s “distance” from the act of abortion, determined by the free choices of subsequent actors who remain beyond his control, that constitute his remote material cooperation. The same is true of voting for politicians. A Senator or Congressman who stands on the floor of his chamber to cast a vote on any issue is influenced by a host of factors that, for multiple reasons, can sway him to vote against his party and against his original campaign platform. In every instance of a political vote, the legislator makes a free choice, and on account of his office and heightened responsibility for the common good, the weight of responsibility for his political choices fall squarely on his own shoulders, not necessarily on his electorate.

As I’ve painstakingly demonstrated above with the six counterexamples, voting for pro-life candidates does not guarantee the adoption of pro-life policies in Congress. In fact, since Roe v. Wade, these United States have experienced 20 years of pro-life Presidents and 12 years of a pro-life Congressional majority, including a 4-year stretch when these two periods overlapped. In addition, the past two decades have seen a consistent majority of Supreme Court justices appointed by pro-life Presidents. Despite all this, the legality of abortion at the Federal level remains as entrenched as ever, making it hard to believe that “the power to vote matters infinitely”.

This is not a “defeatist” mindset; it is a cold, sober assessment of our Sitz im leben. It indicates there there are many more factors at play besides the mere operation of the democratic process that affect the legislative landscape, all of which must be considered and accounted before assigning a moral value to certain political choices.

Moving on to another of Jake’s responses to objections: this one concerns the 2004 letter of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to Theodore Cardinal McCarrick called “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles”, regarding reception of the Eucharist by Catholic politicians in light of their positions on euthanasia and abortion.

[Objection]: If I oppose a candidate’s pro-choice stance, but support his views on other important matters, doesn’t that constitute remote material cooperation?

[Jake’s response]: An article from Priests for Life, by then Cardinal Ratzinger, says the following:

N.B.: A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s 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.

Often, this quote is erroneously used as a proof that one can vote for pro-abortion politicians if they believe other issues to be of greater importance or “proportion.” However, the full context of the article reveals that the issue is not so simple:

Jake then goes on to cite paragaphs 2 and 3 of Ratzinger’s letter, which say, among other things, that “The Church teaches that abortion or euthanasia is a grave sin,” and that “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia… There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.” Jake then concludes:

In reality, there is no matter more grave than the evils of abortion or euthanasia. While helping the poor, war strategies, healthcare reform, immigration, and other issues are all important, not one of them is of equal moral proportion to the issues of abortion or euthanasia. In each of those other issues, there is legitimate disagreement on what the moral decision would be. In fact, there is no moral consensus among Catholics for most of those issues. In the case of abortion, however, the Church always has and always will abhor the practice of abortion. Because there is no matter of equal or greater importance than the fundamental right to life, it is unconscionable to vote for a pro-choice politician.

Jake’s is correct in concurring with Ratzinger that no single issue is more grave than abortion or euthanasia; indeed, in a one-on-one comparison, abortion will always trump any other issue. The problem is that, when dealing with elections, especially ones that put people in power for two, four, or six years at a time, the responsible Catholic voter must weigh all moral and political implications of his ballot. While abortion may outweigh any single issue, the consideration of all moral problems— collectively, not in a one-on-one manner— may conceivably justify a Catholic’s vote for a pro-choice candidate— if and only if the Catholic voter continues to hold a personal objection to abortion and euthanasia and does not intend their proliferation. This is indeed consistent with the prohibition from formal cooperation in evil.

Let’s return to the original context of Ratzinger’s letter: it primarily concerns the denial of Holy Communion to politicians who support abortion and euthanasia. A Catholic politician, the letter says, participates formally (i.e., not in a remote material manner) in objective evil if he is constantly “campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws” (par. 5), and thus should be denied the Eucharist. His formal participation in such evils is precisely due to his high office, where his choices affect policy more directly than, say, the vote of an individual citizen. This is why Ratzinger, in the nota bene at the end of his letter, took pains to write that “When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s 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.” Again, nota bene: the Cardinal writes of “proportionate reasons”, not of “a proportionate reason”; the most able theologian of our time knows full well that a good Catholic must weigh all moral issues together, not in a one-on-one manner.

If I read Jake’s argument correctly, it seems he either is implicitly accusing the future pontiff of being contradictory, or he has failed to appreciate the elegant coherence of the Cardinal’s letter. Jake suggests that Ratzinger’s assertion in paragraphs 2 and 3 (namely, that no moral issue weighs as heavily as abortion and euthanasia) completely invalidates the Cardinal’s subtle distinction between a pro-choice politician’s formal cooperation in evil on one hand, and a Catholic voter’s (permissible) remote material cooperation on the other. To imply that Ratzinger would contradict himself in an otherwise carefully-constructed letter is simply absurd and does little justice to his refined thought. The man knows when to be blunt and when to write with nuance; if he truly believed that no Catholic could ever vote for a pro-choice candidate, Ratzinger would have never raised the issue of remote material cooperation in the first place. Why would Ratzinger admit the possibility of remote material cooperation if, according to Jake’s reading, Ratzinger’s own letter invalidates that same possibility?

Quite the contrary, Ratzinger’s nota bene plainly indicates that simply voting for a pro-choice candidate does not in se make someone unworthy of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, if and only if that voter personally opposes abortionIt necessarily follows that merely casting a ballot for someone with a pro-choice position is not inherently sinful, so long as the voter assents to the doctrine of the Church on the sanctity of life.

Bottom line: the Cardinal went out of his way to speak about the (limited) moral possibility of voting for pro-choice candidates, and nothing in the rest of the letter mitigates or invalidates that possibility.

What is really required of Catholics?

In the first place, each and every Catholic must hold fast to the teaching of the Church on abortion, namely, that abortion is a grave moral evil which violates the fundamental right to life. One could argue, in fact, that this teaching is is obligatory on all the faithful as a matter de fide tenenda ac credenda expressed infallibly through the ordinary Magisterium, specifically in Gaudium et Spes (27), Humanae Vitae, Evangelium Vitae, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2270-2275).

Thus, a Catholic cannot formally cooperate in the direct procuration of an abortion without committing a mortal sin. For Catholic politicians, formal cooperation includes publicly campaigning and voting for permissive abortion laws. If a Catholic votes for a pro-choice candidate because of the candidate’s pro-choice position, then YES, that voter would be guilty of formal cooperation.

If the issue of abortion were given to the popular vote in, for example, a state propositional referendum, then YES, a Catholic would be obliged to vote against abortion. In this instance of direct democracy, a voter’s actions is more closely tied to the ratification of concrete legislation than if he were merely voting for a political candidate. Were a Catholic to vote for abortion in a popular referendum, he would indeed participate formally in evil. This is a critical distinction between voting for policies vs. voting for persons. In the latter, one can still hold a moral objection to abortion; in the former, one cannot coherently object to abortion while voting directly to enact a pro-abortion law, since abortion would be the singular issue at stake. When voting for candidates, on the other hand, where a host of issues must be considered together, the emergence of proportionate reasons raises the possibility of permissible remote material cooperation.

Jake’s sources vs. Cardinal Ratzinger

To support his position that voting for pro-choice politicians is sinful, Jake has mainly relied on two articles hosted on the EWTN website: “A brief catechism for Catholic voters” by Fr. Stephen Torraco, and “Sin to vote for pro-abortion politicians?” by Fr. Matthew Habiger. Both articles predate Ratzinger’s 2004 letter to McCarrick (the former is from 2002, the latter from 1999), and both articulate positions that seem at odds with what the future Pope wrote. On whose side shall we err?

Let’s briefly examine the three essays in question.

Habiger’s article conveys a more personal tone. At the beginning of his piece, he writes in first person, indicating that this is his personal moral assessment of voting for pro-choice candidates. In the course of his article, he brings to bear many citations from Evangelium Vitae, the 1974 “Declaration on Procured Abortion” from the Congregation from the Doctrine of the Faith, Bernard Cardinal Law, and even the 1917 Codex Iuris Canonici. While all his citations amply state the Church’s opposition to abortion, none of them indicate in clear terms that voting for a pro-choice candidate is always sinful. In the end, Harbiger merely draws his conclusion— a personal opinion— without a hard citation to support it.

Torraco’s “brief catechism” takes the Q&A format of many catechisms of old. The last question and answer (#14) reads as follows:

14. Is it a mortal sin to vote for a pro-abortion candidate?

Except in the case in which a voter is faced with all pro-abortion candidates (in which case, as explained in question 8 above, he or she strives to determine which of them would cause the let damage in this regard), a candidate that is pro-abortion disqualifies himself from receiving a Catholic’s vote. This is because being pro-abortion cannot simply be placed alongside the candidate’s other positions on Medicare and unemployment, for example; and this is because abortion is intrinsically evil and cannot be morally justified for any reason or set of circumstances. To vote for such a candidate even with the knowledge that the candidate is pro-abortion is to become an accomplice in the moral evil of abortion. If the voter also knows this, then the voter sins mortally.

Obviously, Jake’s articulation of his position borrows heavily from Harbiger, but especially from Torraco. But this position, as I have shown, runs counter to Ratzinger’s mind when he wrote that “When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s 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.” How do we resolve this tension?

First, I think Torraco was a little hasty (back in 2002) in calling his piece a “catechism”, and I think EWTN was like a little hasty in placing Torraco’s piece in a section of the website entitled “A Guide to Catholic Teaching and Voting”. The terms “catechism” and “voting guide”, with their inherent claim to be binding on Catholics, should not be thrown around cheaply and hastily. Publications that wish to be binding on Catholics and/or aim to publicly represent correct Catholic doctrine need the imprimatur from the bishop or ordinary of the place where it is published. Neither Torraco nor Harbiger received the imprimatur for their pieces, and so there is no ecclesiastical guarantee that their works in question are either correct or binding.

Secondly, Torraco and Harbiger, like Jake, manifest an altogether restrictive view of remote material cooperation (or, conversely, an unwarranted broad view of formal cooperation). They bind an individual citizen’s vote too closely to an elected official’s policy choices. Yet, as I demonstrated through the six counterexamples, there is no guarantee that any politician will vote exactly according to his campaign platform; the element of human freedom is also present in the politician himself, and this greatly mitigates the responsibility of each individual voter in each of the legislator’s political choices.

As I pointed out before, Harbiger’s essay and Torraco’s “catechism” predate Ratzinger’s letter to McCarrick by a few years. The purpose of Ratzinger’s letter is clear: sent to McCarrick (Archbishop of Washington, DC) in the middle of 2004— in the midst of a heated American election year— Ratzinger firstly wished to reiterate the Church’s duty to protect the Eucharist from public officials (like John Kerry) who formally cooperate in the evil of abortion through their political actions. Matters concerning so-called graviora delicta, like desecration of the Holy Eucharist, fall under the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and as Prefect of the competent curial dicastery, Ratzinger was acting officially in the name of the Holy See when he sent the letter. While the focus of the correspondence is largely on pro-abortion Catholic politicians, the Cardinal felt it most opportune to distinguish the moral situation of such politicians from the moral situation of individual Catholic voters, hence the nota bene section at the end of the letter.

Because of the tensions that arise naturally in an election cycle, proponents of the Harbiger/Torraco thesis (that abortion is a “disqualifying issue”) became very vocal in 2004 when John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic, secured the Democratic presidential nomination. In this context of heated political controversy which touched aspects of the faith, the Holy See (in the person of Cardinal Ratzinger) intervened. His 2004 letter to Cardinal McCarrick appears to correct what Harbiger and Torraco wrote in 1999 and 2002, respectively.

So which is more authoritative: two (intelligent) priests without an imprimatur, or one of the most accomplished Catholic theologians acting in his official role as Cardinal-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?


An individual citizen’s vote on election day weighs far less than a politician’s vote on the floor of Congress; add to this the prospect that the politician might vote against his campaign platform (or against the intentions of his electorate), and the citizen’s responsibility for that politician’s choices are diminished to remoteness. On the contrary, when faced with a popular referendum, the citizen-voter directly participates in the legislative process, making him a formal cooperator in the outcome of the election.

Let me be clear: I have never voted for a pro-choice candidate, and I can’t imagine that I ever will. Jake and I share the same Catholic revulsion to abortion. But clarity in moral theology demands that we consider differing levels of culpability and responsibility when dealing with participation (formal and material) in intrinsically evil acts. Consequently, after the preceding thorough and sober assessment, I believe that, if a Catholic voter personally opposes abortion, his vote for a pro-choice candidate may in some cases constitute permissible remote material cooperation. I understand that this is not an easy thesis for Catholics like Jake (or even me) to accept, but I believe that precision in proper principles of Catholic moral reasoning leads ineluctably to this conclusion.

As always, I welcome any and all comments made in sincere charity.

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