Theologians Debate 'Proportionate': 'Where Can the Church Really Spend Its Moral Authority?'

By Filteau, Jerry | National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004 | Go to article overview

Theologians Debate 'Proportionate': 'Where Can the Church Really Spend Its Moral Authority?'


Filteau, Jerry, National Catholic Reporter


A Catholic would be cooperating in evil by voting for a candidate for public office simply because of the candidate's support for legal abortion or euthanasia, said moral theologians contacted by Catholic News Service.

But--with one major exception--most of the theologians also concluded that a Catholic might still fund morally acceptable reasons to vote for such a candidate in spite of the candidate's support for abortion or euthanasia.

A public debate on the moral responsibility of Catholic voters arose this year after the publication of a footnote in a leaked private memo this past summer from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington (NCR, Oct. 1).

Most of Ratzinger's memo dealt with Catholic politicians' responsibilities in public life on such issues. The footnote addressed voters' responsibilities.

Although it was only a bracketed footnote in a memo Vatican sources have described as an unsigned "staff document" that was not intended to explore the issue exhaustively, the two-sentence text has provoked enormous attention and controversy across the United States.

The first half of the footnote said a Catholic voter would commit a grave Sin of formal cooperation in evil "if he were to vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate's permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia."

Theologians contacted by CNS had no problem with that.

The second half of the footnote said, "When a Catholic does not share a candidate's 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."

The theologians had no problem with that, either. But they differed in the ways they addressed how "proportionate reasons" should be interpreted.

Dominican Fr. Kevin O'Rourke, Christian ethics professor at the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy at the medical school of Loyola University in Chicago, said when the footnote speaks of a "proportionate reason" needed to vote for a candidate who supports permissive abortion or euthanasia laws, it refers to what moral theology calls "an application of the principle of double effect."

"When you foresee that your good action will also have an evil effect which you don't intend," he explained, "you justify that evil effect by saying there's a proportionate reason--or, what I like to say, there's an adequate reason--for allowing the evil."

But moral theologian Germain Grisez of Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., argued that given the scope and horror of abortion, there would be almost no proportionate reason to vote for a candidate who opposes banning abortion over one who supports a ban.

He said "proportionate reasons" means that a voter has to "make a judgment, bringing to bear all the moral judgments" about two candidates.

"There's a very fundamental and radical injustice in the attack against human life that's involved here," he said. "I'm not making a subjective judgment about a person's moral condition, but objectively, anyone who's supporting abortion in this country is a very unjust person," he added. …

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