Voting and Intrinsic Evils

Archbishop Lori’s comments on voting for a politician who supports intrinsic evils have created quite a stir.  He stated:

For Catholic voters in November, Lori advises, “The question to ask is this: Are any of the candidates of either party, or independents, standing for something that is intrinsically evil, evil no matter what the circumstances? If that’s the case, a Catholic, regardless of his party affiliation, shouldn’t be voting for such a person.”

Three thoughts on this matter.  First, that means that it was unacceptable for Catholics to vote for John McCain, since he supported embryonic stem-cell research.  And for that matter, Romney has said that he supports abortion in situations of rape and incest.  That is an intrinsic evil.  He has also been unclear on torture.  So it seems that we cannot vote for him, according to this logic. But this seems not to be the case according to then Cardinal Ratzinger’s memorandum in 2004 to Cardinal McCarrick:

“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 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.”

Second, one of the problems with using the category of intrinsic evil this way is that it conflates “intrinsic” with “grave social evil.”  But things like lying, masturbation, and stealing candy are also intrinsic evils.  Yet I would much rather support a politician whose only flaw was that he supported masturbation rather than a politician who did not support any intrinsic evils but advocated, for example, for the immediate rounding up and deportation of all illegal aliens, or supported the death penalty.  Intrinsic simply refers to a kind of evil action.  It does not correspond necessarily to the most grave of evil actions.

Finally, there seems to be a confusion that is going around concerning the issue of cooperation with evil.  Back in 2004 Archbishop Chaput explained:

“Does our voting for someone make us responsible for what that person does as a legislator or as a judge?…And the answer is yes, because we are in some ways materially — we use the word “materially” — cooperating in that person’s activity because we’ve given [him or her] the platform to be elected.”

“Now, if the person does something wrong, are we responsible for that? Well, if we didn’t know they were going to something wrong, our participation is remote, but if we knew they were going to do something wrong and we approved of it, our responsibility would really be close, even if we knew they were going to do something wrong and we voted for them for another reason, we would still be responsible in some ways.”

“The standing is that if you know someone is going to do evil and you participate in that in some way, you are responsible. So it’s not…’if you vote this way, should you go to confession?’ The question is, ‘if you vote this way, are you cooperating in evil?’Now, if you know you are cooperating in evil, should you go to confession? The answer is yes.”

The problem with this analysis is that the Church actually allows for material cooperation.  In situations of duress or for the sake of the common good, a person can vote for a person who holds opinions that they do not agree with, even on intrinsic evils, such as McCain’s position on ESCR.  One may simply not vote for that person because they support such an evil.  The question of approval that Chaput raises is actually a question of formal cooperation.  So he seems to conflate the two.  However, as long as one does not vote for a politician because of an evil position they hold, one may vote for them, as long as in one’s judgment, they are the better of the two options.

8 Responses to Voting and Intrinsic Evils

  1. frjoseph says:

    Interesting that you mention McCain by name on the Embryonic Stem-Cell Research but do not mention Obama for his position on abortion, sterilization or abortionfacient drugs. Very possibly in the McCain-Obama situation, we should not have voted for either one of them. Just in thinking! I find it also interesting that you take on Archbishop Chaput’s thinking in relation to material and formal cooperation. But an article that is certainly debatable but has a smidgen of liberal theology attached. Just in thinking; no criticism.

  2. Sam Rocha says:

    Nice work, Nathan.

    One assumption that is clearly out of place is that “voting” for someone implies something beyond generic selection.

    When I select a place to eat brunch, I mostly eat at places that do not serve the perfect meal. I eat it, sometimes I like it, others time I don’t, but I generally do not eat at places I where I hate the food. Over time, one could say that since I eat brunch at diners that I must love the coffee — but I really don’t like diner coffee. But, when I MUST eat something, I prefer bad coffee with real eggs cooked with some earthiness — with potatoes and bacon.

    What I am trying to explain is that our choices in ordinary life rarely are indicative of our highest aspirations. We choose the best of what is there. To “choose” does not mean full or even partial endorsement; it might mean a guess in a very limited situation. The facile, jingoistic patriotism that has infected the act of voting ignores the real political situation and what is really happening at polls — for the minority in this country who takes the time to vote.


  3. Pete Lake says:

    So is a vote for Obama, who supports abortion in almost every instance and who will continue funding planned parenthood and who deems an unwanted pregnancy as a punsihment to the mother by way of child, a more material (formal maybe?) participation in an instrinsic evil than a vote for Romney, who, as you’ve noted, would permit an abortion in the case of rape or incest? I think the Bishops you cited (including the now Bishop of Rome) would say yes. Thoughts?

  4. So I think people might be reading into this too much. I am not endorsing Obama. I’m not saying I would vote for him. The only purpose of the post was to point out that a candidate’s support for an intrinsic evil does not rule them out a as a Catholic option. That’s it. As long as one does not vote for a pro-abortion candidate because they are pro-abortion, one does not partake in formal cooperation.

  5. Pete Lake says:

    Nathan, your point that “[a]s long as one does not vote for a pro-abortion candidate because [he is] pro-abortion, one does not partake in formal cooperation” is well taken and I agree with it, as far as that goes. However, the idea needs to be fleshed out more because otherwise it does easily lend itself to people reading too much into it or drawing improper inferences (for example, that you are endorsing Obama or that it is “okay,” for lack of a better word, to vote for just any candidate so long as one does not do so with the subjective intent of partaking in formal or material cooperation). It needs to be fleshed out more because simply not partaking in formal cooperation is not the end all be all consideration for a discerning Catholic voter. (Think St. Ignatius asking the voter to consider voting with indifference other than what would be more pleasing to the Triune God.) My point is that one can still make and should aspire to make “better” Catholic decisions at the voting booth, even if the act of voting for either candidate is outside the real of formal or material cooperation because the voter has not the subjective intent to partake of such cooperation with respect to either candidate. In other words, we still have to be responsible Catholic voters, which I think is the bigger point the Bishops you cited had in mind.

  6. Jono Newton says:

    This is really interesting Nathan. Thanks for your thoughts. I always dread voting season because I don’t feel well-aligned with a particular party, and I don’t like to cop out and sit on the sidelines either. It’s great to hear some intelligent conversation from the Catholic perspective, and I appreciate your effort to illuminate the moral framework for the Catholic voter a little bit.

  7. Peter Wolczuk says:

    This breakdown of differing evils; or types of evil; is mostly new and interesting to me and I feel a need for some study to better grasp “intrinsic evil” (and its effects) but this post, and the resulting responses; seems to be a good starting point.
    What I do see is that, in choosing which candidate to vote for in human affairs, voting for an imperfect candidate is currently a “necessary evil”
    There’s a suggestion which grows in popularity that a “none of the above” option should be available for voters so that better candidates are offered, however a first try at the federal level is an invitation to disaster.

  8. Jan Zavodny says:

    Nathan, If you know a candidate is planning on doing evil if you elect him or her, but they happen to support your union job, is that a good enough reason to ignore the evil they have promised to do? How can it be OK for a Catholic to ignore a known planned evil a candidate says they are going to do because of some other social or economic issue? How can you excuse yourself from giving a candidate a blank check he has said he will use for evil, because you like his immigration stance? I am very confused by your logic. Jan Zavodny

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