Wednesday, January 1, 2020

What is Our Focus? Building the Kingdom? Or Supporting a Party?


Every four years, American Catholics tend to forget the focus of the teachings of the Church and instead turn to the ephemeral disputes of getting their preferred candidate elected. We get so distracted by this dispute that we turn our individual political opinions into dogma, declaring that those who disagree with us are enemies of the Church.

If I go on Facebook, I can be sure of seeing “MAGA cult” and “Never Trumper” hurled around as anathemas. Both sides are utterly convinced of their righteousness, claiming to possess the only authentic Catholic position and condemning the other side of openly supporting evil. 

Tragically, while they condemn the other side for their failings, they are perfectly happy with excusing their own. We are told that, Yes, X is important, but this election is too crucial to risk having the other side win. So we have to worry about that issue later. The temptation is to think that provided that as long as the intended good outweighs the evil, we say our action is good and we can forget about the bad parts. We might try to excuse it double effect, but that’s not the case*. Rather, what we are doing here is Proportionalism.

What is Wrong With Proportionalism?

We should remember what Cardinal Sarah wrote:

A false conception of good, replaced by duty, gives rise to erroneous theories like consequentialism. According to this system, nothing is good or bad in itself; the goodness of an act depends solely on its end or purpose and its foreseeable consequences. The end then justifies the means. There is an American form of moderate consequentialism, proportionalism, in which the morality of the act results from the calculation of the proportion of good and evil that the subject sees involved in it.

—Cardinal Robert Sarah, The Day is Now Far Spent

Most of the time, Catholics seeking to be faithful to the Church know that Proportionalism is wrong. We may never choose to do intrinsic evils, for example. No matter what good we think it might do, there is a line we cannot cross.

Germain Grisez (Way of the Lord Jesus, vol. 1, p. 159) defines Proportionalism this way:

Some Catholic moral theologians have adopted a theory called “consequentialism” or “proportionalism.” This is the view that a moral judgment is based on a comparative evaluation of benefits and harms promised by the possibilities for choice; one ought to choose the possibility which offers the best proportion of good to bad. There are many varieties of proportionalism, but this comparative evaluation of benefits and harms is central to all.

He goes on to critique why it doesn’t work (ibid p. 160):

Its proponents cannot say how to measure benefits and harms in the options so that their proportion can be settled. Moreover, it involves two incompatible conditions: first, that a morally wrong choice be possible; second, that the alternative which is superior in terms of the proportion of good to bad be known. But this cannot be, for if the alternative which is superior in these terms is known, other possibilities fall away, and there can be no morally wrong choice. In other words, proportionalism simply says it would be wrong to choose what its account of moral judgment would render it impossible to choose. Since proportionalism is inherently unworkable, it is not false but incoherent.

American Catholics often fall into the Proportionalism trap when it comes to our political parties because the parties are at odds with Catholic teaching on serious matter in some way. Because American politics are dualistic (either Democrat or Republican), many American Catholics of good will feel torn between choosing a party that calls the legalized slaughter of the unborn a moral good and a party that justifies the mistreatment of migrants.

Turning “Weighing the Issues” into “Evading Our Responsibilities”

Sincere or not, many American Catholics practice proportionalism by weighing Church teachings and drawing a line that inevitably puts their favored party on the right side and the other party on the wrong side. If pressed, they might admit that the other issue is wrong too—but it’s not as important as the issue their party is right on. Because of this, they treat a vote for their party as morally good, and a vote that is NOT for their party (whether for the other major party, a minor party, or not voting) as a moral evil.

Archbishop Chaput, in a 2016 article, rejected that way of thinking:

It’s absurd—in fact, it’s blasphemous—to assume that God prefers any political party in any election year.  But God, by his nature, is always concerned with good and evil and the choices we make between the two.  For Catholics, no political or social issue stands in isolation.  But neither are all pressing issues equal in foundational importance or gravity.  The right to life undergirds all other rights and all genuine social progress.  It cannot be set aside or contextualized in the name of other “rights” or priorities without prostituting the whole idea of human dignity.

Of course, the right to life is the first right (all subsequent rights depend on being alive first). What some Catholics of both parties forget is that the Right to Life is defined more broadly by the Church than the partisan Catholics admit. The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (#27) tells us:

Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.

The Church calls a number of actions infamies that the partisan Catholics treat as “less important” to the point that it effectively means “not important.”  

Effectively Negating the Obligation to Oppose Abortion

On one hand, we have a group of Catholics who argue that we will never end legalized abortion and we should work to make it less sought after. This group exercises proportionalism by evading the fact that abortion is the legalized killing of human beings. The argument of the Catholic justifying a vote for a pro-abortion politician in the name of other issues cannot be reconciled with the teaching of St. John Paul II.

He said (contra those who argue that other issues are important too) in Christifideles Laici #38:

The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fĂ­nds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.

And against the argument that it’s useless to try to end legalized abortion so we should make less need for them^, we need to remember Evangelium Vitae points out that we cannot tolerate evil laws, even if we think it is futile to oppose them. #70 tells us

While public authority can sometimes choose not to put a stop to something which—were it prohibited would cause more serious harm, it can never presume to legitimize as a right of individuals—even if they are the majority of the members of society—an offence against other persons caused by the disregard of so fundamental a right as the right to life. The legal toleration of abortion or of euthanasia can in no way claim to be based on respect for the conscience of others, precisely because society has the right and the duty to protect itself against the abuses which can occur in the name of conscience and under the pretext of freedom.

Elsewhere we are told (#72),

Laws which authorize and promote abortion and euthanasia are therefore radically opposed not only to the good of the individual but also to the common good; as such they are completely lacking in authentic juridical validity. Disregard for the right to life, precisely because it leads to the killing of the person whom society exists to serve, is what most directly conflicts with the possibility of achieving the common good. Consequently, a civil law authorizing abortion or euthanasia ceases by that very fact to be a true, morally binding civil law.

And in #73,

Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection.

Letting abortion remain legal while hoping to reduce it through increased social programs does not fulfill our obligation to oppose that evil. If some Catholics support candidates who openly champion abortion because of their positions on certain economic issues, they are effectively refusing to carry out their obligation to defend life.

Effectively Negating the Obligation to Treat Human Beings with the Dignity Due a Child of God

While I believe that the canard of opponents of abortion only caring about life from conception to birth is a calumny, some Catholics do effectively deny the importance of defending life in the social justice teaching by acting as if voting for anti-abortion candidates exempted them from speaking out against the other evils those candidates support.

Pope Francis reminds us of these things in Gaudete et Exsultate when he writes:

100. I regret that ideologies lead us at times to two harmful errors. On the one hand, there is the error of those Christians who separate these Gospel demands from their personal relationship with the Lord, from their interior union with him, from openness to his grace. Christianity thus becomes a sort of NGO stripped of the luminous mysticism so evident in the lives of Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, and many others. For these great saints, mental prayer, the love of God and the reading of the Gospel in no way detracted from their passionate and effective commitment to their neighbors; quite the opposite. 

101. The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist. Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend. Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.

102. We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)? Saint Benedict did so readily, and though it might have “complicated” the life of his monks, he ordered that all guests who knocked at the monastery door be welcomed “like Christ,” with a gesture of veneration; the poor and pilgrims were to be met with “the greatest care and solicitude.”

103. A similar approach is found in the Old Testament: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:21). “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33–34). This is not a notion invented by some Pope, or a momentary fad. In today’s world too, we are called to follow the path of spiritual wisdom proposed by the prophet Isaiah to show what is pleasing to God. “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn” (Is 58:7–8).

While Leo XIII formulated the approach of modern social justice, the obligation to care for those who are in desperate need of help so they don’t die is also part of the right to life.

No Matter how we Vote or who gets Elected, we have a Battle to Fight

Both the Catholic who denies the importance of opposing abortion and the Catholic who denies the importance of protecting the weak and oppressed are doing wrong in the sight of God. Not because they are focusing on one side, but because they are ignoring or downplaying the evil inconvenient to their party.

But, in our dualistic political system, no matter who wins, one party§ will gain the presidency and that party will be at odds with Church teaching on grave matter. So what are we to do?

We have to be prepared to fight. That’s obvious if our party loses. But we have to fight if our own party if it should win. The Catholic Democrats must fight their party on evils like abortion. Catholic Republicans must fight their party on evils like the mistreatment of migrants. Catholics who voted for a minor party, down voted, or did not vote (for a valid reason, obviously) must fight the victorious party on these evils.

This is the difference between improving the world and working for God’s kingdom. As the Vatican II document Apostolicam Actuositatem #5 points out:

Christ’s redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of men, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order. Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to men but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel. In fulfilling this mission of the Church, the Christian laity exercise their apostolate both in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and the temporal orders. These orders, although distinct, are so connected in the singular plan of God that He Himself intends to raise up the whole world again in Christ and to make it a new creation, initially on earth and completely on the last day. In both orders the layman, being simultaneously a believer and a citizen, should be continuously led by the same Christian conscience.

If we work (and vote) to renew the temporal order as part of the mission of the salvation of men, we do right. But if we turn a blind eye to the evils our party does, we are complicit through silence. In the final judgment, we will be asked, “what did you do in response to those in need?” (cf. Ezekiel 33:1-9, Matthew 25:31-46). Did we seek to be faithful, speak out (charitably, not abusively), and help to the best of our ability? 

God will know. God will judge.

I’m Writing to You, Not the Other Person 

I’m as guilty as anyone else when, reading an article about moral obligation, to think “I know somebody who should be reading this!” But the issues I describe can affect all of us. It’s easy to think of our own problems as minor and those of the “other side” as unforgivable. But I hope I demonstrated that this way of thinking can lead us to excusing our own wrongdoing when we might be as guilty as those we denounce.

Yes, we have to work to bring others to Christ. But if we do not also cooperate with God’s Grace to grow closer to Him, we might find we have excluded ourselves while others enter.


(*) Properly speaking, Double Effect occurs when an unavoidable and unintended lesser evil occurs in carrying out a legitimate action intended to cause good. If the evil is avoidable, intended, or greater than the intended good, one cannot plead double effect

(§) Sure, a minor party might win. You might win the lottery tomorrow too. I wouldn’t recommend making plans around either though. But (as I hope to discuss in my next article) the fact that they cannot win doesn’t make the vote for such a party evil.

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