Showing posts with label Catholic teaching. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Catholic teaching. Show all posts

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Into Exile?

Thus says the Lord: Do what is right and just. Rescue the victims from the hand of their oppressors. Do not wrong or oppress the resident alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. If you carry out these commands, kings who succeed to the throne of David will continue to enter the gates of this house, riding in chariots or mounted on horses, with their ministers, and their people. But if you do not obey these commands, I swear by myself—oracle of the Lord: this house shall become rubble. (Jeremiah 22:3–5)

When I do my morning readings and study, sometimes the different books line up and discuss one theme in different ways. When that happens, it gives an interesting perspective on that theme. Lately, the theme coming up has been the times of Jeremiah and his warnings of coming disaster for the Jews. The Jews of the time thought of their problems as an external threat arbitrarily imposed on them for the wrongdoing of others. One of the kings even asked Jeremiah to intervene with God to prevent disaster… an attitude that showed that he did not even grasp the cause.

Jeremiah made clear that the disaster was unavoidable and the fault of the Jews themselves, not others, or other segments of the population. Everyone had fallen into corruption and had earned the coming wrath. Superficially keeping the law would not save them when their attitude was what kept them far from God.

I think of this as I watch Catholics in this country respond to the disasters afflicting us. Regardless of what side one falls under on the political divide, we sense that dark times are imminent, but we think that it is the fault of others. Whether the “others” are from a different political faction, a different country, a different religion, or whatever you prefer, we assume that our current woes are on account if them, and if they would only act as we see best, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

The prophets were clear that this was not the case. Ezekiel 18:1-4, for example, had this prophecy about that assumption:

The word of the LORD came to me: Son of man, what is the meaning of this proverb you recite in the land of Israel: 

“Parents eat sour grapes, 
but the children’s teeth are set on edge”? 

As I live—oracle of the Lord GOD: I swear that none of you will ever repeat this proverb in Israel. For all life is mine: the life of the parent is like the life of the child, both are mine. Only the one who sins shall die! 

In other words, if we are undergoing a national crisis, the wrong attitude to take is “It’s somebody else’s fault.”

We need to flash forward to the year 2020. We are a nation laid low by a plague, and we are facing an election that feels like it was described in Isaiah 3:4-5. All of us—Catholics included—are acting as if we are immaculate and whatever fault exists for our trials belong elsewhere, even as we act unjustly in our own way.

We have excuses of course. We say that “Yes, the Church teaching on X is important but, in these times, we must focus on Y instead.” The problem is, we all too often have no intention of doing anything to correct the injustice of X, even if we feel perturbed by it. We decide we do not want to risk what we have by doing anything that might cause harm to it. So, we hypocritically condemn others for their failures to follow Catholic teaching and explain away our own failures. Both factions are quite proud of the fact that they follow the rules better than the other side. But let us remember the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1867 The catechetical tradition also recalls that there are “sins that cry to heaven”: the blood of Abel, the sin of the Sodomites, the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt, the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan, injustice to the wage earner.

If we turn a blind eye to the sins our faction is guilty of committing or tolerating, while condemning the other side for violating God’s law, we are hypocrites and earn condemnation ourselves. So, before we point fingers at the other side for their evils and congratulate ourselves for our “virtues,” let us ask ourselves if we too are guilty in the eyes of God. I say that because, the Catechism of the Catholic Church also warns us:

1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest. (Emphasis added).

We who are Catholics should also remember the teaching of Vatican II. Because we belong to the Church established by Christ and possessing the fullness of His teachings; because we can avail ourselves of the graces He provides through it, we are without excuses if we live against or turn our back on these teachings.

All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.

We should keep that in mind. While our fellow Catholics might be sinning differently than us, that does not negate our own sins against God and our fellow man. I think this is where Our Lord’s teaching on judgment really applies:

Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3–5)

If, in 2020, we condemn the other side while “being comfortable” with our own vote* or political platform, then we have a log in our eye. The failure of the major factions to fix the evils they are complicit in means we should not call our preferred faction “good.” At best we can call it “less evil,” and need to reform it even as we oppose the evils of the other side.

Otherwise, we share in the evil and will answer for it… quite possibly facing the equivalent of the exile that the prophets warned the ancient Israelites about.



(*) as one “personally opposed but…” voter told me when trying to justify her opposition to ending legalized abortion..

Saturday, September 19, 2020

What is Our Obligation? Body Count Theology and the Fallacy of Relative Privation


The election grows closer and everybody is worried about the consequences. Looking at it objectively, no matter who wins, the consequences will be severe. So nonpartisan discussions should involve what the cost is of rejecting the greater evil. It’s understandable that Catholics would also look at the election with concern. The Catholic’s concerns about the cost will be different from the secular concerns, but we do have an obligation to identify both the greater evil and whether a “proportionate reason” exists to support the lesser evil.


Unfortunately, we’re seeing some Catholics reduce this into an issue of the body count. It’s understandable of course. Looking strictly at numbers, a policy that kills 62 million people is more serious than a policy that kills 6 million people and must be given a higher priority. But we do need to go beyond “strictly looking at numbers,” as the fact that the second policy “only” killed 6 million does not make it negligible or tolerable. I didn’t pick those two numbers at random. 62 million is the number killed by abortion in the United States from 1973-2018. 6 million is the number of Jews estimated murdered by the Nazis in their “Final Solution.” Both are horrific when you realize that the numbers are not statistics but human beings. It would be monstrous to argue that Hitler’s policies didn’t matter in comparison.


But reducing political support of a candidate to the fact that his policies have a lower body count than the other is effectively that! It’s ridiculous and offensive because the moral choice would be to reject both. Sometimes we do have to do that. The logical error to avoid is the fallacy of relative privation. This holds that because Evil X is greater than Evil Y, Evil Y is not important… an attitude incompatible with Catholic belief§.


Some Catholics may legitimately find that their conscience demands fighting the evil that Candidate A will impose must take a higher priority than the evil that Candidate B will impose, and that justifies a vote for Candidate B. But if they do think that a “proportionate reason” exists that justifies voting for Candidate B, they are not excused from fighting the evils that Candidate B supports. I would argue that they are obligated to fight the evils their vote is enabling if their candidate is elected. I do not believe we can claim that tolerating that evil for the next four to eight years is compatible with the Catholic view.


Unfortunately, we see Catholics on both sides who do exactly that. Some Catholics argue that by voting for the pro-abortion candidate, they are effectively reducing abortion because other policies will reduce the “need” for it… forgetting how many abortions are performed for arbitrary reasons. They then stay silent on abortion except to criticize those who give it a higher priority. Others argue that while they don’t like the evils in their party, “the stakes are too high” to fight against it until later… a later that never comes. In this game, both sides are swift to point out the hypocrisies of the other side… and never quite grasp that they are guilty of the same thing.


So, do you believe that the attacks on the right to life are the worst? Do you think that ignoring the other issues are missing a crucial point on what that right entails? Well and good. “They” should repent of their attitudes. But the question remains: What are you going to do about the evils in your own party? They’ll still be there on January 20th, 2021 and saying “I voted against Candidate A in 2020” isn’t going to be a defense at the Last Judgment. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46) and the Parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) show that we can’t be passive when people are suffering.


I am, of course, just a laic blogger. I have no authority to judge the conscience of you the reader based on how you happen to vote. But I can state my fraternal concern that many people seem to be forgetting that our moral obligations go beyond the ballot box. Our obligation as Catholic Christians¤ involve evangelizing the world in [election] season and out (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-5) in the face of all the errors that risk damnation… not just the ones committed by those with a -D or an -R after their names.




(†) To head off debates on Hitler being pro- or anti-abortion, Hitler’s views were based on eugenics, not moral values. He opposed abortion for “Aryan” ethnicities but favored it for other ethnicities.


(‡) I reject the concept of “Candidate X is Hitler” rhetoric that shows up (I rejected it in my blog at least as far back as 2012). No matter how repugnant we might find one or more of the current candidates, their positions are not Hitlerian.


(§) It’s closer to Utilitarianism where the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people is considered the key.


(¤) I don’t say this to deny the values of non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians that share our concerns. If you are in one of those groups, I hope my writing has some value for you too. But I am appealing as a Catholic to fellow Catholics to be aware of their obligations.



Wednesday, September 2, 2020

What is a Proportionate Reason? A Reflection


A reader on my blog page asked me for a clarification on what a Proportionate Reason was when it comes to moral theology and the abortion issue. It reminded me that sometimes what think is clear, the average reader might see as technical jargon. So, I apologize for not being clear and will try to explain it without sounding too technical or patronizing. (I suspect I may have to apologize in advance for not succeeding there).

Some Basic Things to Remember.

When dealing with evil and what enables it, we need to make a few basic statements. 

First. We are absolutely forbidden to do an evil act so good may come of it.

Second. To have a morally good act, the action itself must be morally good or neutral (no intrinsically evil acts [that is, the act itself is bad regardless of conditions] can ever be made good), the intention is good (doing something good or neutral for an evil reason makes the act evil), and the circumstances must be good (giving a Snickers bar to a starving child who turns out to have a peanut allergy is bad, even if no harm was intended).

Third. The conditions that make up a mortal sin require committing a serious (grave) evil, knowing it was evil and freely choosing to do it anyway.

Fourth. If it’s impossible to know something (for example, Native Americans in pre-Colombian times absolutely could not have known of the need to accept Christ) and the person acted wrongly, thinking what they did was good, God will not hold a person responsible for that ignorance, even though wrong is done. We call this invincible ignorance. But, if the ignorance was something that could have been learned if the person bothered to look but was negligent, that isn’t excusable. We call this vincible ignorance.

Fifth. The person who knows they have committed a grave sin need to go to Confession before receiving communion (Canon 916). Notorious and unrepentant sinners who choose to go receive Communion anyway can be barred (Canon 915).

So, we could sum this up and say, since we may not do an evil act so good may come of it, we have an obligation to learn what the Church teaches and live it. We are without excuse if we reject the Church teaching and do evil, and we are without excuse if we do evil through ignorance that we could have cleared up if we bothered to look. We could wind up in a state of mortal sin if all conditions are present.

We can never deliberately choose to do evil or to freely and knowingly assist in that evil. (For example, you can never have a morally good rape or a morally good lynching). Even if a Catholic should dissent from Church teaching, they are not excused from obeying it. Otherwise “I disagree” could be an iron clad defense for geocide or murder. If anybody does take part in assisting evil knowingly and willingly, they are responsible for having done evil. So, in the Ratzinger Memorandum, he mentions voting for someone because they are pro-abortion as an example of being obligated to stay away from receiving the Eucharist.

But What About Acts that Aren’t Intrinsically Evil

So, let’s move on. Keeping the above things in mind, let’s move on to Proportionate Reasons that justify an act that is not intrinsically evil in itself, but still makes the evil act possible. 

The immediately relevant part of the Ratzinger Memorandum, the part that gets dragged out every four years, is the section on voting. Voting in itself a civic duty, not an intrinsic evil. Therefore, any sin involved comes from the intention or the consequences.

While deliberate evil in a vote exists if one deliberately chose to vote to support something the Church condemned as evil, we still need to consider the consequences of voting for something that will have an evil consequence, even if unintended. This isn’t a “moral calculus” where we decide X amount of evil is tolerable, while X+1 is not. Instead we have to consider whether the person who enabled the evil had a reason that took away culpability.

If the person knows that voting for a candidate who publicly states his support for something the Church labels evil would enable this bad result (and not being aware indicates a defect in knowledge of Church teaching or the politician’s position), the greater the evil enabled means the greater the reason is needed proportionate to the harm done (there’s where we get the term proportionate reason) is needed to justify the participation in the act.

I’ve pointed out elsewhere that the Catholic Church has (in Gaudium et Spes #27) listed abortion next to murder and genocide in talking about evils. So, we cannot simply treat abortion as one issue among many any more than we can treat murder or genocide as one issue among many. 

This is where the Catholic risks stepping into a trap. It is easy for any concerned Catholic—who has sympathies for one party at odds with the Church in some way—to confuse the reasons they dislike the other party for proportionate reasons. Since the Church does speak so strongly against abortion, unless they can offer a proportionate reason for voting for a pro-abortion candidate that they would accept if used by a Catholic trying to justify voting for murder, genocide, or torture, I honestly don’t think they can defend their vote. This is why I think the insight from Archbishop Chaput is so important: 

We sin if we support “pro-choice” candidates without a truly proportionate reason for doing so—that is, a reason grave enough to outweigh our obligation to end the killing of the unborn. And what would such a “proportionate” reason look like? It would be a reason we could, with an honest heart, expect the unborn victims of abortion to accept when we meet them and need to explain our actions—as we someday will.

Chaput, Charles J. Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (p. 230). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

So, the Catholic who says “I am justified in supporting a pro-abortion candidate because of the evils in the other candidate,” must be able to face God and the victims of the policy that this evil invoked at the final judgment and say, “Yes this was more urgent.”

I would like to conclude by bringing up another issue frequently forgotten when people debate proportionate reasons. That is, the same moral obligations that bind the Catholic considering voting for a pro-abortion candidate also apply for the Catholic considering a vote for his opponent. If that Catholic votes for the other candidate because of his support of the evil position, that voter is also culpable for that evilly intended vote. And, yes, the requirement for a proportionate reason applies to his vote for the opponent with a morally wrong platform too.

None of us are exempted from the obligation of looking to the Church to understand our moral obligations in being a Christian and following them to the best of our understanding and ability to form our consciences. None of this can be set aside because “the stakes are too high” in this election. While we must not be scrupulous in seeking to do right, we must not be lax either. So, when a candidate proudly states they will support something we know is evil, we do have an obligation to oppose it in a moral way.

And, if we should ever become convinced that we have failed to do this, let us remember that we have a Sacrament that reconciles us with God and His Church. Let us avail ourselves of that Sacrament, making a firm purpose of amendment to strive to live according to God’s commandments.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Thoughts on the Misuse of the Ratzinger Referendum in 2020

Everybody has talking points they use to promote their position and refute their opponent’s. Sometimes these talking points have merit to them. At other times, they are merely rattled off like an incantation intended to ward off an opponent’s challenge, but with no real understanding of what it actually means. 

Unfortunately, in 2020, we are seeing a very nuanced document—commonly known as the Ratzinger Memorandum—turned into an incantation by both sides, each conveniently reading it in a way to attack the other side, with no attempt to apply it to their own. This memorandum (which can be read HERE) was written in response to a question by the disgraced and defrocked McCarrick on whether one would be unworthy to receive Communion if they held a position in opposition to Church teaching. Only two points ever get cited by partisan Catholics. Section #3 and the bracketed Nota Bene. For convenience, they are reproduced here:

3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. 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.

* * *

[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.]

Those who intend to vote for a pro-abortion candidate cite the nota bene and argue (dubiously at best) that the candidate’s other positions or the positions of the other candidate, become a “proportionate reason.” Those who support another candidate who is not pro-abortion candidate but is also morally bad in other areas emphasize Section #3 and say there is nothing wrong with voting for a candidate who supports those things. Both are misinterpreting the matter.

When it comes to the issue of abortion, we need to remember that the Catholic Church equates it with other barbarities. In Gaudium et Spes #14, we read:

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.

So, the candidate who supports abortion cannot be simply excused for it in the name of the other positions he might support any more than a candidate who supports genocide can be excused. This isn’t a rhetorical appeal. The Catholic Church calls these things infamies. So, when you have a Democrat who supports some of the infamies listed and a Republican who supports others on the list of infamies, you cannot say that voting for them is morally good. Nor can you claim that the issues your candidate is wrong on (if it’s on the list) is unimportant.

With this in mind, the Catholic who says they are enthusiastic supporters of the candidate who announces his intent to promote and/or defend these infamies have—at best—grossly misunderstood Church teaching. Since both major party candidates in 2020 are at odds with some items on this list, the only appropriate attitude for a Catholic who believes he or she must vote for one of them must be an attitude of sorrow and reluctance… a sense that both are terrible, but one will do less damage to the moral good than the other. Such an attitude cannot say that “Well, issue X is more important, so we’ll fight Issue Y ‘later.’”

No. It seems to me that Catholics belonging to a major party must vote in the primaries against a candidate who supports one or more of the infamies. If said candidate makes it to the national election, we had better (to build on something said by Archbishop Chaput§) make sure our reasons are going to be justifiable before God and the victims of our vote at the final judgment. If we act as if the issue our party is wrong on is “less important,” then let’s stop the pretense that we will fight for the other issue “later.” We should be fighting now to reform whatever party we identify with so they might be less inclined to nominate a similar candidate next time. That fight doesn’t end on Wednesday, November 4th 2020.

If we truly think that the candidate we vote for is the lesser of two evils and he gets elected, the Catholics who voted for him had better take a “You broke it, you bought it” attitude when it comes to the evils they identified as “lesser.” The Catholics who voted for his opponent had better work to eliminate those evils within their own party. Unfortunately, this never seems to happen.

I would like to address another error Catholics commit in citing the Ratzinger Memorandum against the US Bishops on the Death Penalty. It is true that Benedict XVI (then-Cardinal Ratzinger) did point out that support of the death penalty was morally tolerable. But we need to remember that this was written in 2004. It is superseded by what Pope Francis wrote in 2018, amending the Catechism on the Death Penalty. Benedict XVI was not in error in 2004, because the teaching was not yet refined. But those Catholics who think they can treat the 2018 teaching as if the 2004 memorandum outranked it have fallen into a dangerous error. There is no more permissible “legitimate diversity” of opinion here.

But, before those Catholics who already opposed the death penalty get too smug, let them remember this: If they recognize that Catholics who treat the death penalty as a “lesser issue” are wrong, then they are utterly without excuse if they treat abortion the same way. It is true we can easily defend Pope Francis’ change on the grounds that self defense requires the minimum force required and in modern times, the death penalty is no longer the minimum force required. However, the supporter of a pro-abortion candidate can’t escape the fact that abortion can never be justified. As long as Christianity existed, abortion was condemned as murder… which is an infamy. So if Catholics who support a candidate who is in favor of the death penalty are wrong, where does it leave the Catholics who support a pro-abortion candidate?


(§) What he said was: ‘And what would such a “proportionate” reason look like? It would be a reason we could, with an honest heart, expect the unborn victims of abortion to accept when we meet them and need to explain our actions—as we someday will.’ (Chaput, Charles J. Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (p. 230). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I believe we can logically extrapolate from this and apply it to all issues that the Catholic Church describes as Infamies.

(†) One of the propaganda pieces used by some Catholics is “voting for the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.” The irony is, it tends to be used by Catholics who enthusiastically intend to vote for a different candidate (hopefully in spite of) who still supports an infamy against a Catholic who reluctantly plans to vote for the other. It overlooks the possibility of a Catholic voter seeking to reduce damage as much as possible (much like accepting the consequences of a side swipe to avoid a head-on collision). 

(‡) Please don’t argue that you are “eliminating the need for abortion.” That doesn’t work for the other infamies listed in Gaudium et Spes, and it doesn’t work here either.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Both Factions Are Wrong: Let’s Talk About Abortion as an Issue

Every fourth year, abortion becomes a very contentious issue in America. The remaining three years usually involves Catholics pointing fingers at each other for how they voted, saying things would be better/worse if the other guy got elected. Catholics from both of our major political parties tell us that their party is the only real pro-life choice and are swift to point out the evils of the other side.

And let’s face it. Both sides have caused major harm to the defense of life. The Democrats and Republicans alike are correct on pointing out the problems in the other side. But they are wrong to be silent about their own.

The first thing to remember is the Church absolutely calls for the end of abortion. We cannot draw a line where we will say “We’ll tolerate it this far, but no further.” We might have to settle for a lesser gain for now while fighting for a greater gain later. But a Catholic cannot say they will sacrifice the fight to end abortion while focusing on other means to end it. St. John Paul II was quite clear on this:

38. In effect the acknowledgment of the personal dignity of every human being demands the respect, the defence and the promotion of the rights of the human person. It is a question of inherent, universal and inviolable rights. No one, no individual, no group, no authority, no State, can change—let alone eliminate—them because such rights find their source in God himself.

The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds 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.

—John Paul II, Christifideles Laici (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988).

Note that some of the issues some Catholics cite as being “more important” to defend life are listed and called “false and illusory” when the right to defend life is not defended. That is not because St. John Paul II doesn’t care about those issues. On the contrary, he wrote some very firm encyclicals on those topics. But he is removing the fig leaf from the argument some Catholics make. We can’t escape the obligation to fight to end legalized abortion (that is, you can’t claim that reducing the conditions where people consider it is enough). So, the criticism against those Catholics is quite valid because their argument is pharisaical at best.

That being said, the criticism against other Catholics is also a valid concern. Working to help pregnant women so they won’t think abortion is the only option is important as well. Yes, we can legitimately have different ideas on how best to do this so long as we don’t use these different ideas as an excuse to do nothing. The problem is, sometimes these different ideas amount to “let somebody else do it.” That doesn’t work as a Catholic solution. The Church does indeed favor subsidiarity for solutions over huge government bureaucracies because the bigger the body working on it, the more likely somebody will slip through the cracks. But, sometimes people’s “let somebody else do it” approach to subsidiarity results in overwhelmed charity groups working to help too many people with not enough resources.

So, we have on one side Catholics on one side is silent over their party championing an intrinsic evil to achieve an end. Catholics on the other side are silent when their party tolerates evil consequences to achieve theirs. So, this is why I say both sides mentioned are wrong, and reject “but what about...” arguments. On one side, turning one’s back on the issue of abolishing abortion is to effectively say that it doesn’t matter if some get aborted as long as it flies under the radar. No, abortion is not just going to vanish when conditions improve enough. Call it negligence, call it cowardice, call it indifference. Just don’t call it principled. It’s still complicity with evil. On the other side, by refusing to consider policies that go against one’s political philosophy on government size, they are leaving women without resources that might give them the courage to choose life. Oh, I’m sure that Catholics in this camp would want these women to get help. But we should keep in mind what the Epistle of James said: If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? (James 2:15–16). God will judge them just as surely as he will those who make excuses for pro-abortion politicians.

The danger is, Catholics have grown to think that Evil X is so bad that they can ignore Evil Y because of it. That’s not how Catholic moral obligation works. In our dualistic political system, we are all too often forced to choose between a party that calls abortion “good,” while trying to expand it, and a party that seems to say “tsk, too bad” when it comes to conditions that make the evil of abortion seem like it is an option.

So, while both factions of Catholics are correct in pointing out the hypocrisies of the other side, they are in dangerous—quite possibly damnable—error over their blindness about their own hypocrisies. So, here’s the thing. If you identify with the party that promotes abortion, you have an obligation to fight abortion tooth and nail in a pro-abortion party you plan to vote for. If you identify with the party that opposes abortion, you have an obligation to fight callous indifference over what those women considering abortion need.

If you don’t do that within your own party, you’re no better than those on the other side that you denounce. It really is that simple.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Identifying With a Thing Doesn’t Make It Good per se. Opposing it Doesn’t Make it Bad

One thing I encounter among Catholics on social media is the assumption that: because I identify with a thing, it must be good or because I oppose it, it must be bad. The problem with this view is it confuses what makes an act good or evil objectively with one’s feelings about an act. Since people don’t like to think of themselves as being wrong, this assumption frequently results in accusing the Church of error for affirming a teaching in the face of popular sentiment.

These attacks—like so many others—are not limited to one region or faction. Conservative or liberal; Democrat or Republican; these and many other factions across the public square find fault with the Church where the Church cannot do anything else but teach this way.

To understand why the Church holds that a thing must be a certain way, we need to grasp that there are three things needed to make an act morally good. The action itself must be good (e.g. you can never say an act of rape or genocide is good), the results must be good (a do-gooder who sparks a riot through lack of prudence doesn’t perform a good act even if the action itself is good), and the intention must be good (If I donate money to charity in order to impress and seduce my neighbor’s wife, that is an evil intention). If even one of these three conditions are absent, you don’t have a good act. Let’s look at some illustrations.

Things like abortion are examples of an intrinsically bad act. It arbitrarily chooses to end an innocent human life for the perceived benefit of another human life. Even if the person who commits it thinks that the good outweighed the evil, or meant well in doing so, you can’t call it a good act. How one feels about it doesn’t change that fact. This is why the Church cannot do anything other than condemn it. Reducing the amount of abortion cannot be an end in itself. It can only be a step on the way to abolition.

Other acts can be neutral or good in themselves, but the consequence is bad. For example, the Church does teach that a nation can regulate immigration if doing so is necessary. This is something critics of the Pope and bishops love to point out. But there is a difference between “our country is in the midst of a disaster and we are having trouble dealing with it right now” and “Criminals among THOSE people are dangerous and we don’t want them here, so let’s keep everyone out!” The US bishops are pointing out that America is not in that first situation, and the second situation is a morally bad consequence—refusing to help those in need out of a fear of who might get in.

And, of course, a good or neutral act can be made bad if done for a bad intention. Being thrifty is a good thing. But, if one is frugal for a bad reason (like Judas dipping into the common purse [John 12:5-6]), it’s not a morally good act. If a government cuts expenses with the intent of targeting certain groups or raising taxes in the name of social services, but defines the term to fund immoral policies, then the bad intention corrupts the good or neutral base act.

In these cases, no matter how much one identifies with the cause, if it’s defective in one of these three parts, you can’t call it a good act.

On the other side, the fact that the Church as a whole, the Pope, or an individual bishop acts in a way we disagree with does notmake it a morally bad act. The Church needs to act with an eye towards saving souls. That might be a soft merciful approach, as when Our Lord dined with sinners. It might be a strong rebuke, as when Our Lord rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees. But the point of their action is supposed to be bringing the sinner back to reconciliation. Since the Church is made up of sinners with finite knowledge, we will invariably encounter situations handled badly. But we will also encounter situations we think are handled badly due to our own lack of knowledge… either about the situation or about the teaching behind the Church’s action. 

Every election year, for example, we hear from certain Catholics on how the bishops are failing by not excommunicating politicians for supporting abortion. This is based on a misunderstanding of canon law. Canon law points out that those directly taking part in a specific act of abortion (abortionist, their staff, woman having an abortion, etc.) are automatically excommunicated. But those working to protect abortion as a “right” are doing something gravely sinful and, under canon 916, should refrain from Communion. Canon 915 involves those publicly involved in grave sin. Some bishops have invoked it in refusing communion to politicians in their dioceses. Others don’t seem to have acted in this way. 

But what we don’t know is why they have not acted publicly. It could be laxity or sympathy… the two common charges from those who demand public action. Are there situations we don’t know about? Are the bishops in personal dialogue with these Catholic politicians? Have they privately told these politicians not to receive? Do they want to avoid conflict? I don’t know… but neither do the critics. We should certainly pray for our bishops to shepherd rightly. But we should also keep in mind that—in connecting the dots—we may not have seen all the dots that we need to connect.

This should not be interpreted as a “be passive in the face of injustice.” What it means is, we should not be so confident in our interpretation of events that we think only the conclusion we draw is true. Church history is full of people who thought they knew better and caused all sorts of chaos, endangering their own souls and the souls of others. Because conditions change, the Church will have to decide how to best apply timeless truths to the current times. Sometimes, the attitudes of a society can lead Catholics to tolerate—or even commit—injustice. Sometimes those Catholics are higher up in the Church. But we must not assume that this is the case when the Church must teach in a way we do not like.



(†) Of course, we must do more to help people than just end abortion. We need to help people in situations where they think it is the only choice. But only focusing on those parts while leaving it legal is not a Catholic position.

(‡) Provided, of course, the Bishop is acting in communion with the Pope and fellow bishops. The actions of a Lefebvre or a Milingo (for example) cannot be defended on these grounds.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Church Authority and its Malcontents

A Teaching pertaining to the Faith, i.e., theologically certain (sententia ad fidem pertinens, i.e., theologice certa) is a doctrine, on which the Teaching Authority of the Church has not yet finally pronounced, but whose truth is guaranteed by its intrinsic connection with the doctrine of revelation (theological conclusions). [Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma pp. 9–10]

It is my hope that this Encyclical Letter, which is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching, can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face. [Pope Francis, Laudato Si #15]

One of the books I have been going through for my daily studies is Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Written in the 1950s, it classifies different teachings of the Church and theological opinions according to their levels of theological certainty and authority. It’s the kind of work that only a theology geek could wade through and enjoy it. Since I am of that type, I find it fascinating.

One of the developing trends I see in reading it is how certain things that the Church teaches as binding—things that one would be heretical or schismatic to deny—are not de fide definitions. What would make them de fide is the Pope teaching ex cathedra or a definition by an ecumenical council and approved by the Pope. But the fact that a teaching is not de fide does not mean it is not binding.

The difference between an ex cathedra teaching and a teaching of the ordinary magisterium is that the former is irrevocable and irreformable. The latter can be revoked (as in disciplines) and reformed (when the teaching is developed to face new conditions that previous Popes and Councils were not aware of. So, it would be an error to say that because a teaching is not ex cathedra, we can ignore it. Instead, we must say that while a teaching of the ordinary magisterium can be ended or changed, we are bound to it as it stands until the Church does change it. And, once it is changed, we cannot appeal to the earlier version against the current.

I think some critics miss the nuance here. They think that the Church could contradict a past dogma and call a former evil a good. This is where we get the “Pope is going to approve gay marriage” or “Pope is going to approve women priests” nonsense. Those are things that cannot be changed. But things like whether we say the Mass in Latin or the vernacular; whether we have abstinence from meat on Fridays or can substitute it for another penance; whether we ordain unmarried men or include married men; whether we receive the Eucharist on the tongue or in the hand; whether the laity receive the chalice… these are all things that can be changed, and the changes can be revoked if the Church sees it necessary for the good of the Church. 

We cannot argue that a change is “proof” of error on the part of the Church in the past or in the present. I’ve seen some Catholics argue that the change on the discipline in one area shows that the Church can be wrong in another areas. For example, Catholics who try to deny the authority of Humanae Vitae on the grounds that the Church “changed” her teaching on meatless Fridays or on charging interest. They claim that the Church was “wrong” before on meat and interest. Therefore, they think the Church is “wrong” now on contraception and can be disobeyed until the teaching is “changed.”

Anti-Francis Catholics make the same error, assuming that the changes he made in application or discipline are rejections of doctrine, and they can safely ignore these teachings until a future Pope “changes them back.”

The fact that a teaching from the Ordinary Magisterium can be modified is not a justification to refuse obedience or claim that a teaching is in error and therefore not binding. Yes, individual bishops acting apart from the Pope can err. Yes, councils not sanctioned by the Pope can err in trying to teach.  Yes, Popes can be mistaken as private individuals expressing an opinion*.  But when Popes teach, we are bound to give religious submission of intellect and will (cf. canon 752Humani Generis 20 et al.) and we put our trust in God to protect the Church from teaching error.

Nor can we say that the changing or revocation of a past teaching from the ordinary magisterium is “proof” of heresy by the Pope. Heresy is the “obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith” (see canon 751). Changing what can legitimately be changed is not a denial of the Catholic faith. 

We should keep this in mind when people try to encourage rejection of a Pope’s teachings. When the Pope teaches X in the ordinary magisterium, and a Bishop—or even a Cardinal—says the Pope is wrong, we would do well to remember Canon 1404: “The First See is judged by no one.” Nobody below the Pope has authority over him to judge his teaching. If someone were to try to appeal to an Ecumenical Council against him, they would be wise to remember canon 1372: “A person who makes recourse against an act of the Roman Pontiff to an ecumenical council or the college of bishops is to be punished with a censure.” If one wants to cause a groundswell of opposition, they should remember canon 1373: “A person who publicly incites among subjects animosities or hatred against the Apostolic See or an ordinary because of some act of power or ecclesiastical ministry or provokes subjects to disobey them is to be punished by an interdict or other just penalties.”

These penalties should serve as an illustration of just how seriously the Church takes the refusal to obey the Pope when he teaches as head of the Church—whether ex cathedra or through the ordinary magisterium—about the Catholic faith. Whatever excuses we might invent that justify our disobedience, they rise from the refusal to accept that authority when it goes against what we think the Church should be. 

But an authentically Catholic understanding of Scripture, or teachings on faith and morals, is subject to the judgment of the Successor of Peter. This authority to judge must not be understood as being contrary to what Jesus taught. If we really believe that Jesus established the Catholic Church and protects it from error, we need to accept the teachings of those who succeed the Apostles: The Pope and the bishops in communion with him because we trust that they are also protected. 

But, if we won’t accept their teachings, and accuse the Pope and bishops of error, the first question we need to ask is whether the real error lies with us, not them.



(†) And, thus, nothing that the critics of Vatican II can ignore.

(‡) What changed was dealing with a new situation: Borrowing for investment instead of for need. Charging interest for things a person needs to survive remains evil. I’m of the view that the “payday loans” do fall under the condemnation of usury. 

(§) The logical error in their argument is False analogy, where they assume that because the Church changed X, she can or must change Y. But if the differences between X and Y are greater than the differences, you can’t say that the same reasoning applies.

(*) All of the “proofs” cited that a Pope can err involve a Pope either behaving badly (not a teaching) or expressing a private opinion (not a teaching). If the Pope isn’t teaching, he can’t teach error.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Practicing What We Preach: The Problem of Catholics and Toleration of Evil

Then Nathan said to David: “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7)

While it’s easy to forget it with all the other turmoil going around, the United States will have an election in November. Many Catholics have already decided how they will vote. Both sides justify that decision by pointing out the evils on the other side. They inevitably will say that the stakes are “too high” to do anything but vote the way they were going to vote anyway.

Catholics on both sides will use identical arguments, merely choosing a different “non-negotiable” issue that disqualifies the other side, and condemning the other side for refusing to think like them… even though they think identically in terms of arguments used in justifying themselves. In other words, for many Catholics, the elections involve who they plan to vote against, and whoever votes in a way opposed to how they plan to vote is condemned as willfully standing on the side of evil.

And God help the bishops when they speak out on an evil that one of the parties embrace. Catholics of that party invariably attack their bishops as being partisans for the other party. If the bishops speak out on abortion and the defense of marriage, they’re called “The Republican Party at Prayer” (an attack used in the 2008 and 2016 elections) or accused of being “played” by Trump. If they speak out against the treatment of migrants and the support for torture, or for military action that violate the teaching on Just War, they are accused of being Democrats. In 2016, the bishops were accused by Catholics on both sides of belonging to the other side. 

While I have been aware of this behavior for as long as I have taken my Catholic faith seriously (I’m sure it’s been going on far longer than that), what I seldom see is Catholics taking a serious look at the state of their preferred political party in light of the teachings of the Catholic Faith. While Catholics might ask the other side how they can possibly justify a vote based on their violation of teaching X, they usually deny or downplay the importance of the teaching that their party rejects.

But, if we are called to be the Salt of the Earth, and the Light of the World (cf. Matthew 5:13-16), then we must work to make the Christian message known to the world, not only by our words, but by our actions. If we want the world to see the Christian message as truth and not as another political position, we need to judge the political parties by our Catholic Faith, and not the Catholic Faith by our political parties. That means that, even if we decide that Issue X is more immediately dangerous than Issue Y, this does not absolve us from holding our party accountable for supporting Issue Y and fighting to change the policy.

If we will not do this. We should keep in mind, Our Lord’s words in Matthew 7:3-5.

Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye. 

If we want to avoid judgment from The Lord, we must remember that whatever standard we hold Catholics in the other party to, we must hold ourselves to the same standard. If we want Catholics in the other party to stop tolerating evil, we must stop tolerating it in our own. Otherwise, we will be opening the Church to charges of hypocrisy by those outside the Church who see our individual double standards and assume the whole Church is guilty. In fact, we risk causing scandal by letting others think that what we do justifies their own actions. Since God warned us about scandals and millstones (Matthew 18:6-7), we can be certain that if we cause others to justify their own inaction, we will certainly be called to answer for it.

None of this should be seen as justifying a relativistic “vote for whoever you want.” I do believe that certain positions should be a disqualification. What I am calling for is that we practice what we preach. If we are so outraged that Catholics of the “other party” are tolerating a great evil, then let us look at what our own party supports and stop making excuses for our inaction. If we want the “other side” to start challenging wrong in their party, then let’s do the same.


(†) Readers from outside the United States, who often have a large number of political parties, need to keep in mind that the majority of Americans are divided into two major parties and a number of inconsequential parties that only get noticed when the electorate views both with disgust. But then most of them vote for one or the other anyway.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Brief Thoughts about the Catholic Acrimony on Immigration

It’s legitimate when Catholics have different ideas on how to best carry out the Church teaching on treating migrants. However, it’s not legitimate to reject the Church teaching on immigration and accuse those who teach it of being against Church teaching. But many Catholics are choosing the illegitimate action while claiming that those in authority are wrong.

Church moral teaching can be traced back to the Greatest Commandments (Matthew 22:37-40), where Jesus says:

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

If we love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind, we will keep His commandments (John 14:15), not look for an excuse to refuse obedience. The problem is, we are seeing an alarming disregard for the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. When people leave their homes and travel ~2100 miles on foot to come here, some of them dying on the way, many more being victims of crime, disease, and other hardships, the commandment to love our neighbor as ourself means we don’t say “It’s your own fault for coming here.” It means we don’t accuse our bishops of “ignoring” other issues when they say we have a responsibility to ease their suffering. We don’t ask why somebody else in Guatemala isn’t helping them.

But the things we must not do are what an alarming number of Catholics are doing. For example, when I blogged about the father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande, I received a number of people who said exactly those things and worse (like claiming it was a staged picture). 

The problem with that way of thinking is, we don’t get to think that way and call ourselves faithful Catholics. Our Lord gave us the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The one person who would have been most justified in refusing to get involved was the one person who acted according to the commandment to love our neighbor as ourself. We’re called to emulate the Samaritan, but we’re acting like the Priest and Levite.

Different people can legitimately have different ideas about how to best help those in need our doorstep, and yes, we should prudently consider safety of citizens. But if we act like the rich man who outright ignores the person suffering on his doorstep, things will go badly for us at the end of our life (cf. Luke 16:19-31).

Friday, July 26, 2019

The Moment of Decision

Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains. (John 9:40-41)

Some Catholics, when the Church calls out certain behaviors as contrary to the Catholic teaching, react with sorrow upon learning that they held or did something against Church teaching that they never thought about before their discovery, regretting their past ignorance and henceforth strive to change their ways.

On the other hand, when the Church calls out certain behaviors as contrary to the Catholic teaching, some who practice that behavior protest, saying that the Church should instead “stay out of politics,” displaying a profound ignorance of what the Church actually teaches and refusing to take correction from their bishops or the Pope to amend their lives. Frequently, they invoke conscience against the Church even though we must use Church teaching as a measure to judge whether our conscience has gone wrong—not the reverse.

The difference between the two attitudes can be described by St. Augustine in his work, The Free Choice of Will. Is the person in question ignorant against their will (i.e. if they had any idea that their behavior was wrong, they never would have done it)? Or did the person simply never bother to ask whether the actions they supported were wrong and refuse correction when learning otherwise?

This is where Gaudium et Spes, #16 helps us evaluate our behavior:

In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

The person who is ignorant against their will tries to do what is right and, if they discover they have gone wrong, try to learn and live by what they have discovered to be right. The person who does not care that their behavior is condemned by the Church and, in fact, takes a stand against the Church when the Church reaffirms her teachings, is failing to seek and actually rejecting the truth when revealed to them.

It’s not for me to determine what category you, the reader, falls under in this decision. That’s for you and your confessor to determine. But we can ask ourselves about our own response. Do we feel like the scales fall from our eyes when we learn and strive to change our ways? Or do we burn with resentment against the Church and accuse the magisterium of “playing politics” or “heresy,” or downplay it as a “prudential judgment” we can ignore?

If we do the former, we are doing right. If the latter, we are in danger of willingly rejecting God by rejecting those whom He sent (cf. Luke 10:16).

Saturday, June 29, 2019

We Don’t Get to Wash Our Hands of These Things

27. Coming down to practical and particularly urgent consequences, this council lays stress on reverence for man; everyone must consider his every neighbor without exception as another self, taking into account first of all His life and the means necessary to living it with dignity, so as not to imitate the rich man who had no concern for the poor man Lazarus.

In our times a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception and of actively helping him when he comes across our path, whether he be an old person abandoned by all, a foreign laborer unjustly looked down upon, a refugee, a child born of an unlawful union and wrongly suffering for a sin he did not commit, or a hungry person who disturbs our conscience by recalling the voice of the Lord, “As long as you did it for one of these the least of my brethren, you did it for me” (Matt. 25:40).

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. (Gaudium et Spes)

Individual Catholics have the same tendencies as everyone else. We tend to think about ourselves as basically good and our failings minor, tolerant of those who share our secular outlooks. We also tend to be extremely harsh with others’ failings, especially if they hold secular views we dislike. One consequence of this is the temptation of classifying Church teaching according to our secular views. When the Pope or a bishop teaches in a way that we see as matching our outlooks, he’s considered “good.” When he teaches in a way that challenges our outlook, he’s seen as “political” or “heretical,” and we say he should be focusing on “important” issues.

However, Gaudium et Spes #27 (quoted above) shows us that the obligation of Catholics to our neighbor encompasses topics that we tend to classify as both “conservative” and “liberal,” warning that these evils are gravely sinful in the eyes of God. Unfortunately, many Catholics seem to be nonchalant about carving out which issues they’ll obey and which ones they’ll ignore, which means that many Catholics are—without justification—classifying grave sins as unimportant compared to other issues or even morally acceptable. They will side with their parties despite the fact that the Church warns that these things are infamies.

In America, this is clearly shown where roughly half the Catholic population seems willing to ignore the infamy of abortion and the other half is willing to ignore the subhuman living conditions of the poor. When challenged on this hypocrisy, these Catholics make excuses, declaring that the teaching they dislike is merely an “opinion” or a “prudential judgment” while condemning the other side for supporting evils… never considering that the other side is making the same arguments and the same excuses. Meanwhile, non-Catholics look at both sides of this and recognize it for the hypocrisy it is. Unfortunately, they will think that this is the nature of the Church and not the nature of dissenting from the Church (cf. Romans 2:24).

If we want to be saved from damnation, we need to stop making excuses or accusations. If we profess that the Catholic Church is the Church established and protected by Christ, we need to be diligent about praying for the grace to accept and obey those parts of Church teaching which run counter to our politics. Otherwise, our obedience to the teachings we were in no danger of rejecting will not save us from judgment over the teachings we ignored or knowingly rejected.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Ending the Standoff


Anyone who has paid attention knows that Catholics [*] in the prolife movement in America are deeply divided these days to the point that some view discrediting the other as more important than defeating the culture of death. This division is largely over politics. Members of the factions disagree over how to vote: what issues are important and what issues can be sacrificed for a greater good. The factions like to accuse each other of betraying the defense of life in favor of politics. Unfortunately, both are blind to the fact that they share the same error and merely tolerate different evils in doing so. This error is that they have moved from fighting the gravest evil first to excusing the evils of the party they tend to agree with. 

What the Church Teaches

We should first consider the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes, #27:

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. 

It is clear that there are many issues that the Church considers intrinsically evil (can never be made “good” no matter what the circumstances). Catholics are forbidden to defend any of them. Unfortunately, two factions in the Catholic prolife movement do end up defending the indefensible. They are OPLM and the NPLM.

What’s Wrong With the OPLM?

The Old/Original Pro Life Movement (OPLM) tends to think that voting to oppose abortion is the only thing that matters and every other issue can be sacrificed to insure that laws are passed that restrict abortion and judges are appointed that will overturn legalized abortion as a “constitutional right.” The problem is, they forget that their obligation to evangelize the world can’t be set aside until abortion is banned and these other injustices must be opposed too. They also forget the danger of being so invested in that party that they begin to treat the whole political platform with the Christian Faith. They support politicians who have no problem with some of the issues on the list the Church condemns as infamies, and when bishops speak out, accuse the bishops of getting involved in politics. They forget what the Church says:

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. 

Apostolicam actuositatem 5

In other words, they cannot use the (very real) importance of the abortion issue to justify ignoring the other teachings of the Church or the candidates who go against them. The bishops who speak in the Public Square about these evils outside of abortion are not “being political.” They’re carrying out their task.

What’s Wrong With the NPLM?

On the other hand, the New Pro Life Movement (NPLM) focuses on the other issues to the point that opposing abortion is sometimes treated as unimportant. If enough social programs are set in place, women won’t need abortions. Therefore they claim that their vote for a pro-abortion candidate is justified because on the whole, this candidate is “more pro-life” while their opponents only care about life up to birth. They tend to forget that the Church insists that the right to life must include the opposition of legalized abortion. They also run the risk of confusing their party’s platform with the Christian Faith. They remember that the Church defines the right to life as more than just abortion, but err in inventing a moral calculus where issues A+B+C+D > abortion and therefore they vote for candidates who think abortion is a moral good(!) on the ground that they think they’re still defending life because these candidates do other things. They forget the teaching of St. John Paul II:

The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fínds 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.

Christifidelis Laici #38

In other words, many of the issues they cite to justify voting for a pro-abortion candidate are not part of the right to life, even though important. They cannot be justify supporting a candidate who supports abortion.

What Needs To Be Done

People sometimes ask which faction is the right one to follow. I think that’s a mistake. Both are fatally flawed and must be rejected. Both downplay a vital part of the right to life. Of course, we cannot make the perfect the enemy of the good. We can’t hold out for the ideal candidate to the point that we’re rejecting qualified defenders of life because they’re wrong on some issues. But we can—and MUST—reject candidates who support intrinsic evil unless there is an evil that is so bad that we must fight it with all the strength that we would normally use to defend life.

And before you say, that your issue or issues outweigh the other abortion, remember that the Church has gone so far as to put abortion on the same level as murder, genocide, euthanasia and wilful self-destruction. So you can’t use a moral calculus to claim a bunch of smaller issues outweighs it in seriousness. But neither can you say that the other Church teachings can be sacrificed because of the weight of abortion. If you’re going to vote for a politician who supports an intrinsic evil, it had better be for a proportionate reason. As archbishop Chaput put it

One of the pillars of Catholic thought is this: Don’t deliberately kill the innocent, and don’t collude in allowing it. We sin if we support candidates because they support a false “right” to abortion. We sin if we support “pro-choice” candidates without a truly proportionate reason for doing so— that is, a reason grave enough to outweigh our obligation to end the killing of the unborn. And what would such a “proportionate” reason look like? It would be a reason we could, with an honest heart, expect the unborn victims of abortion to accept when we meet them and need to explain our actions— as we someday will.

Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (p. 229)

Unfortunately, when I see one of these factions argue that they are following the Church in voting for their candidate, they never show that their justification is proportionate to the evil they are tolerating.

I think the first step in ending this standoff between two erring factions is to reject both of them. Neither one is the “good guy” here. They might be sincere, but both are willing to sacrifice what they have no grounds to concede. The second step is to understand that the Church teaching is not an opinion. When the Church condemns something, we cannot call it a political opinion that can be rejected. It’s binding.

Second, I think we need to stop abusing the term “prudential judgment.” Prudential judgments are not about whether to obey Church teaching. It is about how to best obey Church teaching. When the Church teaches that something is evil and must be opposed, our task is to decide how to apply it. If we’re trying to avoid the hard conclusions by claiming “prudential judgment” that actually ignores the teaching, that’s just disobedience.

Third, I think that we have to have the courage in our conviction to trust God when it feels hopeless. If we reach the point where we recognize that a candidate we favor is opposed to the teaching of the Church, and we recognize that a properly formed conscience is formed by the teachings of the Church, then we must trust in God if we fear that the candidate we loathe might get in. We cannot do evil so good might come of it, and violating our properly formed conscience is doing exactly that.


[*] There are more than just Catholics in the prolife movement. But since this is a Catholic blog and deals with the Catholic view, this is the group I will focus on.