On Politics and Moral Decision
Dear St. Theresa family,
I continue to encounter folk who are frustrated about how they are to vote with a good Catholic conscience. This has never been easy. There is nothing cut and dry about this kind of exercise of our political responsibilities when doing so requires navigating the complexities of moral decision making. That said, there are fundamentals that must be comprehended in order to make good decisions.
By voting we typically choose for or against legislation or a political candidate. In doing so there may be many unknown factors that lie in the future or in the free choices of the candidate. And so, we should research and know for what or whom exactly we are voting.
In voting for a candidate, we ask ourselves: “what powers does the office exercise? What is the candidate’s track record, and their stated political goals?”
As faithful Catholics, we then evaluate either the legislation or the candidate according to the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, in order to determine the moral nature of the object (of the act of voting)
The principles of Catholic Social Teaching, which give us a view of the four moral priorities that make for a just and good ordering of society, include: The dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity. Subsidiarity, which means “
to accomplish the common good, the government must empower the natural and free agency of the lower associations, especially the family. “It is impossible to promote the dignity of the person without showing concern for the family, groups, associations, local territorial realities … to which people spontaneously give life and which make it possible for them to achieve effective social growth.”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 193)
Solidarity is the “
commitment toward others in society that “highlights in a particular way the intrinsic social nature of the human person, the equality of all in dignity and rights and the common path of individuals and peoples towards an ever more committed unity”
Other important moral principles to consider here include formal and material cooperation and the principle of double effect.
Formal and Material Cooperation -When you aid in another person’s action by your own actions or intentions it is called cooperation, and that cooperation can be material or formal, or both. If you share the intention of the act, such as offering moral support, it is
. If you aid the act through material help, such as funding in support of an act or voting in favor of it, it is called
In terms of
, it is never acceptable to offer any degree of such cooperation with evil actions. While we must always avoid
, at times we are unable to avoid
remote material cooperation
Remote material cooperation
occurs when you cooperate in some way with a moral act by providing the conditions or material that make the act possible in a manner that is some steps removed from the act itself, and does not give the impression of sharing the intention (scandal), such as paying taxes that in part go to immoral acts. We are always required to avoid close material cooperation, such as voting for legislation that directs tax funding to unjust purposes, especially intrinsically evil ones.
Further, in reviewing and voting for legislation we take care not to provide
in unjust acts that may be couched within otherwise sound legislation.
Then there is the Principle of Double Effect. Here we see that some good actions may have unintended but sometimes unavoidable bad side-effects. In this consideration, an action can be morally good if:
the action or object itself is good,
one only intends to accomplish the good effect and not the bad effect,
the good effect cannot come as a side-effect to the bad effect (this would violate ‘
the ends don’t justify the means’
the bad effect is not disproportionate in gravity to the intended good effect. For example, a surgeon must use a knife to cut you open which is needed for healing. It is not the doctor’s intention to harm you with his scalpel but harm you he must in order to achieve the greater good of healing. Damage is done by the scalpel, but the life is saved as a result. The harm the scalpel inflicts is allowed but the harm is not the intention of the doctor, but he has no other avenue open to achieve the good of saving a life.
Back to politics. It would be a very rare situation that a political candidate (even a Catholic one) sees eye to eye on every point of importance for Catholics. Even more difficult, often every candidate in an election espouses views contrary to Catholic teaching. Do you vote for no one? While this is an option, it would still be out of the ordinary (USCCB,
Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship
, 36). It is always helpful to remember that in decision making the intention is primary and critical. Sometimes we must allow (but never cause) an evil in order to achieve a greater good that can happen in no other way.
Therefore, we must first evaluate the good that a candidate, or legislation, promotes with a proper understanding of the degrees of value between moral issues. We must then choose the option that produces the greatest good closest to the foundation of human life and dignity. The Bishops of the United States have recently reminded us that abortion is the preeminent moral issue of our day (USCCB,
Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,
Introductory Letter). It may follow that in prioritizing such direct threats to human life and dignity we may unwillingly aid in the undesirable commission of some evils of lesser gravity not through a means chosen but as an unwilled side-effect. And while this is regrettable, for the greater good the decision may still be permissible and just.
Sorry this is long, and the minutia of all this can make you cross-eyed but I hope it is of some help.
on Tuesday, September 15 at 2:29PM