Proportionate Reasons

A bunch of us here have been discussing the framework of a Catholic decision to vote. I started off the trouble by posting this about my reflections on Brown’s victory and its meaning for the “non-negotiable approach.” I’ve had responses from Jay, Matt, and Justin, but it’s Matt’s latest response I really want to key in on.

I want to start by looking at a section of Cardinal Ratzinger’s brief letter on voting:

[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.]

Now contrast this with Matt’s post:

Catholics first compare candidates’ views on non-negotiable issues at stake in the election. Those issues get weighed proportionally against one another, but not against other, less fundamentally important, non-intrinsically-evil issues. So two candidates’ positions on abortion and same-sex so-called “marriage” might be weighed against each other, but they would not be weighed against the candidates’ views on ANWR or Afghanistan.

Non-negotiable issues are weighed, not merely labelled. Candidates are eliminated from consideration not for merely being wrong on non-negotiable issues, but for being worse on them. But the test isn’t whether the guy is worse overall–it’s whether he’s worse on non-negotiables. Non-negotiables don’t get weighed against negotiables. A candidate worse on non-negotiables can’t be supported because even if he has good marks negotiables. Non-grave issues can’t trump grave issues. So it’s never acceptable to support the candidate who is worse on the non-negotiable issues.

While Benedict says only “proportionate reasons” Matt seems to add another element to that: namely that the proportionate reasons derive from issues of intrinsic evils (hence non-negotiables).

It is true that, as Jay pointed out in his post, the bishops have stated that there is “a moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts [that] has a special claim on our consciences and our actions” (Faithful Citizenship #36). However as Matt describes it this obligation is such that we form two separate tiers such that unless the candidates are equal on the “non-negotiables,” the negotiables are not to be considered at all.

Where then would the Catholic stances on war, capital punishment, health care, poverty, etc. be? They would have to be nowhere, making one wonder why the bishops are wasting so much time on it.

Let’s take for example a candidate, let’s call Candidate A who is pro-abortion but doesn’t believe in FOCA, thinks gay marriage ought to be left up to the states and is indifferent to the marriage stuff as a whole and thinks we should fund ESCR. His opponent, candidate B, is pro-life: pro-life meaning agrees with Mexico city policy and appointing Supreme Court justices who have a chance at being pro-life (but abortion is not a litmus test) but would oppose a Life Amendment; he also thinks marriage should be left to the states and so wouldn’t change the constitution but likes to talk about family values and finally he thinks we should fund ESCR. And oh by the way, Candidate B also thinks we should invade China b/c he wants to maintain American dominance.

A war against China would be devastating and kill millions. The evil of this would be immense-but not intrinsic. Indeed, since candidate B is better on the intrinsic evils (though not by much) his stance on China is not even considered if we take Matt’s approach.

I think this is precisely the kind of trap we need to avoid (hence my opinion that ditching the language of “non-negotiable” would be beneficial by providing clarity). This rigid & severe tiered approach in which the non-negotiables are SO much more important than non-intrinsic evils that nothing else matters except as a tie-breaker doesn’t seem to make sense when tested.

It is this error that prompted this strongly worded rebuke from the bishops in Faithful Citizenship:

29. The second is the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity. Racism and other unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, or an unjust immigration policy are all serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act. These are not optional concerns which can be dismissed. Catholics are urged to seriously consider Church teaching on these issues. Although choices about how best to respond to these and other compelling threats to human life and dignity are matters for principled debate and decision, this does not make them optional concerns or permit Catholics to dismiss or ignore Church teaching on these important issues. Clearly not every Catholic can be actively involved on each of these concerns, but we need to support one another as our community of faith defends human life and dignity wherever it is threatened. We are not factions, but one family of faith fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ.

The negotiables matter, b/c an evil is still an evil whether it is intrinsic or non-intrinsic and a Catholic must still engage them in a decision to vote, even if ultimately the issue of abortion is the primary factor in the decision. The Church’s teaching is a “seamless garment” from womb to tomb and we need to make sure that our voting provides consideration to all issues pertaining to human dignity, even if some issues by their nature are more important than others, like abortion.



  • BlindFaith

    You are making an excellent assessment. Don’t let people tell you that you can not use your own mind when you are voting. Otherwise, you could very well end up with a total nut job in power, simply because you are following some doctrine, instead of using your own mind.

  • Matt Bowman

    My guess is that the reason you cannot consider voting for Ceausescu is because he may have been perpetrating other evils that were also grave, intrinsic non-negotiables, which could indeed have been weighed against the abortion policy. Neither I nor the Church ever said abortion is the only non-negotiable. I also wonder whether you would have even been given the chance to publicly campaign against Ceausescu or for his opponent. There’s something surreal to the very suggestion of a free democratic race between a pro-life totalitarian who can achieve capricious wars, and a pro-abortion nice guy. But I over-anticipate my response.

  • Francis

    Nicolae Ceausescu was against abortion. In fact, he enacted many policies designed to increase the population in Romania during his time in power. For example, he taxed people over the age of 25, whether they were married or single, if they were childless. You can read all about his other acts if you google his name. he eventually ran his country into the ground, and I’m pretty sure he was convicted of genocide. If he were running against even the tamest pro-choice candidate, would we be required to vote for him based upon his stance regarding abortion? That is ridiculous. I cannot, in good conscience, look solely at the so-called non-negotiables.

  • Matt Bowman

    What are the odds of us invading China?

    You make good points so I’ll think about your post before responding, maybe later this week.



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