In a perfect world, we would always have the Robin Hood choice. One one side is the eminently evil antagonist and on the other is the perfectly good protagonist. Such a thing happens only in film and books. None of us are wholly all one or the other – this is one of the consequences of our fall from Grace.
In an earlier essay, I discussed the ‘principle of double effect‘. Well, that’s great in a perfect world, but what do we do when none of our choices are purely good? And they won’t be; we celebrated the Assumption of the last purely good human to walk the earth just a week ago. This is where the doctrine of proportionate reasoning comes into play.
Imagine you have three candidates for president, each with a running mate. Candidate A is largely against abortion, but has supported it’s use in limited circumstances (the ‘health of the mother’ argument’). His running mate is strongly pro-life. Candidate B has a proven track record supporting abortion and his running mate has a 100% approval rating from NARAL.
The Catholic doctrine of intrinsic evil clearly places Candidate B out of bounds. We believe that life begins at natural conception and ends at natural death. If it were a matter of supporting candidate A’s running mate, we would have no moral objections. But Candidate A himself has supported limited use of abortion – something that we cannot accept. Or perhaps he is ambigious about homosexual marriage – another intrinsic evil for Catholics. What to do? Well, there is Candidate C. Candidate C is pro-life and pro traditional marriage and his running mate is even more outspoken on these issues. So, then the only choice a good Catholic has is to vote for Candidate C, right?
A vote for Candidate A is a vote for a person who largely – but not totally shares our moral values. Candidate B, through deed and intent, clearly has proven that his candidcy is unacceptable to Catholics. Candidate C agrees with us, but has no chance of winning the election. None. Our final option would be to not vote for anyone. Let’s break this down.
Abstaining to vote. This is inaction, the refusal to accept personal responsibility for doing good when it is possible to do so. That doesn’t work terribly well.
Voting for Candidate C. This is the ‘throwing your vote away’ option. Is it morally wrong? Well, it might be an issue with the principles of double effect in that your vote may increase the likelihood of Candidate B winning the election. Candidate C will never be in the position to do good, and Candidate B will advocate against our beliefs. Candidate A, on the other hand, provides us the likelihood that the good effects will outweigh the evil effects. So, in fact, this option actually violates one of the principles and should be avoided.
Candidate B is clearly not acceptable under several core doctrines.
Voting for Candidate A. Well, he is ambivalent on gay marriage and weak on abortion in some instances. Even if his running mate strongly represents Catholic values, the running mate will not be the president and will not set policy, he will simply support the president and be prepared to assume the office at need. So, Catholics can’t vote for Candidate A under the intrinsic evil and double effect principles, right? Nope – there is a strong justification to permit a vote for Candidate A.
Excuse me, you say? Cardinal Ratzinger provided justification for this in 2004:
“A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.” – Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Pope John Paul II also provided a powerful argument for Catholics to consider in this election:
“When it is not possible to overturn or completely a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.” Pope John Paul II
These two statements help articulate and frame this concept of proportionate reasoning. By not voting or voting for a candidate who cannot possibly win has no value. Luke 10:30-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan, tells us that we are not called to inaction but good works. So this should never be an option for us as Catholics. To refuse to vote or to vote for a candidate who cannot possibly win also can be countered by James 4:17:
“Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.”
Another good reading is Luke 16:19-31; this parable discusses the sin of uselessness.So refusing to take action or taking action that has negative consequences is bad.
Luke 3:12-14 is another scriptural justification. The Roman Empire did a lot of bad things to keep the ‘Pax Romana’ and tax collectors and soldiers wanted to know if they needed to quit – in essence, check out of system. John enjoined them to do their job honestly and do no evil themselves. There is an implicit charge that they should use their position to influence the institution in a positive manner.
How can we justify voting for candidate A? Proportionate Reasoning permits it when a couple of considerations are made:
- Voting for this candidate will be effective in stopping the candidate whose practices and policies are contrary to our beliefs.
- Stopping this candidate will not produce disorders or evils that are greater than the other choices.
This is what Pope John Paul II is articulating when he discusses the use of support to ‘limit the harm done’ and ‘lessening negative consequences’.
Am I thrilled about Mr. Romney? Not really. Many people I have spoken to agree that we would be much more enthusiastic if Mr. Ryan was heading the ticket. But I hope that this essay articulates how we need to apply a full battery of reasoning tools, prayer, and discernment in reaching our decisions.
It sure would be nice if things were black and white – unfortunately the world rarely is this cooperative. So, we have tools to use – if we have the knowledge and the wisdom to apply them. Proportionate Reasoning enjoins us to evaluate what the best choice is when we are confronted with an array of bad choices.
Sometimes, you have to make the best choice. And that’s not necessarily evil. After all, the doctrine of just war allows incredibly violent acts. The Catechism even permits the death penalty in extreme circumstances. We are sometimes called to walk the fine line.
I hope this essay gives the reader some tools to help them walk it in good conscience.
May God bless you all.