Obama, FOCA, and the Catholic Health Care System 1

This series concerns Barack Obama, the Freedom of Choice Act, and what FOCA might mean for health care in the USA. The series is by Mary Veeneman, professor of theology and a Christian ethicist at North Park University. The issues that could flow out of FOCA — which Obama has said he will support — are so morally enormous we need to be vigilant in being strong advocates for the unborn and for the moral consciences of hospitals. There are some who think passing FOCA could dismantle the Catholic hospitals because the Catholic hospitals will not cooperate in abortions. Most Evangelicals and Catholics are joined at the hip  on opposition to abortion and to FOCA. Please read up on this one and work against FOCA. Mary Veeneman provides a context here: there are at least two ways Catholics are responding to Obama and FOCA.

Mary Veeneman: Here’s the first way some have responded. Shortly after the election, Fr. Jay Scott Newman made headlines by
instructing his parishioners not to receive communion without first
going to confession if they had voted for Barack Obama.  His
explanation for this direction was that in voting for Obama individuals
had given material cooperation with intrinsic evil and that was
sufficient to make those concerned unable to take communion.

Fr. Newman’s directive certainly created a stir among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  It also reveals a failure (on Fr Newman’s part) to engage fully with Catholic teaching on this issue. 

Here’s a second way Catholics are responding: Let’s call it a prudent conscience. In 2007, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released a document titled, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship in anticipation of the 2008 election.  In this document, the bishops make clear that the voter is not to make decisions based on one issue alone.  They write,

 “The Church equips its members to address political and social questions by helping them to develop a well-formed conscience. Catholics have a serious and lifelong obligation to form their consciences in accord with human reason and the teaching of the Church. Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere “feeling” about what we should or should not do. Rather, conscience is the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil. Conscience always requires serious attempts to make sound moral judgments based on the truths of our faith” (17).

The document further teaches that Catholics must not take a route to a good end if it involves immoral actions along the way

With a well-formed conscience and prudence, then, Catholics are called to make “practical judgments regarding good and evil choices in the political arena” (21).  Perhaps the most important point made by the bishops in the document is that the right to life is tied to other human rights.  All issues surrounding life are tied to one another because a failure to cherish the life of any person or group will ultimately result in a lessened respect for all life.

The bishops are clear that the destruction of human life at any stage of life (from conception to death) is wrong and must always be opposed by Catholics.  What they do not state is any one particular way in which Catholics must participate as a citizen.  Fr. Newman’s argument about those who voted for Obama is that they materially cooperated with evil in the act of voting for an individual who supports abortion rights.  What Faithful Citizenship shows is that there is a great deal of complexity in making political decisions.  The definition of material cooperation with evil also shows this.  Material cooperation with evil is an act on the part of one person in which he or she cooperates with another person who is involved in wrongdoing.  The key here is that the cooperator’s ultimate intention is not the same as the one involved in wrongdoing.  Cooperating may mean working for an individual who is committing some kind of moral wrongdoing without directly participating in the particular acts of wrongdoing.
Many people opposed to abortion voted for Obama because they liked a number of his policies and saw a potential in his language of abortion reduction.  At the same time, in the days following the election, there was a sound of alarm coming from many of the members of the USCCB.  This sound of alarm is not about Catholics who voted for Obama, but what Obama’s election and passing FOCA could mean for the Catholic health care system.
What do you think?  Do you agree with the USCCB’s discussion of the formation of conscience and the need to make practical judgments?

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  • Katie Angel

    I agree with the Bishops – for too long we as American Catholics have turned a “blind eye” to other life issues (poverty, death penalty, emviromental destruction, etc.) and focused sole attention on the issue of abortion. Abortion is a great evil but after 30 years of trying, we have not made it illegal and we have not convinced half this country that is is immoral. Maybe it is time for a different and more comprehensive approach. I don’t know whether President-elect Obama will make good either on his promise to sign FOCA or to reduce the number of abortions by creating a better social network but I do know that the other side hasn’t done anything meaningful either. As a Catholic, I weighed my decision on who to vote for very carefully and prayed about it daily for almost a year (who to choose in the Primary as well as the General election) and I believe that I voted my conscience. I am very thankful for the guidance of the Bishops and for the recognition of Freedom of Conscience.

  • Rick

    Would there have been a different response if one of the issues was slavery?

  • I’ll try to be nicer than I’ve been in the past.
    I think Newman is closer to the mark for one reason: Every discussion we have in American politics today is about degrees or methods with one exception. We ask “how should we help the poor” and “to what extent should we be involved in international affairs,” but on abortion the question is simply yes or no, legal or not (not for you personally but at the level of national politics).
    Voting for pro-choice candidates sends a message to that candidate and to the rest of the government. That message is “we don’t care that you’re pro-choice.” Now, you may not like that message, you may not intend to send that message, but that is how it is interpreted.
    As the GOP licks its wounds, more and more people are saying that the GOP should drop its opposition to abortion to compete. You’ll notice they’re not saying “work to reduce the number of abortions in other ways.” The phenomenon of “pro-lifers” voting for Obama has resulted in many Republicans wanting to drop all opposition to abortion.
    The way Washington works, if the GOP doesn’t oppose abortion, the Dems won’t need to either (pro-lifers will have nowhere to go), and the issue will die a quiet death. All because Christian voters supported the pro-choice candidate.
    Is that material cooperation with evil?

  • Your Name

    I’m sorry but you’re in error when you say “the other side hasn’t done anything meaningful either.”
    While we haven’t made it illegal, we’ve made progress.

  • ChrisB

    Sorry, #4 is me.

  • I think the bishops are correct in going as far as they did and no further. Statements such as Faithful Citizenship, while highlighting the evil of abortion, also give us the freedom to appreciate the complexity, brokenness and fallibility of politics. We are not voting to end abortion when we enter a voting booth, and those who claim we are doing so simplify a terribly complex (and crooked) set of problems and issues. Faithful Citizenship still allows us dignity. It enables us to cast a vote, but keep our hope for Another.
    I am not a Republican or a Democrat. I am a Catholic. If Fr. Newman, whom I respect, was right in what he said, then I would be unable to participate in politics at all: A vote for McCain would have been a vote for embryonic stem cell research. A vote for another Republican would have been a vote for torture. There is no one righteous path – is killing one baby better than killing a thousand? Our duty as Christians is to vote as prayerfully and as informed as we can. And as we exit the voting booth, to pray for God’s mercy, just as we do every other moment.
    I hope and pray that FOCA is not passed. It would be a sad day, and it may very well have a terrible impact on the right of Catholic hospitals to provide care in accordance with their faith. As our freedom is concerned, there is a horrible difference between abortion being legal and the refusal to provide an abortion being illegal. Yet even if our worst fears are realized, we will still be the Church. We will still be obligated to love and pray for all people, to be compassionate, merciful, and icons of Christ.

  • dopderbeck

    First of all — Prof. Veenama, good to meet you.
    I’m not as up as I should be on how precisely Catholics define this question of “material cooperation.” It seems difficult to me to hold that “material” cooperation” includes, without more, voting for a candidate who, as part of his or her broad platform a policy that can be deemed evil. If that were the case, I’d think we’d all have to resign our American citizenship and stop paying taxes, because no matter who is in power, some of our tax dollars will inevitably be used in evil ways (whether this be abortion, an unjust war, torture of political prisoners, unethical medical experimentation, corrupt pork barrell projects, etc.). I could see campaigning for the particular evil aspects of a candidate’s platform as “material cooperation,” but it seems to me that voting in a pluralistic democracy in the context of a broken world always involves to some extent trying to choose between lesser evils.
    BTW, good article by Catholic law professor Michael Perry on this in America: http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=11283
    David Opderbeck
    Associate Prof. of Law
    Seton Hall University Law School
    Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology

  • ChrisB, you write:
    Voting for pro-choice candidates sends a message to that candidate and to the rest of the government. That message is “we don’t care that you’re pro-choice.”
    Sorry, but this is simply not true. While one way be “yes” or “no” on abortion, being “yes” or “no” on a candidate who holds a position on the issue is measured in degrees – because abortion is one of many issues.
    So, I would say the message being sent in such a situation is “I voted for you because when I weigh the full breadth of issues that are important to me, I find your overall strategy the strongest, the most productive, the most redemptive”, etc.

  • Your Name

    Overall, I think Faithful Citizenship is a good document from the USCCB. Over the years, it has been updated and I think improved in each instance. However, I think one of the main problems with the document is that most Catholics will not read it because either they are unfamiliar that it exists or because it is too long. In regards to the life issues, I think it is important to read sections 40-62. It gives a good context and order to the various social justice issues.
    Let me also just respond to Katie’s comment that: “American Catholics have turned a “blind eye” to other life issues (poverty, death penalty, emviromental destruction.” Being one who works for the Church, I can state that this is simply not true. The same Church that strongly promotes Pro-Life activities has also founded hundreds of soup kitchens, shelters, hospitals throughout this country. In addition, local dioceses as well as the voice of the American Church, the USCCB, are leading advocates for migrant workers and environmental reponsibility. The Church is also very clear about the death penalty in this country: http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/national/deathpenalty/. It is important to keep in mind that the same Pope, John Paul II, who was an advocate for pro-life causes, also was strongly outspoken against the death penalty.
    I know a number of people with whom I do ministry who, while devoting their time to pro-life causes, also are passionate about other important issues. While there are certainly individual people who are consumed with one issue over another, I would not say that that is the norm. And to be perfectly honest, it is good to have people who are firmly committed to a particular issue in order to help lead and advocate for that issue full-time. 1 Corinthians 12 is a good text to think about in regards to this.

  • Darren,
    “I voted for you because when I weigh the full breadth of issues that are important to me, I find your overall strategy the strongest, the most productive, the most redemptive.”
    How exactly do you communicate this?
    I don’t Washington gets that message. Again, if you look at the conversations going on in the GOP right now, it appears that a great many pols interpret it as “abortion isn’t important to me.”

  • Sue Van Stelle

    OK, here is what I don’t understand about this “material cooperation with evil” argument. Name one day that we live on this earth in which we are not, in some small way, cooperating with evil.
    By the same argument, my vote for Bush means that I materially cooperated with Abu Ghraib, with every innocent death caused by American troops in the Middle East, with torture, and with financial policies that have weakened the economic system all over the world.
    My failure to speak out every day or work every day against injustice allows that injustice to continue. My sharp words to my spouse, my children, my neighbor may cause severe wounds I did not intend. My investment in a mutual fund may be earning interest on a company that produces porn.
    Yes, abortion is evil. But if voting for Obama means I am materially cooperating with evil, that is old news. If the stones are going to start flying, every last one of us ought to get in the receiving end of that line.
    Some of us call this inability to escape from contributing to the evil in the world “total depravity.” And the only remedy for it is to fall on the grace of God, which, when we see how deep the evil goes, causes us stand in even more awe and wonder of the promises of a robust gospel from a Savior whose gift of the Spirit empowers us, even through stained attempts, to cooperate with him instead.

  • ChrisB,
    What the recent election should indicate to the GOP is that Christians do not vote on single issues. Up until now the GOP has assumed that a supposedly strong stance on one or two hot-button issues was all that was necessary to guarantee a Christian majority.
    No longer.
    That’s the message the GOP should be receiving.

  • Darren #8,
    I would like to believe you are correct but I think the message sent by any victory in Washington is “this strategy won, that strategy lost.” I think it becomes a pragmatic game of numbers. Obama’s winning strategy involved targeting larger cities and college towns in predominately Republican states, for example. It also involved text messaging, coordinated volunteers, a large email database, and text messaging. Both Clinton and McCain appealed to their experience. McCain appealed to his patriotism.
    Therefore, at least part of the message sent by Obama’s win is “coordinated volunteers, targeted campaigning, and savvy use of the Web and wireless technology was a winning strategy; appealing to experience and patriotism was a losing strategy.”
    Pro-choice was in the winning column but pro-life was in the losing column. People who traditionally would have been expected to vote for the pro-life candidate did not. It’s a numbers game and those numbers seem to suggest that pro-life is a losing position. I find this to weigh in against voting for a vocal pro-choice candidate even when one is pro-life in a holistic fashion. The intended message might be a nuanced holistic pro-life approach, but I think the received message did include “pro-choice wins, anti-choice loses.”

  • Rebeccat

    The simple fact is that there has always been a large segment of republican elites who have found religious conservatives unsavory bed mates. Whenever Republicans lose, they pull out the “pro-life is a losing cause”. When they win, they insist that other issues really explain the victory and that we need to be careful because at some point, pro-life causes will become untenable and sink the ship. The fact that these folks are out and about again is nothing new. If McCain would have won, they would have pointed to his reluctance to make abortion a campaign issue as a significant boon to his cause. They would have held him up as a model for attracting the hoardes of people they want us to think are normally driven from the GOP because of pro-life rhetoric.
    OTOH, one of the hopeful things going on is that several of the democrats who were elected to the legislature in 2006 are pro-life. Rham Emanuel, Obama’s new chief of staff was responsible for this. Interestingly, while a portion of the republican party wants to insist that pro-life is a losing cause, when dems got serious about winning in 2006, they saw that pro-choice is a losing cause in many parts of the country. So they found candidates who could win rather than just toe the party line. If it becomes more common, it will force the Republicans to actually earn votes rather than just rely on people who simply can’t bring themselves to vote for a pro-choicer. At any rate, these pro-life democrats (who know that they won, in part, because they are pro-life) will make passage of FOCA nearly impossible.

  • Joel Guthrie

    In Canada, we have Catholic hospitals that function perfectly well within our universal health care system. My first son was born down the street at one. They do not perform abortions. So the fears of FOCA dismantling the Catholic health care system may be overblown if we’re anything of a model.

  • Brian

    Sue #10, Well said. I completely agree with the need to take a much wider view of what we do or support. It’s not enough to take a simplistic black and white view of the world we live in today.

  • Rdy

    I find the USCCB a much preferable option to that of Fr. Scott. As an evangelical who has long had a “beef” with the politics of the pro-life campaigns, I have long valued the Catholic whole life ethic.
    I also find the witholding or demand of confession before taking the Eucharist deeply disturbing. The nature of such threats became clear to me in 2007, when one of the classes (read district or presbytery) of the Christian Reformed Church petitioned the national body to ban undocumented immigrants from taking communion because they had “sinned.”
    One thing to keep in mind in any discussion of Christian voting and participation in evil is that Al Queda gets around the Torah’s prohibition on killing innocent civilians by arguing that Americans vote for and elect their leaders; the one’s whose policies they abhor.
    Randy Gabrielse

  • I think Fr. Newman has a point, although I don’t agree with his decision to deny communion for Obama supporters. Obama isn’t pro-abortion, he is pro-choice. I’ve never heard anyone say, “We need more abortions in this country.” Pro-choice candidates and voters justify abortion “rights” because the good brought about by them outweighs the “evil” in an abortion. (I disagree with this judgment, but that’s the reasoning.)
    I think this puts voters two steps removed from evil. The politicians could be considered cooperators because they enact laws that allow others to commit evil, even though they do so with the intent that greater good may come out. Voters at most would be considered cooperators with cooperators with evil.
    Ours is a government of representation. The actions of our leaders represent the beliefs, values, and judgments of our people. This is why it is so important to have sound judgment when we vote, as the USCCB points out. I don’t see how the positions of Fr Newman and the USCCB are mutually exclusive. Be careful who you vote for, because you are liable for their decisions. HOW liable is up for debate.
    Personally, I have a tough time voting for pro-choice candidates because I think the evil of abortion outweighs other good things pro-choice candidates may be able to accomplish.

  • Diane

    I agree with others– and it was my first thought –if I can’t vote for a candidate without “material cooperation with evil,” I can’t vote. Nor, as someone else pointed out, can I pay taxes. I would have to go to jail. Therefore, I HAVE to take a more lenient and holistic look at candidates in order to participate in a democracy. We ALL participate in systems of evil, but the message I get is that “God, through Jesus Christ, forgives.” We do our best in a fallen world.

  • Ted M. Gossard

    I agree that we need to look at more than just one issue. We have to weigh all. We need to get off this wagon that one issue trumps all. It doesn’t. At the same time we must not be silent about any issue. One issue doesn’t trump every other (with maybe two more) so that Christians are to be mute on other issues. That is dangerous too. Wish the world and reality was less complex.
    We need to speak out against the FOCA and speak for the Democratic 95/10 Initiative, I believe. We need to quit pining for an overturning of Roe v Wade.
    The longer I look and listen, the easier I realize why many Mennonites and all Amish never vote. There is no squeaky clean candidate, no not one. Because we’re comparing all with Jesus, and what he brought, as in the Sermon on the Mount. This is in part why I believe we’re all to enamored and taken up with politics. But that doesn’t mean we should withdraw. Where to find the balance.
    Thanks Sue Van Stelle- 11:08a, for that comment, and many good comments here.

  • Your Name

    I must say that no candidate is perfect, but we have to look at where a candidate stands on all the issues before casting our votes. We know that this “world system” is basically controlled by satan, otherwise he would not have been able to offer it to Jesus in the wilderness. However, I also believe that Obama is one who hears from GOD and will lead the USA in the manner that will be best for all the people. Ultimately, each individual who decides to have an abortion, will have to answer to Almighty GOD, just as anyone who willfully commits sin – be it lier, killer, thief – you name it.
    Thanks for this opportunity to comment.

  • Chris

    Quote from Matt: “I’ve never heard anyone say, “We need more abortions in this country.”
    NARAL recently said that the Hyde Amendment has kept 50% of woman that would have had an abortion from getting an abortion (due to lack of medicare coverage) and that this was an injustice and a infringement on a woman’s rights.
    That’s pretty close to saying “We need more abortions”, I suppose more like “We wish the government would pay for more abortions”.

  • Linda

    Good for Father Newman! I would have loved to have been in his church for that! I am a Catholic woman, I have Catholic beliefs and am horrified by this country’s decision to appoint Barrack Obama as president. Why? His abortion stance.
    I am a single mother of 4 children and although life’s not always easy, I know that each one of my children is a gift from God. Every time I think of abortion, I think of the first time I looked at my children’s faces; of holding them when they were minutes, hours, days old, and it horrifies me that every day, thousands of children are not only killed but butchered, in such excruciating, barbaric ways. How anyone can do that to their own unborn baby is beyond me. I wish that people would stop being so selfish, self-centered and blind and open their eyes to what they’re really doing to their beautiful, innocent baby before it’s too late.
    If we can’t save our own babies from ourselves, how can we ask God to save us?