In recent weeks, we are seeing something of a backlash against the USCCB’s Faithful Citizenship document– the most articulate and theologically sophisticated treatise of these issues by the US bishops ever– mainly by the usual suspects, but also by a small but vocal minority of bishops. For one, Deal Hudson dismisses the authority of the document altogether with his quip that “the bishops should be paying more attention to what is being taught by their staff, both at the conference and the chanceries”. But this has it exactly backwards. In the past, the document has largely an administrative affair, produced by the USCCB with minimal oversight from this bishops. This is not the case with the current document. For the first time, the bishops deliberated in open forum, and amendments and alterations could be proposed. After debate, the document was approved by all but four bishops. Pretty unanimous.
The advantages of such a process are obvious. With sufficient ownership over the document, the bishops can speak with one voice and resist sending misleading and contradictory advice to the faithful that would only serve to underline their collective authority. And yet, this seems to be happening. The fact that more than four bishops have issued their own interpretations suggests that some are not fully atuned to the responsibilities of collective ownership. For sure, every bishop has the right to to instruct his own diocese on all matters of faith and morals. But surely, on a key national question as this, they should endeavor to speak with a single credible voice? What I find particularly strange is the tendency for small groups of bishops to issue joint statements– as happened in Kansas and Texas, for example. How can we say that a document endorsed by 250 or so bishops has no weight and one endorsed by only 2 does?
Let’s address some of the issues. Most of the interventions center around a very narrow question: whether there are, in the current circumstances, sufficiently grave moral reason that would justify a vote for a politician who supports the “right” to abortion. Some of these bishops state that, in their considered view, no such reason exists. What we need to understand clearly is that this conclusion is in itself not a principle, but an application of a principle to particular facts and circumstances– in other words, what some call (often dismissively so) a prudential judgment. They are therefore asking the faithful to accept the validity of this prudential judgment. In itself, this is fine. But there are problems in fudging this point, but not making clear enough distinctions before arriving at this conclusion. I’ll get to that.
I’d like to address some other issues too, with what I think is possibly the most problematic of the statements issued, the one by Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas and Bishop Kevin Vann of Forth Worth. I will address three specific problems.
First, the issue of relevant intrinsic evils. These Texas bishops present the teaching that there exist intrinsically evil acts that can never be justified. Appealing directly to Faithful Citizenship, they list the following: “legalized abortion, the promotion of same sex unions and ‘marriages’, repression of religious liberty, as well as public policies permitting euthanasia, racial discrimination, or destructive human embryonic stem cell research”. My main problem with this statement is that it misrepresents Faithful Citizenship. Why? Because it appeals to the document, and then presents a different list of relevant intrinsically evil acts. Specifically, it adds same-sex unions and religious liberty, and takes out torture and the direct targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war. This is puzzling. The religious liberty issue is certainly a core concern for Catholics in places like China and Vietnam, but it is hardly a pressing issue in the United States today. Likewise, I find it shocking that they would omit references to two to the most egregious violations of the culture of life at the political level over the past eight years: torture and the conduct of war.
Second, the issue of prudential judgments. The Farell-Vann statement makes a clean distinction between intrinsically evil acts on one hand, and prudential judgments on the other, declaring “issues of prudential judgment are not morally equivalent to issues involving intrinsic evils”. They argue that there can be a reasonable debate over such topics as immigration reform, health care, the economy, concern for the poor, and the “war on terror”. Let’s go through this. As noted above, a prudential judgment in the application of moral principles to particular circumstances. As creatures of reason and intellect, we know that “not all choices are equally valid” (these are the exact words used in Faithful Citizenship). For example, one could make the argument that tax cuts for the rich help the poor by lifting all boats. This is simply not borne out by the facts. Nor can we say credibly that a move toward individualized health insurance would protect the most vulnerable. There is too much of a tendency among some Catholics to write off “prudential judgments” as “things I can safely ignore”, while in fact, Faithful Citizenship explicitly condemns “the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity”. For “these are not optional concerns which can be dismissed” and Church teaching is not “just another political opinion or policy preference among many others”. The culture of life must be consistent.
Third, the issue of “grave proportionate reasons”. The Farrel-Vann statement argues that a Catholic may only vote for a person who supports abortion “rights”, if all candidates support these “rights” or if other intrinsically evil act outweighs abortion– and none does, given the number of unborn deaths each year. They appeal again to Faithful Citizenship in this context, which again is a little dubious.
Let me address a few problems with this line of reasoning. First, if it is merely a matters of numbers, then surely the most important issue is not abortion but embryonic stem cell research, which both candidates favor. Second, as noted above, it is not the case that we must restrict out attention only to other intrinsically evil acts; we must consider all evil acts, period. And surely, an unjust war would count. To take this flawed reasoning to its logical conclusion, let us say a US administration launched a nuclear war on Iran, killing millions, but still less the the cumulative number of abortions in the United States. Looking solely at this statement, this seems justifiable since (i) they don’t list the direct targeting of non-combatants as an intrinsically evil act; (ii) they regard matters of war as part of the domain of prudential judgment, not on par with instrinsically evil acts; and (iii) the numbers killed are anyway not high enough. This is surely an extreme example, but I believe it adequately exposes the flaws of this type of reasoning.
And there’s one other thing. As I pointed out recently, a well-formed conscience means taking into account (as Faithful Citizenship notes) a candidate’s ability to influence a given issue. We need to ask some basic questions– on abortion, and on other questions too. How much power will the politician have to affect the act in question? Would he or she be effective in bringing about the policy? If the policy is enacted, would it be effective in achieving its ends? It is common to simply appeal to the staggering number of abortions and claim that one is therefore compelled to vote for the one who opposes the “right” to abortion. But this is highly fallacious, especially in the US where the “right” hails from the court and the ability of the executive or legislature to influence abortion is highly circumscribed. On the other hand, the proximity of the executive to acts of war and torture are manifest.
This of course allows us to look at “grave proportional reasons” in a rather different light. Let me conclude with an example. George Bush was the avowed pro-life candidate in 2000 and 2004. By the logic of some of these bishops (a small minority, mind you), a Catholic was compelled to either abstain or vote for Bush. And here we are, eight years later: the annual incidence of abortion is still as staggering as ever, a devastating war and occupation as been launched where up to a million could have perished, torture has become an instrument of policy, millions lack adequate health care, and the future of the planet is in peril. Let me end with a question: if these are not sufficiently grave reasons not to choose the person who supports abortion “rights”, then what might those reasons be? What is the tipping point? Is there one?