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November 16, 2008

No, Catholics Are Not Required to Be Single-Issue Voters

Ed Morrissey writes that the Diocese of Charleston is backing a South Carolina priest who sent a letter to parishioners which informed them that they "place themselves outside of the full communion of Christ’s Church and under the judgment of divine law" if they vote for Obama rather than McCain.

And then Ed goes on to discuss whether the mere act of voting for a pro-choice candidate constitutes "formal cooperation" with abortion, and thus results in automatic excommunication. Though he doesn't come right out and say that such voters should be excommunicated, he suggests that this would be a permissible reading of the Catechism. And he spends quite a few words explaining that the Church should not ignore its teachings in favor of popularity.

He is wrong, both as to the diocese's support for Father Jay and in his discussion of the Church's teachings with respect to Catholics who vote for pro-choice candidates. I usually try and steer clear of religious issues here (with one disastrous exception last year), but Ed's insistence that Catholics must be single-issue voters goes against the teachings of the Pope. And I won't be silent about that.

Moreover, he misinterprets Father Jay's letter and the diocese's response in a way which may mislead readers into thinking that his own harsh preference has more support than it actually does.


First, contrary to Ed's post, the diocese does not "agree[] with Fr. Jay Scott Newman's letter despite the controversy it generated." This may not be Ed's fault because the website he links reports that a diocese spokesman, speaking on behalf of Monsignor Martin T. Laughlin, said that Father Jay is "simply enunciating church teaching and has the full support of the Diocese of Charleston."

Unfortunately, if you go to the diocese website it has this message from Monsignor Laughlin (PDF):

As Administrator of the Diocese of Charleston, let me state with clarity that Father Newman’s statements do not adequately reflect the Catholic Church’s teachings. Any comments or statements to the contrary are repudiated.

So the spokesman got it wrong last week and that has led Ed and others astray. Hopefully he and they will make the necessary correction. UPDATE: Ed is aware of the diocese's new statement and believes it is "the kind of double-talk that leads people to believe that abortion is compatible with the Catholic faith."

Second, Ed makes a mistake when he believes that Father Jay's message supports his own preference that voting for a pro-choice candidate be considered "formal cooperation in an abortion." Father Jay wrote:

"Voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exists constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil and those Catholics who do so place themselves outside of the full communion of Christ’s Church and under the judgment of divine law."

I think Father Jay is right about this as a matter of Church teaching. Ed's error arises because he conflates "material cooperation with intrinsic evil" with "formal cooperation in an abortion", which appears to be his own particular fixation. The two are morally distinct, most especially because the later is explicitly defined in the Catechism and results in automatic excommunication whereas the former is not defined or mentioned.

I suspect that Father Jay is familiar with the term in the context of abortion because of this letter from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, better known as Pope Benedict XVI. His position on the difference between "material cooperation" and "formal cooperation" is clear and unequivocal:

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.

The bottom line is that Catholics are not required to be single-issue voters when it comes to abortion. They are, like all voters, called to weigh all the moral aspects of a candidate and make a conscientious decision.

Third, Ed has a complaint about the Church:

So far, the church has not officially applied 2272 [the automatic excommunication paragraph] explicitly to the act of voting for a pro-choice candidate. They’ve had enough trouble rousing the energy to apply church teachings to politicians such as Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi. They’ve only been interested in doing that much for just a few years, but this letter is the next logical progression if the church wants to assert its beliefs more clearly in the parishes.

Contrary to Ed's suggestion that the Church has been slothful about applying its teachings, American bishops have not been idle about smacking down priests who deny Holy Eucharist to parishioners who happen to support pro-choice candidates. For example, the fellow who denied Doug Kmiec communion was admonished by both the leader of his order and Cardinal Mahoney. The Church's teachings on this are clear, however much Ed would prefer otherwise.

Finally, I think a plain reading of paragraph 2272 shows that it was never intended to be wielded against Catholics who vote for pro-choice candidates in the manner that Ed suggests.

Incidentally and it shouldn't matter, but I oppose abortion in all cases except for rape or when the health (narrowly defined) or life of the mother require it. But my opposition doesn't require that I support a movement to excommunicate Catholics who support pro-choice candidates.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 01:30 PM

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