Monday, October 23, 2006

The Theology of Voting Guides

More and more are jumping into the fray. Bishop Sheridan of Colorado Springs declared that Catholics who "vote for politicians in favor of abortion rights, stem-cell research, euthanasia or gay marriage may not receive Communion until they recant and repent in the confessional." Hmm. Maybe so much close proximity to James Dobson and his ilk caused the good bishop's brain to go a little squishy.

Of course, this is nonsense. I discussed the voting guide issues in great detail here. The crux of the argument is that voting for a candidate is not the same thing as voting for the act itself, and can be justified under certain circumstances. In one of the most cogent analyses of the issue, Christopher Decker sets out the arguments in a pair of papers, Moral Theology for the Voting Booth and Voting and "Non-Negotiable" Issues. Decker applies the well-known principle of double effect from Catholic moral theology. In a nutshell, an act that may lead to foreseeable evil consequences can be morally licit if three conditions hold: (i) the act in itself is not evil; (ii) the evil effect is not intended as a means or an end; (iii) the good attained is proportionate to the evil arising from the act. It typically boils down to the third condition. Decker argues that, in judging this condition, a number of further factors come into play, including: would the candidate have the power advance this particular policy? Would the candidate be effective in causing the policy to be enacted? And, if the policy is enacted, would it be effective in achieving its ends? Finally, the relative gravity of the good and evil effects must be taken into account. Nothing here is certain, and the person must act in the realm of probability, which of course allows for prudential judgment.

Yet again, I will take the default abortion example. Take as a given that the voter who supports a pro-abortion candidate does not share that person's views on abortion. Nonetheless, voting for that person is perfectly licit as long as the third condition of the principle of double effect holds. What factors come into play? Will voting for a candidate have any impact on the abortion rate? What if this particular elected office holds little power to influence abortion legislation? For example, it could be a candidate for some local government position. Even if national office, would this person actually be in a position to affect the abortion rate? In the United States, the "right" to abortion derives from the Supreme Court. Plus, the pro-abortion candidate may well support a bevy of economic and healthcare policies that actually reduce the rate of abortion. Remember the evidence from the Clinton administration. And if abortion was made illegal, would this actually reduce the abortion rate? Evidence from Latin America suggests not. As for relative gravity, consider 655,000 dead Iraqis versus no change in the abortion rate.

(Any reader who would like a copy of Decker's essays should e-mail me, and I will forward them-- with the permission of the author of course).

Bishop Sheridan and the Catholic Answers crowd appear not to have thought these things through very carefully. Then again, if their goal is simply to dress a partisan Republican agenda in the mantle of Catholic moral theology, they have done a fine job obfuscating the issues. It's high time to rip that mantle from them, and show the world that the emperor has no clothes. I already mentioned the effects of Bush's war set against no change in abortion rates. But, as those on the right will point out, the conditions surrounding a just war are imbued with prudential judgment. Indeed they are. No, I want to pick an easier example. Torture is instrinsically evil, and can never be licit, just like abortion. So voting for a candidate that supports torture leads to exactly the same moral reasoning as the case of abortion. But remember that one of the conditions of the theory of double effect is that the evil act be not intended. How many Catholics support Bush's "coercive interrogation techniques"? How many are indifferent to it? And getting to the third factor, how does the relative gravity of voting for a person who legalizes torture play out against voting for a pro-abortion candidate who would not have made the slightest difference to abortion numbers? Time to re-assess 2004 for the right-winger moralists, perhaps?

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