Monday, October 29, 2012

The Practical Principles of Political Prudence

This is the third and final installment of the homily series leading up to the elections.

Click here to download or listen!  (24.5 min)
To download, right-click on the "6.0 MB" underneath the "Apple Lossless Audio" in the lower right corner of the link's page. To stream and listen, left-click that same "6.0 MB" link or the Play Arrow in the upper right corner.

The Catholic Church is not going to tell you for whom to vote.    Nor does the Church want one-issue voters. But because of the principles talked about in the two previous homilies—the end doesn't justify the means & the principle of double effect—people of a moral mindset can nourish and inform their consciences to vote for the best workable scenario for a common good.  

There are no perfect candidates, therefore all voting decisions come down to double effect, proportionality, and the principle of double effect.
Top: The Principle of Double Effect.
Bottom: Claim the End Justifies the Means

There is no such thing as voting for "the lesser of two evils". No, we're voting for humans (or really, for scenarios that are configurations of many humans), and so we're voting for "the best of several imperfect goods".

Are there times when some goods issues trump others?  You bet. Are there some issues that could balance out a candidate being "wrong on a big issue"? Maybe. For years people have pitted Cardinal Bernadin's "seamless garment" idea against the idea that some issues are more fundamental than others.  Neither idea is wrong, you just need Cardinal Ratzinger to break it down right. He nails it; he knows his rules of double effect. He is kind of smart, you know.  
[Update: I should certainly give credit for what is not entirely my own. An astute parishioner brought up the "seamless garment" topic after hearing the homily, and I thought it was a perfect item to emphasize not only what Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, but to show continuity—if distinction—in thought.]

This isn't just about the Presidency. Lots of times the key races are the "small races". Much hangs in the balance with governors and representatives, senators and regents.  Parties are as crucial as policies here, and it's all tied to together in the messy world of proportionality and prudence. 

Educate yourself; challenge yourself. The Church's thinking on this stuff is subtle and weighty and complex.  Don't let your thinking be anything less.

[Update] Here are the actual texts from the 2004 Ratzinger-to-McCarrick letter: #6 and its footnote, and #3.  Whole text available here.

6. When "these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible," and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, "the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it" (cf. Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts Declaration "Holy Communion and Divorced, Civilly Remarried Catholics" [2002], nos. 3-4). This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgment on the person’s subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin.
Nota Bene: 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. (Emphasis added.)

3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.


  1. So, according to the Church's ethical teaching as you understand it, the Catholic voter in present-day America should base their vote solely on abortion/'life issues'? You specifically disclaimed that position several times, but that does seem to be what you're advocating in practical terms.

    Thanks for posting these, though - I just listened to all three back-to-back.

  2. Not quite. (Unless I explained it wrong or phrased it poorly. Always a possibility.)

    1) One must always vote their conscience.
    2) That conscience needs to be well formed and informed.
    3) Ratzinger affirms the obvious that to vote for someone who supports an intrinsic moral evil *because* they support that moral evil is cooperation and participation in evil, and is therefore illicit.
    4) However, given that all politics is a practice of political prudence and proportionality, it would be acceptable for a good Catholic to vote—in spite of the candidate's support of an intrinsic evil—for that candidate, in the face of "proportionate reasons". [See Ratzinger, nota bene.]
    5) *The decision* to be pondered, evaluated, and debated then is whether it not there exists proportionate grounds for such a vote.
    6) In my opinion as a private citizen and an amateur student of moral philosophy, in America today it's very unlikely that such proportionate grounds are present.
    7) Other private citizens must make their own conclusions on that.
    8) However, *I* do not think it is likely that a candidate's position on war,the death penalty, immigration, healthcare, poor-relief, the environment, the XL pipeline, job creation or education are proportionate reasons, because there can be (and is) a great amount of room for debate as to what is the best or most moral position on those issues, while there is no room for debate (at least not within the Catholic Natural Law tradition) as to whether or not abortion and euthanasia are morally acceptable. [See Ratzinger, #3.]
    9) So, perhaps there are people who wrestled with themselves and examined their consciences and then voted for Sen. Ted Kennedy with a clear conscience. So be it. But, as you can imagine, I would wonder if they'd previously heard or really considered #8 above—probably by no fault of their own either.
    10) short: thoroughly educate yourself and inform your conscience, and then vote according to it.

    Hope that helps clarify a bit.

  3. Correction in #5, "whether or not"

  4. I found it very clarifying . I wish every Catholic voter read this . Thank you Father ..!