May a good Catholic vote for a political candidate who is pro-choice? In the last two presidential elections, some Catholics, including a few bishops, argued that it was always wrong to do so, at least if a pro-life candidate were running in the same election. In making this claim, however, they were being more rigorist than the current pope, whose answer to this very question was not “never” but “sometimes.”
In 2004, in his capacity as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger dusted off the old moral theological framework of “cooperation with evil” to address the question of voting for pro-choice politicians. That framework was developed in order to assist confessors in evaluating the complicity of penitents in the wrongdoing of others. Although the technical terminology can be frustratingly abstruse, the underlying distinctions continue to be useful.
Cardinal Ratzinger states that a good Catholic cannot vote for a candidate because he or she is pro-choice. In traditional terms, such a vote would constitute formal cooperation with evil. Because it is a type of intentional wrongdoing, it is always morally impermissible. But what about voting for pro-choice candidates despite their stand on the life issues? According to Ratzinger, “when a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor 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.”
To understand this statement, three points need to be kept in mind. First, and most important, unlike formal cooperation, in cases of material cooperation the cooperators do not intend to further the wrongdoing of other agents. Instead, they act for their own legitimate ends, foreseeing but not intending that their action will facilitate that wrongdoing. Second, while formal cooperation is always prohibited, the permissibility of material cooperation is determined on a case-by-case basis and depends upon a variety of factors. How grave is the wrongful act in question? Does the act of the cooperator overlap physically with the act of the wrongdoer? If not, how much distance is there between the two acts in terms of time, space and causal connection? Will the wrongful act take place anyway, regardless of whether the cooperator goes forward with the act of material cooperation? Is the cooperation an isolated act or an ongoing pattern of involvement? Will my cooperation cause “scandal”?
Third, holding one’s nose and voting for a pro-choice politician (or any politician who publicly advocates immoral policies) falls under the subcategory of “remote material cooperation.” It is remote because it is extremely removed in terms of time, space and causation from the wrongful act in question (enacting permissive abortion laws), and even further removed from the underlying wrong (the act of abortion itself). As Cardinal Ratzinger indicated, remote material cooperation can be justified by “proportionate reasons.”
Some Catholics have argued that nothing is proportionate to the great evil of abortion, functionally turning the cardinal’s qualified permission to vote for pro-choice politicians into an absolute prohibition. This approach, however, misapplies the criterion. In assessing proportionate reason, the focus stays on the particular act of cooperation and its particular consequences; it does not migrate to the global evil with which it is associated. We cannot simply set 1.5 million annual abortions on the negative side of the equation as if they are entirely caused by one vote. A single vote for a pro-choice politician is not likely to make any significant difference to any particular woman’s decision for or against abortion, given that abortion is currently a constitutionally protected right in this country. In fact, we might well judge that voting for a candidate who supports a large safety net for mothers and dependent children would be a better way to increase the number of children brought to term, especially at the state level.
In response, some pro-lifers might argue that while a vote for a pro-choice politician may not cause many new abortions, a vote for a pro-life politician, particularly a pro-life president, is the way to prevent them. Even here, however, the causal chain is tenuous. A president may not have the opportunity to make appointments to the Supreme Court; if he/she does, no president has control over how justices vote once they are seated. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, many states will legalize the procedure on their own. It is not at all clear that voting for a pro-life president will prevent abortions in any significant number, particularly if other executive policies make it harder for women facing crisis pregnancies to have children. They can simply travel to a state where abortion is legal.
Finally, pro-life groups might argue that whether or not electing pro-life politicians is sufficient to outlaw abortions, much less to reduce their number significantly, it is certainly a necessary step. Given the constitutionally protected status of abortion, the pro-life movement must convince a majority of voters not only to oppose abortion, but to make opposing it in a coordinated, disciplined fashion a top political priority.
This argument might work as a pro-life political strategy. It is, however, largely irrelevant to the traditional matrix of cooperation with evil. The point of that matrix is negative; it aims to identify the actions that must be avoided in order to avoid sinning. It is not meant to provide the positive engine for a program of social reform. Still less is it meant to use the threat of sin and eternal damnation in order to promote the coordinated action necessary to overcome systemic injustice.
But that’s not the end of the story.An Emerging Problem in Moral Theology
Not only does the traditional category of cooperation with evil offer little assistance in addressing the question of voting for politicians who favor abortion rights; it also does not help us evaluate other questions, like whether we should shop at big-box stores, whose goods are less expensive because they are made in sweatshops. It is also not very useful in thinking through the issues involved in paying taxes that support an unjust war. Do these examples mean that the actions involved raise no moral problems? Absolutely not. Rather, it means we need to develop new ways of analyzing the involvement of individuals in systemic structures of complicity.
Of course, the idea of structural complicity is not new to Christian thought. The doctrine of original sin has long pointed to the common human plight of failing to live up to our obligations to God and one another. St. Augustine, Pope John Paul II and liberation theologians have all examined how individuals can be caught up in social practices marred by entrenched sinfulness. It seems to me, however, that individual involvement in structural wrongdoing has garnered more attention in the present era. Why? For one, residents of developed countries are enmeshed in increasingly complicated webs of production and consumption. We buy goods made on the far side of the globe. We ensure our safety not only by deploying U.S. soldiers but also by forging alliances with other nations and private contractors. Our network of relations is increasingly pluralistic. We do not share the same values with all members of our political community, still less with those in our global economy. Finally, thanks to the Internet, ordinary individuals know far more about these political and economic relationships than in the past. Coordinating action, including boycotts and other protest campaigns, is far easier than it used to be. In short, individuals are not isolated agents. Nor are they totally immersed in their own families or churches or communities. They are networked agents.
How does the “networked self” experience moral responsibility? Catholic moral theology has done a good job analyzing the actions of individuals and small groups, on the one hand, and the social structures that contribute to just and unjust societies, on the other. There needs to be more reflection, however, on the intersection of these two realms: How should we think about the actions of individuals and small groups in relation to larger social structures? Can we say anything more helpful than that it is “remote cooperation with evil,” justified by “proportionate reason”? Making progress on these questions will require more sophisticated theoretical treatment of three issues.
1. Aggregated agency. Remote material cooperation is a large category. It describes the citizen voting for a politician who supports unjust policies, a big-box store customer buying cheap goods made by slave labor and a worker paying taxes, some of which will go to support an unjust war. It also covers taxi drivers delivering drunk passengers from the airport to the Las Vegas strip. What sets the first three cases apart from the last one, however, is the pressing problem of aggregated agency that they raise. Taken by themselves, my individual vote, my isolated purchase and my tax payment are largely inconsequential. But taken together, the actions of voters, consumers and taxpayers have a significant effect on the practices they facilitate.
When should I think of myself primarily as a member of a class in evaluating my action, and when do I take into account my own particular needs and desires? This question is relevant for two distinct purposes. The first has to do with the development of my own character and the characters of others for whom I am responsible, like family members. What sort of barrier should I set between myself and the large social evils of our time? How can we express solidarity with those harmed by those evils? If we need to shop at a big-box store because of the prices or location, is there any countervailing action we can take to offset complicity, like donating to an organization that combats child labor? If we vote for a pro-choice politician, can we find time to volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center?
The second purpose is related to bringing about social reform by coordinated action. What means should be used to bring about change? Letter writing or something stronger? In essence, the bishops who tried to forbid all Catholics from voting for any pro-choice politician were trying to organize a political boycott. A boycott is a legitimate method of agitating for social change, as Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous boycott of the segregated bus system in Montgomery, Ala., demonstrated. It is not always, however, an appropriate or successful method, as Dr. King found out a few years later in Albany, Ga., when his broader and more diffuse protests not only failed to produce the changes he sought, but also engendered frustration and violence. When is a boycott a legitimate method to protest injustice, and when are its ancillary costs, including harm to innocent parties, too great?
2. Currents of action. How should we think about broad causal patterns and our place within them? Systemic injustices cannot be analyzed by looking solely at the actions of individuals. We are dealing with the actions and reactions of corporate agents, including nations, transnational regulatory bodies and multinational corporations. Moreover, these do not always act independently; they respond to incentives and pressures created by the others. Corporations, for example, move production facilities abroad when they cannot continue to make a profit for their shareholders at home.
The Catholic moral tradition has done a very good job analyzing the practical reasoning and deliberations of individual moral agents. More work, however, needs to be done both on the manner in which corporate agents can be said to “act.” In particular, we need to consider how to evaluate the “wake” of the actions of corporate agents—the manner in which they shape the context in which other agents, both corporate and individual, plan their own actions. We need to think about how corporate agents affect the common good not only directly, but also indirectly by creating incentives for other agents to act.
3. The inbreaking kingdom of God. As Catholics, we know that the kingdom of God has already been inaugurated by Christ’s death and resurrection; we also know that it will not be fully realized until the end of time. Until then, Christians need to keep two values in creative tension by honoring the insights of two groups of devout Catholics, which I call the prophets and the pilgrims.
Prophets emphasize the importance of clear, unambiguous witness to the transformative power of the inbreaking kingdom of God. They believe that the purity of their witness to those values will be compromised if Catholics, especially Catholic institutions, appear resigned to the great systemic evils of our time. Consequently, in evaluating questions of complicity, they are likely to stress the need to maintain significant distance from the wrongful acts of others, particularly if significant portions of the population do not agree that those acts are wrongful—for example, abortion or extramarital sex.
In contrast, pilgrims are acutely aware of just how far human society still remains from the kingdom of God and how difficult the journey continues to be. The consequences of sin and the sting of death are still all around us. The only way to ameliorate those consequences is by doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. It is not enough to avoid sin; we have to love and serve our neighbors. Ameliorating injustice and practicing the corporal works of mercy often involve contact with, and sometimes cooperation with, wrongdoers. We cannot expect to avoid such contact until the end of time. Until then, as St. Augustine reminds us, the wheat and tares will grow together.
The different eschatological sensibilities of prophets and pilgrims account for their different judgments on such issues as whether it is permissible to provide condoms in developing countries to prevent H.I.V. infection or whether Catholic hospitals may ensure their financial stability by affiliating with systems that perform sterilizations. In the best of circumstances, the tension between prophets and pilgrims can be creative, pressing us to think more deeply about both requirements for following Jesus Christ. But we must guard against allowing creative tension to become mutually assured destruction.
Theologians and other scholars respond  to M. Cathleen Kaveny.