If you have been around the Catholic blogosphere, you will know that Zippy Catholic (http://zippycatholic.blogspot.com) and Mark Shea (http://markshea.blogspot.com) have caused quite a brouhaha with their comments that they could not see how, as a Catholic, they could vote for John McCain. A big back and forth has erupted about what a Catholic is permitted to do with his vote and tempers have gotten heated as the discussion has ensued.
I do want to weigh in on the meat of the discussion, but let me begin with the following observation: what a sad state of affairs this is. I think It shows how much we as Catholics have both (a) succumbed to the culture's viewpoint and (b) feel incapable of offering an alternative to the culture's viewpoint. The fact that we constantly find ourselves faced with the question of what can we morally get away with, versus what would be a positive Catholic culture says something about us. It says something about the state of each of our witnesses to Christ. We should all be ashamed on some level and be willing to acknowledge that this is far from what we are called to be. It's like the person who is always asking whether this or that has crossed the line and is sin versus asking instead what will truly make me happy and correspond to the needs of my heart written there by God Himself. We all know that the former is sometimes necessary, but we would never mistake it for the ideal.
Zippy and Mark have been raising a number of serious questions about how to properly make prudential judgments about who to vote for using the Church's moral teaching. In particular, I think Zippy has brought a rigor to the question that I haven't seen in quite some time and that I think is worthy of real evaluation. Let me begin by stating that I don't know the answer to many of the questions I raise below. And where I am criticizing positions that have been advocated by some of the bishops I'm not necessarily saying they are wrong. I'm simply holding open the possibility that they, like the rest of us, are infected by living in the same cultural environment as the rest of us. So they are not immune from the same cultural assumptions, assumptions that may prove to be not factual.
In addition, let me make clear that whatever you might conclude about the questions raised below, I am confident that the one thing we should conclude is that something is terribly amiss. This is not the political culture we as Catholics have been called to build up. We shouldn't settle for this. And since we keep finding ourselves back at this same position, election cycle after election cycle, maybe we need to re-examine some of the things we have taken for granted or assumed true without as much evidentiary basis as we normally think as we search for a path forward. Otherwise, I can predict what type of discussion we will once again be having in 2012.
I think everyone agrees on certain aspects of Catholic moral teaching regarding voting. I think the challenges come in the application. The line between where the moral doctrine ends and prudential application to specific facts begin is sometimes hard to draw. So please, again, understand that I am not meaning to suggest the Bishops are teaching incorrect moral doctrine. Where I raise some questions is in the application to specific circumstances, which surely the Bishops can make mistakes with just as the rest of us can.
Here's what I think we all agree on. First, a Catholic could never support a candidate who says he will use his office to advocate for an intrinsic evil in order to support that candidate's advocacy for the intrinsic evil. This has been the traditional basis by which the pro-life movement has argued that a Catholic could not support Democrat candidates since Roe v. Wade and the Democrat's support for abortion.
The second principle is that, where all candidates say they will use their office to advocate for intrinsic evils a Catholic could vote for such an imperfect candidate nonetheless if (a) his vote is despite the candidate's advocacy for the intrinsic evil (i.e., he only tolerates not supports the candidate's position in this area and the potential results of his election) and (b) provided there is a proportional reason for still voting for the candidate. The potential proportional reason is typically spoken of as voting for the candidate, despite his imperfections, in an effort to prevent grave evil that would likely occur if the other candidate wins. Stated more generally, Catholic analysis of proportional reasons usually focuses on whether the act in remote material cooperation with evil to be undertaken by the Catholic is (i) reasonably expected to be successful in preventing the intrinsic evil that the Catholic aims to prevent by undertaking the act and (ii) the act being undertaken doesn't result in graver evil than the evil it is aimed to prevent.
That's what we all agree upon. Although if I think we are all honest, we'll admit that our analysis of our circumstances when deciding our vote rarely involves a robust analysis along these principles, but instead uses various assumptions (largely absorbed from the culture) about the meaning and nature of the act of voting and the likely consequences of one act versus another to reach our conclusions. If nothing else, I hope all can agree on that and take it as an indication of how far removed from the ideal we have become and that we shouldn't just become complacent that we live in an imperfect world and not try to again pursue the ideal. In particular, I think the present environment (arguably our first national election in recent times) where both major party candidates advocate for an intrinsic evil (either embryonic stem cell research or both embryonic stem cell research and abortion) has revealed the shortcomings of relying on these cultural assumptions instead of a more thoughtful analysis of the situation.
Let's take a look at a few of the assumptions. One initial question we all face is what to do about third party candidates. Many don't consider them at all. We speak of there being two parties even though nothing in the Constitution requires that and, in fact, each and every one of us will find more than two parties on the ballots we cast when we go to the polls. You even see this in some of the statements from the bishops, which (presumably unintentionally) speak of two-person races even though the facts are that there are more than two candidates. So what is a Catholic to do when there exists a third-party candidate who doesn't advocate for any intrinsic evils, and is otherwise competent and qualified for office, yet in the present environment is unlikely to win the election? Should a Catholic support such a candidate for, among other reasons, it is better to not remotely materially cooperate with evil if that can be avoided (focusing on the fact that it is not true that all candidates support intrinsic evils)? Or is it permissible for a Catholic to apply an "electability/viability" filter, focusing on the fact that there is a clear difference in the magnitude of the intrinsic evils supported by the two candidates likely to win and we should do our part to try to mitigate how much intrinsic evil is done?
I truly don't know the answer to that question. The individual bishops' statements to date seem to say yes to the latter question, even though recent documents issued by them collectively don't seem to say the same thing. I also would note some irony that the view of the meaning of the act of voting (which we will discuss more below) given for why it is okay to dismiss a third-party candidate (the fact that he won't win and one individual vote marginally isn't going to change that) is the very same view of the meaning of the act of voting rejected when responding to the proportionate reason questions I'll discuss next. Furthermore, it seems clear that, given the demographic numbers of Catholics in this country, Catholics voting for a third party candidate, in the aggregate, would in fact absolutely change the election results. The irony is that, together, we are fully capable of bringing about the Catholic political culture that we want, based on sheer numbers. Yet because that result isn't guaranteed when looked at on an individual vote by vote basis the approach that could lead to the political culture we want is rejected. I'm not saying that's not without reason, but there's something tragic in all that. My experience of this tragedy is only heightened when I see some bishops go so far as to even suggest maybe that a Catholic must remotely materially cooperate with evil by suggesting that voting for a third-party candidate would be worse than voting for the less imperfect major-party candidate by equating the act of voting for a third-party candidate with voting for the more imperfect major-party candidate. This seems to me to be entirely incorrect, by reducing all of the various meanings and outcomes of the act of voting down to the simple question of whether it helps or hurts in the effort to defeat the more imperfect major-party candidate. But surely we all can acknowledge that there is a legitimate difference between the act of voting for Obama and the act of voting for a pro-life third-party candidate who is judged unlikely to win?
Another set of assumptions will get drawn out in a look at proportionate reasoning analysis. These assumptions relate to: (i) the meaning/nature of the act of voting and its effectiveness in preventing the intrinsic evil promoted by a candidate that we don't want to win and (ii) the evaluation of the consequences (good and bad) of such candidate winning, the less imperfect candidate winning, and from the act of voting itself for the less imperfect candidate.
Zippy has been arguing that there does not exist a proportionate reason for voting for McCain. He notes that John McCain supports embryonic stem cell research and that this is a grave intrinsic evil as it is the murdering of the innocent. After all, it is essentially just a form of abortion, not something distinct and different from abortion. Zippy then points to the fact that you can't vote against Obama, you can only vote for a candidate. Coupled with the fact that an individual vote, viewed on a marginal basis, is highly unlikely to determine the outcome of the election, he concludes that an act of voting for McCain cannot be reasonably expected to prevent the evil anticipated from a victory by Obama. As such, a proportional reason to vote for McCain and materially cooperate with evil doesn't exit. And for good measure, Zippy highlights the fact that we often fail to account for the corrosive impacts of supporting intrinsic evil, even through remote material cooperation, has on the voter and the friends and family in his sphere of influence.
(Please note that I have taken for granted the fact that a McCain administration would result in less intrinsic evil than an Obama one. While I agree with the conclusion, it should be noted that it isn't entirely obvious and not worthy of analysis. It is possible that McCain has overstated his commitment to what pro-life principles he does have and that Obama will be constrained by exterior forces from implementing all the anti-life policies he has said he wants to implement. Unlike the delusional "pro-life Catholic" Obama supporters out there, I don't think a reasonable evaluation of the facts supports such a conclusion. But they are correct that an evaluation of the facts is required. I think many individuals unfortunately are (unjustifiably) scared by the fact that a true evaluation of the facts requires being open to all possibilities the facts might suggest, even the counter-intuitive ones, rather than dismissing some of those possibilities a priori. I think we have nothing to fear from reason.)
Those arguing with Zippy think he is focusing too much on the marginal view of an individual vote when deciding the meaning/nature of the act of voting and whether the act can reasonably be expected to prevent the intrinsic evil they associate with an Obama victory. After all, they are right, if all Catholics were to vote for McCain or not for McCain, it likely would decide whether he wins. And they emphasize the magnitude of the evil of abortion and suggest that that evil outweighs the evil Zippy thinks will come from the remote material cooperation with evil that is a vote for McCain.
It is all made all so muddled by that mystery that is the vote. Each individual vote does matter; when gathered with other like votes, their bulk builds up. Yet, it is a very rare political campaign where the election will turn on the margin of an individual vote. It is no wonder that elections and voting is a field ripe with analysis by game theory. The subject matter is just so complex. Personally, I find a lot of merit to Zippy's argument. Living in a state that Obama is pretty much guaranteed to carry, given that he represents that state already, I think Zippy is right that my vote for someone other than McCain will have no bearing on whether Obama becomes President. And yet, Zippy's argument, taken to the extreme, would seem to deny the reality that individual votes do matter, for it arguably would suggest a conclusion that there is never a proportional reason for voting for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil (barring a race that literally turns on a single vote, such as "Zippy the race is a tie; whomever you vote for will be President"). Whatever conclusion we reach, it seems to me that it needs to acknowledge both realities about the meaning/nature of voting.
Similarly, evaluating the likely outcomes of an election are challenging beyond belief. Example: would I have predicted that George Bush would be as authoritarian, anti-civil liberties, militaristic, and pro-torture as he has been back in 2000 when I voted for him? Absolutely not. But those are results that flowed from his election. Zippy likes to speak of outcome-dependent and outcome-independent consequences from the election. I think this is a useful tool, because it reminds us that there are consequences to the election that go beyond merely who wins the election. For example, I think people arguing with Zippy grossly underestimate the truth of his claim that there are damaging consequences that come from the remote material cooperation with evil of voting for a candidate that supports an intrinsic evil. I can't help but look at this election and how the issue of embryonic stem cell research has been tossed aside. Think back only four years and consider how at the forefront this issue was for the pro-life movement. Yet, in today's parlance, say pro-life and no one thinks of opposition to ESCR anymore, just abortion. We see groups labeling McCain as "pro-life", without clear reference to ESCR and his problems there. This is all the more striking when you consider, as I said above, that ESCR is a form of abortion. I would posit that we dismiss the concerns about this damage to ourselves and the culture at our own peril. For this damage is insidious as it is slow to reveal itself, develops out of clear sight and is more amorphous as it can't be attached to a single action by some other person. Yet is it not possible that this very nature of the damage is part of what keeps us from developing that truly Catholic political culture we all long for, because of how it damages our own perceptions of reality in ways that we typically don't acknowledge?
In the end, I don't have an easy answer to the questions. But I think they shouldn't be dismissed because their examination might wake us all up to how far we have missed the mark and keep missing the mark, and they might give us an indication of where to begin anew.