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Posted October 26, 2004

Theologian says one-issue voting
is foreign to Catholic tradition

By Catholic News Service

In an article in America, a national Catholic magazine published by the Jesuits, a Fordham University moral theologian said it is foreign to the church's moral tradition to claim that one issue alone, even abortion, should determine how a voter votes.

The theologian, Father Thomas R. Kopfensteiner, took issue with bishops who have argued that a voter facing a candidate who supports keeping abortion legal and one who opposes it must always choose the one who opposes it.

"This naive approach to the formation of conscience fails to consider the likely success of a candidate's platform to limit the wrongdoing in either the near or distant future," he wrote in the Nov. 1 issue of America, which appeared about a week before Election Day.

Father Kopfensteiner, a priest of the St. Louis Archdiocese, has taught at Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York since 1996. He also taught for eight years at Kenrick School of Theology in St. Louis and has also been a visiting professor at the Gregorian University in Rome, where he earned his doctorate.

"It is true enough that life is a fundamental good" but there are many other issues voters must face, he said.

He said life is not an "absolute good," as the moral tradition says it can be sacrificed for higher causes and can be taken by the state for just reasons in capital punishment and warfare.

"The defense of life is not always the most urgent good, either," he wrote. "A woman on a fixed income may choose a candidate whose platform guarantees better medical care or prescription drug coverage. A father whose son is at war may support a candidate with a plan to end the conflict. A community hard hit by job layoffs may choose a candidate with a plan to provide more immediate jobs to the area."

After citing several other examples, he said, "These and other issues may provide a serious enough or proportionate reason to vote for one candidate over another. For a voter to be guided only by the fundamentality of human life risks falling into a radicalism that is foreign to the Catholic moral tradition."

Noting that church officials have been discussing the issue of a moral assessment of a voter's act in terms of the principles of material and formal cooperation in evil, he said the principle of material cooperation has been called one of the most difficult to apply in the whole field of moral theology.

He said he liked the analogy of a ladder used in a burglary as a way of summarizing the levels of cooperation in evil: The burglar commits the evil act and there are three people who cooperated -- the one who made the ladder, the one who sold it and the one who held it during the crime.

The manufacturer and store owner "provide material assistance to the wrongdoer; their assistance, however, is misused by another," he said. "The man who makes the ladder materially cooperates in a remote way. The owner of the hardware store materially cooperates in a proximate way. The man who holds the ladder for the burglar, however, cooperates in a formal way" and is equally guilty of the crime.

Much of the debate surrounding the issue of Catholics voting for candidates who support keeping abortion legal has focused on a note issued last summer by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a top Vatican official.

He said a Catholic who votes for a candidate precisely because of the candidate's permissive stand on abortion or euthanasia is guilty of formal cooperation in evil, but if the voter opposes the candidate's stand on those issues and votes for him on other grounds, "it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons."

Father Kopfensteiner warned against reducing public policy questions of abortion or other life issues to the question of "the existence of legal constraints."

"The emphasis on legal initiatives almost inevitably fails to address the complexity of the issues . . . . More important, identifying certain priority issues for voters to take into account runs the risk of narrowing the meaning of Catholic identity," he wrote. "Catholic identity becomes reduced to what we do not do. Such a position precludes deep and radical solutions to problems."
"All may agree that abortion is a tragic choice, but people will differ on the best strategy to reduce the number of abortions," he added.

"In light of proposed alternatives, bishops must respect the autonomy of the political process and allow voters the freedom to determine the feasibility of the various initiatives that aim to diminish the wrongdoing," he said.