Harry Potter and the Vote for the NARAL Candidate
May 21, 2008 § 41 Comments
A reader asked me via email about the Doug Kmiec kerfuffle. I have to plead a combination of ignorance and ambivalence on the subject: I simply haven’t studied the matter closely enough to be able to address it as a particular matter. I do expect that denying him Communion was a misapplication of Canon Law.
However, an interesting and more general question is raised by the hubbub. Clearly it is abstractly possible for a Catholic to vote for Barack Obama without formally supporting his abortion platform. But abstract possibility and actual possibility are not the same thing. It is abstractly possible for this world to be a Harry Potter world: for example, it is abstractly possible for things to appear and disappear at my command. The thing is, though, that in this actual world, they don’t.
And it is upon precisely this kind of actual impossibility, as distinguished from abstract impossibility, that the Catholic doctrine of intrinsic immorality and formal cooperation with evil rests.
Let me explain.
One way to describe an intrinsically immoral act is as an objective behavior (object) which it is actually impossible for a fully informed person to choose with a right intention. He may claim the conceivability of the contrary, and the contrary may indeed be conceivable, that is, abstractly possible in much the same way that a Harry Potter world is abstractly possible. But it isn’t actually possible for him to choose that behavior with a fully informed good will.
Formal cooperation with evil is a broader category of acts which, as I understand it, includes intrinsically immoral acts but also other acts besides: to formally cooperate with evil is to do anything whatsoever with a wrong intention.
And yes, ignorance can excuse partially or even (in the case of invincible ignorance) completely the culpability for an evil act. But an evil act remains an evil act even when the imputability of its evil to the acting subject is in doubt: as Pope John Paul II tells us, and I’ve repeated many times, “It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good.“
The point, for my purposes here, is that formal cooperation with evil and intrinsic evil rest on an actual connection between a morally good, fully informed will and particular objective behaviors. That is, they rest on the fact that in actuality one simply cannot choose an intrinsically immoral behavior (either directly or by proxy) with a fully informed and morally good will. In particular, avoidance of intrinsic evil and formal cooperation with evil does not rest on the mere conceivability or abstract possibility of having a good will under the circumstances: it does not rest on a fundamental option disconnected from an actual concrete choice in the actual world we live in.
Now I can conceive the abstract possibility of voting for Obama without intending his NARAL agenda (recalling that to intend something is to make it an object of choice, not to want it: we choose things while wishing we did not have to choose them every day). I can conceive that because God gave me the gift of a very powerful and creative imagination.
But I have a much more difficult time conceiving of it as an actual possibility.