A Remote Material Controversy

November 16, 2008 § 19 Comments

A number of people have pointed out this to me:

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) – A South Carolina Roman Catholic priest has told his parishioners that they should refrain from receiving Holy Communion if they voted for Barack Obama because the Democratic president-elect supports abortion, and supporting him “constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil.”

Much as I am temperamentally inclined to support the priest, and I’m also inclined to believe that the confidence many have that they personally voted for Obama without sin is unwarranted, in this case the priest is wrong on the moral theology.

We can consider Catholic Obama voters in two general categories: those who voted for Obama in spite of his wicked and vicious policies, for other reasons, while opposing his wicked and vicious policies; and those who voted for him because of and in support of his wicked and vicious policies. The former is remote material cooperation with grave evil, which can be justified in the presence of a proportionate reason (that is, can be justified either implicitly or explicitly under the principle of double-effect); the latter is formal cooperation with grave evil and is always itself gravely wrong. Formal cooperation with grave evil is “grave matter”; remote material cooperation with grave evil is not (necessarily) grave matter. Mortal sin requires grave matter, knowledge, and deliberate consent. An Obama voter who voted for him because of his support for legal abortion has knowingly and deliberately chosen grave evil: that is, has committed mortal sin.

That is why Cardinal Ratzinger, in a private letter to Cardinal McCarrick during the 2004 Presidential campaign controversy over politicians and Communion, wrote:

“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 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.”

Now I happen to believe that there was no proportionate reason to vote for Obama (or McCain, for that matter, but that’s a whole ‘nother story), which means it was objectively wrong to vote for Obama even if one did so while opposing his evil policies like his support for legal abortion; but that doesn’t make voting for Obama in itself grave matter. It is objectively wrong to tell a white lie, but it isn’t grave matter to tell a white lie. Telling a white lie is venial sin: we shouldn’t do it, but it doesn’t cut us off from the Sacraments, which are the ordinary means of salvation. And remote material cooperation with grave evil is not necessarily grave matter. (That isn’t to say that it is never grave matter; just that it is not necessarily grave matter).

So a Catholic who voted for Obama in part because of Obama’s support for legal abortion should indeed go to confession and do penance before presenting himself to receive the Blessed Sacrament. A Catholic who voted for Obama for other reasons while firmly disagreeing with Obama’s support for legal abortion does not necessarily have to do that.

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§ 19 Responses to A Remote Material Controversy

  • I’m not sure I understand. If I commit a mortal sin, even though I am not subjectively culpable, aren’t I still required to confess and do penance? In other words, my entirely subjective non-culpability in, let’s say, using contraception, doesn’t relieve me of the duty to properly inform my conscience and, once informed, to confess the sin and do penance before receiving my next communion. Or am I wrong about this?

  • To follow up, voting for Obama is either remote material cooperation with grave evil without proportionate reason, or it isn’t.I’m not sure myself, but if voting for Obama is, objectively, remote material cooperation with grave evil without proportionate reason (which I thought had been your argument all along), how is it possible that such a vote is <>not<> in itself <>grave matter<>?

  • zippy says:

    <>I’m not sure I understand. If I commit a mortal sin, even though I am not subjectively culpable, aren’t I still required to confess and do penance?<>Yes, that is right. But you aren’t required to confess every <>venial<> sin. (In fact receiving the Eucharist worthily – that is, free of mortal sin, properly disposed, having fasted, etc. – forgives all venial sin, as I understand it).The distinction drawn here is between:1) Formal cooperation with grave evil, and2) Remote material cooperation with grave evilThe former is grave matter; the latter is not (necessarily) grave matter, and indeed is not necessarily illicit at all, depending on whether or not there is in fact a proportionate reason to do it.

  • zippy says:

    <>I’m not sure myself, but if voting for Obama is, objectively, remote material cooperation with grave evil without proportionate reason (which I thought had been your argument all along), how is it possible that such a vote is not in itself grave matter?<>Because the act of voting <>in itself<>, that is, simply as a behavior, is not all that significant: it is very remote indeed from the grave evil with which it cooperates. That remoteness doesn’t matter in the case of <>formal<> cooperation with grave evil. Formal cooperation with grave evil is always grave matter, no matter how remote. In fact that was the basis of my controversial < HREF="https://zippycatholic.wordpress.com/2008/04/spooky-intentions-at-distance.html" REL="nofollow">posts arguing<> that bloggers who stated that Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube ought to be pulled were, assuming they were honestly expressing their intentions, formally cooperating in her murder.

  • I see. Thanks for explaining. It would seem to follow, however, that remotely cooperating with evil by voting in a national election, due to what one mistakenly thinks or non-culpably believes is a proportionate reason, cannot be gravely evil in itself, no matter the evil being cooperated with, and no matter the proportionate reason for so doing, whether real or imagined. You might say that such a vote could be gravely evil in an extremely close election, or in a “battleground” state, but in that case the vote is important enough that material cooperation is no longer “remote”.In other words, the remoteness of the vote means that, under the circumstances described above, such a vote is <>never<> gravely evil.

  • Come to think of it, I think the proportionate reason itself (whether objectively proportionate or not) could change the gravity of the act. So what might these proportionate reasons be in Obama’s case?

  • zippy says:

    <>In other words, the remoteness of the vote means that, under the circumstances described above, such a vote is never gravely evil.<>I am open to, but not committed to, that possibility.<>I think the proportionate reason itself (whether objectively proportionate or not) could change the gravity of the act.<>It could indeed. For example, if one opposed Obama’s abortion policies but voted for him to impress a girl that would probably be gravely wrong, though I’m not sure. There are all sorts of directions to go with actual and perceived-but-mistaken proportionate reasons, and I don’t really know what a true taxonomy of real and perceived proportionate reasons would look like. That is why I say that it (voting for Obama as remote material cooperation with grave evil) isn’t <>necessarily<> grave matter: it might be, it might not be, and the are’s and are not’s in that space are well beyond what I was trying to say in the post.

  • Anonymous says:

    Zippy et al.Here’s a pretty good summary over at ‘The Lazy Disciple’http://fidetrat.blogspot.com/2008/11/sc-priest-no-communion-for-obama.html-Chris M

  • Anonymous says:

    I agree. Thank God for this courageous priest who is willing to teach the truth to his sheep. Let us pray that other priests will follow his lead.Miguel

  • Anonymous says:

    “A Catholic who voted for Obama for other reasons while firmly disagreeing with Obama's support for legal abortion does not necessarily have to do that.”Oh how the tune is so affectionately changed when it comes to Obama!When it came to his anti-McCain campaign, Zippy made it seem that those who would go so far as to vote against Obama by voting for Obama to prevent the kind of vicious Pro-Abort administration that now threatens our Catholic hospitals, a administration set to expand & enlarge the Holocaust that is Abortion as well as the federal funding of destructive embryo ESCR, made it seem that such a vote was the most evil act in the world!Now, he makes a vote for Obama seem nothing more serious than a <>white lie<>!

  • zippy says:

    That is complete baloney, Anon, as anyone who paid even the slightest attention to what I wrote would know. I <>never<> suggested that voting for McCain while opposing his evil policies (e.g. ESCR) was <>mortally sinful<>. Ever. On a number of occasions in the combox wars I suggested that other than through <>formal<> cooperation with evil (that is, when the voter <>supports<> the evil policies) it seemed unlikely to me that voting wrongly could constitute more than venial sin.

  • Anonymous says:

    Dear Zippy,You are missing the real category. It is (the more general category) mediate material cooperation which is concurrence in the sinful action not in such a way that one actually places the act or concurrs in the evil intention, but supplies aid to the act and so also is an occasion of sin to the actor. In this case, proximity and necessity must be measured and the good sought be proportional to the evil not intended. A very good argument could be made that a vote is in our system proximate and necessary to Obama’s FOCA intention and therefore grave matter (since everyone agrees that there is no proportion with a good.) That is one reason why Fr. Newman is right. The Church doesn’t need to know the exact subjective state of a believer to impede access to communion. (E.g., see latae sententiae canons.) If someone has been told that an act is wrong (as did 80 bishops)and then puts the act, Newman need not read minds to assume culpability!Theology Professor

  • zippy says:

    Well Professor, I have at least two objections to understanding a vote for Obama as <>proximate<> material cooperation with his wicked policy positions. One is that the Church teaches that it is <>remote<> material cooperation when the voter opposes the specific wicked policies of a candidate, and while the authority of this teaching is debatable it nevertheless seems sound. The second is the sauce for the goose problem: if that <>were<> the nature of a vote as an act, it would mean that, for example, voting for McCain would be grave matter as proximate material cooperation with his ESCR advocacy. But I don’t think that is reasonable: it depends very much on the voter’s intentions, that is, <>why<> he voted for McCain. Now I have argued that there was objectively no proportionate reason to vote for McCain, but I think it is just flat wrong to suggest that voting for him <>for any reason<> was grave matter, no matter why the voter did it.

  • Anonymous says:

    Catholic who voted for Obama for reasons other than abortion should feel a moral obligation to make sure Pres-elect Obama is aware that their support for him stops when and if he enacts laws relaxing restrictions or making it even easier to procure an abortion. Make it clear that if he does the bidding of the far left with respect to life issues, there won’t be a 2012 win in his future

  • decker2003 says:

    Let us suppose that, in fact, there was no proportionate reason to justify the remote material cooperation involved in voting for Obama. Let us then imagine a voter who took reasonable steps to form his conscience in this regard and concluded that, in fact, the Congress would not pass FOCA, there will not be any Supreme Court vacancies in the next four years, etc. leading this voter to conclude that, although Obama’s positions were reprehensible, his ability to change policy in accordance with those positions was minimal. Based on that factual conclusion, he concluded that proportionate reasons did exist and voted for Obama.In this case we have a voter who has committed an objectively evil act, but due to a mistake of fact (Obama’s ability to influence policy), not any confusion about the relevant doctrinal principles. His conscience has erred, but he has not rejected any authoritative teaching of the church. Moreover, his error may be reasonable in that his factual conclusions, while erroneous, are at least plausible.In classical moral theology, I believe we would say this is a case of objective sin, an erroneous conscience, but that there is no culpability because the voter took reasonable steps to form his conscience and then acted in accordance with his conscience. Would it be appropriate to tell him that he must not receive communion until he has repented and been absolved? On what basis does the pastor claim to have special expertise with respect to the factual bases on which the practial judgment is based?If you answer yes, please be ready to explain why our pastors should be telling all those who took the wrong position on the Iraq War — whichever position that is — that they too must not receive communion until they have repented and been absolved.

  • zippy says:

    <>If you answer yes, please be ready to explain why our pastors should be telling all those who took the wrong position on the Iraq War — whichever position that is — that they too must not receive communion until they have repented and been absolved.<>Exactly. I just don’t see how it is ever possible to develop a category of remote material cooperation with evil wherein <>every<> act in that category, independent of intentions, is grave matter. We can certainly develop categories of remote material cooperation with evil which are <>always objectively wrong<> independent of intentions: these would all be proper subsets of remote material cooperation with evil without a proportionate reason. It is in understanding these categories that I think the notion of voting non-negotiables may have some traction: it is possible I think to say that in thus-and-such circumstances there is not a proportionate reason, thereby defining a category of non-negotiable. But I don’t think it is possible to develop a category of acts of remote material cooperation with evil which are always <>grave matter<> independent of intentions. Sure, in <>some<> cases violating a voting non-negotiable is mortal sin (as in the case of <>formal<> cooperation with evil); but I don’t think it is possible to make a category of circumstances (independent of intentions) C and say that every vote in C is necessarily mortal sin.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I think that in our hearts all of us on what I might call the conservative side of this whole thing strongly suspect, though, that anybody who claimed to be pro-life and voted for Obama does not really have a rightly-formed conscience regarding the true evil of abortion and the other Democrat positions (gay “marriage,” for example), and probably also has a wrongly-formed conscience regarding the evil of war per se and the pretended moral equivalence between lives lost as non-deliberate collateral damage and lives deliberately taken in acts of murder. I think also there is a very strong streak of utilitarianism–we should try to “save lives” through welfare. And then there is wishful thinking to the effect that Obama’s policies are likely actually to decrease the number of abortions, wishful thinking which I believe is fueled by a liking, generally, for more leftist policies and shallow thinking about government handouts and “compassion.”Now, if this analysis–which no doubt many will say is uncharitable–is correct, then I think a so-called “pro-lifer” who voted for Obama has some very serious problems that he needs to resolve, beginning with self-deception. How this relates to Catholic doctrine as to when one needs to go to confession before receiving Communion, I won’t pretend to say. But I’d like to think that happy lefties who don’t really care *all that much* about the homosexual rights movement, who haven’t truly internalized the grave evil of abortion and the additional evil of its legality, and who salve their conscience by voting for leftist candidates under the banner of “compassion” are in _some_ sense not Catholics in good standing.

  • Anonymous says:

    “If you answer yes, please be ready to explain why our pastors should be telling all those who took the wrong position on the Iraq War — whichever position that is — that they too must not receive communion until they have repented and been absolved.”This is the reprehensible thing that I find in Catholics who share this sort of reasoning; what false equivalency!

  • […] lying to get women to have sex with them.  And I’ve even been known to criticize priests, on an intellectual technicality, for failing to follow the […]

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