An error in: Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship

Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (FCFC) is a teaching document of the USCCB on the participation by Catholics in civil politics. Overall, the document is well-written and offers many good insights into the conflicts between the Catholic conscience and the political system of sinful secular society. The latest version of this document (late 2015) is an update of the earlier editions, published in 2007 and 2011. Note that the document is released or updated in the year before each U.S. Presidential election. FCFC is lengthy, so I’ll focus this post on one narrow topic: a particular error on the principles of cooperation with evil.

Catholic Teaching on Cooperation

The Magisterium has a well-known set of teachings on cooperation with evil. These principles answer the question: What should you do when your act is related to the sinful act of another person? The answer can be explained in terms of the three fonts of morality: (1) intention, (2) moral object, (3) circumstances.

(1) Intention – The first font is the intended end: the purpose or reason for choosing the act. To be moral, every human act must have only good in its intended end. If the intended end is bad, the act is a sin.

Explicit Cooperation: When you intend to cooperate with whatever is sinful in the act of another person, you sin by explicit cooperation. This type of cooperation is always immoral because any bad intention makes any act a sin.

Implicit cooperation, by contrast, occurs when your cooperative act is chosen by you without intending to cooperate with whatever is sinful in the act of the other person. Implicit cooperation can be moral or immoral, depending on the other two fonts.

(2) Moral object – the morality of the second font is determined by the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered; this end is called the moral object.

Morality concerns the knowingly chosen acts of human persons. The second font is the deliberate and knowing choice of a concrete act (the chosen act in a particular case). But every knowingly chosen act has an inherent moral meaning before the eyes of God; this meaning is its moral nature or moral “species” (the type of act, in terms of morality). For example, there are a million different ways to commit theft, but despite all the differences between each concrete act, each has the moral nature of theft. Every concrete act has a moral nature, good or evil.

The moral nature of the knowingly chosen concrete act is determined by the end toward which the concrete act is intrinsically ordered (inherently directed) — its moral object. Every concrete act of theft is ordered toward depriving the owner of his goods. This deprivation of goods is contrary to the love of God and neighbor, and so it is an evil object. And when the moral object is evil, the concrete act is intrinsically evil and always immoral. For the moral nature of an act is nothing other than its inherent ordering toward its object.

When a person knowingly and deliberately chooses any concrete act, he also necessarily always chooses (at least implicitly) the moral nature and moral object of that concrete act. These three components of the act are inseparable: concrete act, moral nature, moral object. The choice of an intrinsically evil act is the choice of its evil object.

Formal cooperation: When your knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered toward assisting the intrinsically evil act of another person in attaining its evil moral object, then your act is also intrinsically evil. Formal cooperation is intrinsically evil and always immoral, regardless of whether the cooperation is explicit or implicit. So, even if you do not intend to cooperate with whatever is evil in the act of the other person, the knowing and deliberate choice of formal cooperation is always wrong.

(3) Circumstances — The morality of this font depends on the totality of the foreseeable consequences for all persons affected by the act. If the reasonably anticipated bad consequences morally outweigh the reasonably anticipated good consequences, then the act is always a sin. It is always wrong to act when you realize your act will do more harm than good.

Material cooperation: When your act is related to the sinful act of another person by the circumstances, the cooperation is material. Material cooperation is moral or immoral, depending on the totality of the reasonably anticipated consequences of your act.

In general, remote material cooperation is moral and proximate material cooperation is immoral. Cooperation is proximate when your act is closely related to the sin of the other person; cooperation is remote when it is not closely related. The gravity of the sin of the other person, the extent of your cooperation, and any harm that would occur if you fail to act must all be considered, along with the possibility of scandal.

Types of cooperation:
Explicit formal cooperation — always immoral due to a bad intention and an evil moral object.
Implicit formal cooperation — always immoral due to an evil moral object.
Explicit material cooperation — always immoral due to a bad intention; more sinful if the material cooperation is also immoral.
Implicit material cooperation — may or may not be moral, depending on the circumstances.

Nothing prevents a cooperative act from being both formal and material cooperation, in which case the act is immoral due to an evil moral object, and more sinful if the material cooperation is also immoral.

Error in FCFC

The document FCFC correctly states that it is immoral to vote with the intention of promoting an intrinsically evil act. But the type of cooperation is incorrectly stated:

“A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil.” (FCFC 34).

The intent to support a position favoring a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act can be more simply stated as the intention to promote an intrinsically evil act. Such an intention constitutes explicit cooperation, and so it is always immoral due to a bad intention. However, it is not also formal cooperation because the person is voting for the candidate, not for the particular law or policy.

Proof that this type of cooperation, in FCFC 34, is not formal is found in the ensuing paragraphs (35, 36). Formal cooperation is always immoral. But the FCFC allows that a Catholic may morally vote for such a candidate:

“There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.” (FCFC 35).

The reason for an act is the first font, the intention or intended end. When the intention is to promote an intrinsically evil act, the choice is explicit cooperation due to the bad intention. When the intention is good (“morally grave reasons”), the same act of voting can be moral. But since formal cooperation is never moral, this voting choice must not be formal cooperation.

Explicit cooperation is always either formal or material. But if your bad intention is not accompanied by anything in your act, whether in its object or its circumstances, that is related to the act of the other person, then you are sinning by your bad intention as a perpetrator, not a cooperator. Explicit material cooperation is immoral, even when the material cooperation is itself remote and moral, since a bad intention makes any act a sin.

The next paragraph in FCFC further reinforces my analysis.

“When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.” (FCFC 36).

The document again allows voting for a candidate who promotes an intrinsically evil act, just as described in FCFC 34, as long as the intention of the voter is good: to advance other authentic human goods, and not to advance the morally flawed position of the candidate. In this way, FCFC indicates that such a vote is not intrinsically evil, and therefore not formal cooperation.

Pope Saint John Paul II: “Christians, like all people of good will, are called upon under grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law. Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil.” (Evangelium Vitae 74).

Formal cooperation is never moral. Material cooperation is sometimes moral. So this type of voting decision, to vote for a candidate despite his promotion of intrinsically evil acts, is material, not formal. An example of this same type of voting decision, though in this case by a legislator, is found in Evangelium Vitae:

Pope Saint John Paul II: “A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favouring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations-particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation-there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.” (Evangelium Vitae 73).

So the error in FCFC is in calling a particular type of voting decision “formal cooperation in grave evil” (FCFC 34), when the cooperation is actually explicit material cooperation. The judgment that this type of cooperation is always wrong is correct, but only due to the bad intention, as the same document makes clear in the next two paragraphs. So essentially FCFC contradicts itself. The corrected text should read:

“In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of explicit material cooperation in grave evil.”

The only change needed is to substitute “explicit material” for “formal”. Otherwise, the document correctly present the teaching of the Church on intrinsically evil acts and voting.

Note that FCFC rejects the idea, proposed by Cardinal Burke and others, that a Catholic can never morally vote for a candidate who favors the promotion or legalization of any intrinsically evil act.

Proxy Voting

When a Catholic votes for a candidate or a party — rather than for a constitutional amendment, referendum, law, or policy — the act of voting is not intrinsically evil. You are voting for a person or a group of persons, not for an intrinsically evil law or act. However, when the vote for a person or party is essentially a proxy for an amendment, referendum, law, or policy, then the vote could possibly be intrinsically evil.

For example, suppose that in an election for parties (as is common in the European system) the only major issue is abortion. The pro-abortion party promises to make or keep abortion widely legal and readily available on demand. The pro-life party promises to outlaw all direct abortion (or to restrict abortion to a great extent). In such a case, the voter is actually choosing between two issues, not two parties or two politicians. And since the choice is directly related to whether the intrinsically evil and gravely immoral act of abortion is widely legalized or greatly restricted, the Catholic voter is obligated to vote for the pro-life party. A vote for the pro-abortion party would be intrinsically evil because it is essentially nothing other than a vote to promote and approve of abortion.

But in general, a vote for a person or party affects many issues, and such a vote is not a proxy for promoting or restricting an intrinsically evil gravely immoral act (one which should be illegal).

Intrinsically Evil Acts

Should every intrinsically evil act be illegal? No, it should not be. For example, a law forbidding all lying would be impossible to enforce in most cases, and would require excessive intrusion of the secular government in private life. In another example, a law forbidding blasphemy would place the secular courts and legislatures in charge of deciding what is and is not blasphemy. The result would be government control and intrusion over private religious belief and public freedom of speech and religion.

Not all intrinsically evil acts should be illegal. Therefore, it is not necessarily immoral to vote for a candidate who would make or keep an intrinsically evil act legal. The types of intrinsically evil acts that should never be legal are those which fall under the proper authority of the government, such as to protect innocent life and to protect the foundational components of society, including marriage.

FCFC sidesteps this distinction by condemning the “promotion” of intrinsically evil acts, rather than mere legalization. No type of intrinsically evil act should ever be promoted. Perhaps lying and blasphemy and some other intrinsically evil acts should be legal — not so as to approve or promote such acts, but because they fall solely under the authority of Church and conscience to condemn, rather than the secular government.

Vote your Conscience

In order to vote morally and in accord with Catholic teaching, the Catholic voter must learn the moral teachings of the Church. Most Catholics are poorly catechized. So their consciences are dimly lit and often misguided. There is no substitute for proper instruction in moral theology. If you wish your voting decision to be moral, you must learn the basic principles of ethics taught by the Church.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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