Thursday, January 28, 2016

Catholic Answers Voter's Guide is practically unusable

The Catholic Answers website has, for a few years now, published a Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics. That document attempts to provide guidance on what considerations Catholic voters in the U.S. should take into account when deciding how to cast their vote. While there are numerous accurate statements in the document, one startling omission leaves the advice practically unusable.

The Catholic Answers document correctly quotes from Church teaching:
a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.
 Which can be stated simply as: we cannot vote in favor of a moral evil.

Moral evils can be classified into two kinds:
  1. intrinsic evils -- those actions that are always wrong, regardless of the circumstances.
  2. non-intrinsic evils: those actions that are sometimes wrong, and sometimes allowable, depending on the exact circumstances surrounding the action.
We cannot vote in favor of either of these kinds of evil. They are both evil.

A voter deciding on how to vote must look for both kinds of evil. This they must do by first forming their conscience according to Catholic teaching, and then by looking at all the proposed actions and (where appropriate) the surrounding circumstances, that they are being asked to vote for. Once their conscience has decided what evils it has found, it is obliged not to vote in favor of them.

A simple example of an intrinsic evil: euthanasia. We cannot vote in favor of any political program that supports any kind of euthanasia. We do not need to look at the circumstances in which it is being applied: it is simply always wrong. (There are other kinds of intrinsic evil.)

An example of a non-intrinsic evil: the death penalty. Although the application of the death penalty by society is not an intrinsic evil, an individual voter, with a conscience well-formed by Catholic teaching, might decide that the particular surrounding circumstances in which it is proposed do make it amount to an evil. Once that individual voter has decided that this is currently the case, they would be obliged not to then vote in favor of the death penalty. (And there are other kinds of possible non-intrinsic evil.)

As the Church's teaching document quoted from above says:

The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good. Nor can a Catholic think of delegating his Christian responsibility to others
 The Catholic Answers Voter's Guide fails by completely leaving out a proper consideration of  how non-intrinsic evils can affect the conscience of voters, just as intrinsic evils also do. It renders the guide unusable in practice.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Erroneous quotation from Roman Catechism of Trent

At various places on the internet one will find (in support of a particular way of looking at the Church's teaching on the death penalty) the following quoted as coming from the Roman Catechism authorized by Trent:

The power of life and death is permitted to certain civil magistrates because theirs is the responsibility under law to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment [Thy shall not kill], such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it. For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life. This purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the State is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent lives.

The origin of this "quotation" is not clear. The problem lies in the part in bold. A reliable 19th century translation has:

The end of the commandment is the preservation and security of human life, and to the attainment of this end the punishments inflicted by the civil magistrate, who is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend, giving security to life by repressing outrage and violence.

A similar more modern translation for the bold part has:

The end of the Commandment- is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence.

The original Latin has:

Quum enim legi huic finis is propositus sit, ut hominum vitae salutique consulatur: magistratuum item, qui legitimi sunt scelerum vindices, animadversiones eodem spectant, ut audacia et iniuria suppliciis repressa, tuta sit hominum vita.

Now the two reliable translations (and the Latin if you can follow it)  indicate that the death penalty can be used in a way that has an aim towards the safety of human life. But the purported translation in bold at the top of this post refers to "fulfillment", "taking of guilty lives", and "innocent lives". Such things are simply not present in the Latin. It is not the translation of anything, but an addition from an unknown source.

One can see why such a very definite and concrete conclusion would seem like an attractive thing to provide – depending on the goal of the writer. But it simply isn't there.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A reply to a Camosy response to 'Aiming at Life'

Camosy has responded to the previous post, in a comment over at Catholic Moral Theology. I'm posting my response here also (partly because of the exceedingly narrow columns over at that blog).

Camosy: "I never once use the word 'aggressor' to describe the prenatal child who threatens her mother’s life."

I did notice that when I read your book. In an absence of your definition of 'threat', I considered two possibilities: that you meant 'threat' to refer to something distinct from 'aggression', or else that 'threat' and 'aggression' in your book really amounted to the same thing. Now prior to describing the fetus as a threat, you had pointed out some examples where Catholic teaching allows (possibly fatal) self-defense against aggressors. (The Catechism always refers to aggressors when describing permitted self-defense.) And then you stated: "If one may use deadly force to defend against the deadly threat of an innocent juvenile soldier and an innocent shooter..." But that only applies if 'threat' refers to actual aggression. So I concluded that, though it was not obvious, your argument was dependent on 'threat' referring to the same thing as aggression.

Alternatively, if your use of 'threat' doesn't refer to aggression, but to something else, then (a) what is the point of giving examples of Catholic teaching about defense against aggression?, and (b) what exactly is this 'threat', and where is the Catholic teaching about it?

The definition of 'threat' is usually something like: "an expression of intent to inflict injury", or "possible harm". In neither case does Catholic teaching simply allow a perhaps fatal self-defense as a response -- something more is needed (actual aggression, in fact).

Camosy: "...in your treatment of my argument about RU-486 you miss the fact that such an abortion may not aim at death by intention, and then we are talking about indirect abortion and onto proportionate reasoning. Without argument you then claim that there is no due proportion in the cases I propose. But even if you are correct about this, making a moral mistake with respect to proportionality is not the same as aiming at death. It would not be a direct abortion."

Let me make my argument in a different, more general, form. Suppose someone is considering performing some specific action which appears to have a good direct effect, A, and a bad side-effect, B. On evaluating the relative good and evil effects, they note that the evil of B is actually much worse than the good of A. If at that point they decide that A is so personally attractive that they go ahead and perform the act anyway, they are now in the situation of intending B -- not as an end, but as a means. (I.e. they could avoid any overall evil simply by choosing not to perform the act at all. Instead, they choose to allow the evil of B, since otherwise they don't get the good of A. That makes B a means. That also makes it intentional. And thus, direct.) The preceding argument can be applied to the taking of RU-486: the good effect being something like "relief from a burden", and the bad effect being the death of the fetus. The disproportionate evil ends up being intended (i.e. direct).

Camosy: "Third, inducing labor is clearly an abortion of pregnancy."

A very common definition of abortion is the ending of a pregnancy before viability. Sometimes "abortion" is additionally used to describe cases where the death of the child is going to occur, even though it is viable. However, simply the fact that labor has been induced doesn't mean it is an abortion.

Camosy: "Indeed, if you accept that what was done in that 2009 America magazine case is legitimate..."

What was described there was commendable. The parents were thinking of an early induction (i.e. pre-viable), which the Catholic hospital declined to help with. The parents were then persuaded to change their mind, and they decided to go with either induction at full-term, or a natural birth. From the given data, it is not clear which of those two occurred. But no abortion of any kind occurred, whether direct or indirect.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Aiming at Life

Charles Camosy, a Catholic theologian and Associate Professor at Fordham, has published a book, "Beyond the Abortion Wars", that aims at finding some way of making progress against the apparent current stalemate in abortion politics. That's certainly a worthwhile aim. Does he do it while remaining within Catholic teaching? I think there are particular points at which he does not stick within Catholic understanding, and that this problem considerably muddies his suggestions for how to move forward.

First problem: Claim that self-defense is conditional on innocence of the aggressor. Camosy considers the moral principle "it is always wrong to aim at the death of an innocent person", and then examines the situation where an innocent person (e.g. a brainwashed child soldier, or someone insane) performs an act of aggression which must must be defended against, with perhaps fatal results for the aggressor. Isn't that, he suggests, killing an innocent? Camosy spends some time examining the word "innocent", and its implications for the moral principle. He suggests that such aggressors are formally innocent, but not materially innocent, and by this means rescues the moral principle.

But Camosy's discussion is misdirected. In responding to an act of aggression, a legitimate self-defense does not involve any intention of harm to the aggressor (Catechism #2263). The innocence or otherwise of the aggressor does not affect whether self-defense is permissible. Neither death, nor any other harm, is intentionally inflicted on the aggressor. Indeed, any intentional inflicting of harm on the aggressor would make the self-defense into an impermissible act. Camosy himself refers to this idea, but in a sub-note at the end. Quite why he then spends time, in the main body of the text,  examining the word "innocent" is far from clear, because it is not relevant to issues of permissible self-defense.

Second problem: Claim that a fetus can be an aggressor. Camosy points out that Popes Pius XII and John Paul II state that the fetus is not an unjust aggressor (a point which in fact had been fairly settled quite some time before their time). A fetus can't be a formal aggressor, because it lacks the necessary mental outlook. But more specifically, John Paul II says: "In no way could this human being ever be considered an aggressor, much less an unjust aggressor! He or she is weak, defenseless, even to the point of lacking that minimal form of defense consisting in the poignant power of a newborn baby's cries and tears. The unborn child is totally entrusted to the protection and care of the woman carrying him or her in the womb." This rules against the fetus even being considered as a material aggressor; since it lacks the physical capacity. In which case, the kind of legitimate defense permitted against aggressors (which may include unintended harm) is not possible against a fetus.

Yet Camosy goes on to suppose, and rely on the fact, that the fetus can be a material aggressor, without explaining how this can be reconciled with John Paul II.

Third problem: Claim that use of RU-486 is indirect abortion. Camosy raises the question as to whether taking RU-486 should count as a direct abortion. (The definition of a direct abortion is one that is intended, either as an end or as a means. An indirect abortion is one that is not intended, but occurs as a side-effect of accomplishing some other intention.) He points out that the mechanism by which  RU-486 acts is as an antiprogesterone, which causes detachment of the fetus from the uterus, and leads to its death. But he does not indicate why this might be of any significance in deciding whether the abortion is direct or indirect. Direct is an issue of intention, not of the method of physical action.

Camosy also claims that in using RU-486, the intention could be to detach the fetus (to be more precise: to relieve yourself of an unwanted burden), rather than to kill the fetus — and that the death of the fetus would then be foreseen, but not intended. But this is also not sufficient to conclude that the abortion would be indirect. That's because where we have an intended good effect (relief from a burden) and an unintended evil effect (death of the fetus), we have to use the principle of double effect. And in this case there is no proportion between the good and the evil — the evil of the death of the fetus is much worse that the good of the relief of a burden. In such circumstances, anyone choosing the act would in fact be choosing an overall evil, which is never permitted. This turns it into a direct abortion.

Fourth problem: Claim that some direct abortions are legitimate. Camosy (by using various arguments that depend in different ways on the first three problems itemized here) concludes that some rare direct abortions are legitimate. This flatly contradicts the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which declares that direct abortions are always a grave moral disorder.

Fifth problem: Vague treatment of indirect abortion. Camosy is sometimes unclear on exactly what constitutes an indirect abortion. For example, he describes a case reported in America magazine in 2009 which, as the details show, was neither an early induction nor any kind of abortion, indirect or otherwise; yet he goes on to repeatedly consider it as an exemplar of both. In other places he refers to a cesarean section as an example of indirect abortion, whereas it can be either direct or indirect, wholly depending on the circumstances.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Vaccination never mandatory?

Following up from a prior discussion on vaccination, Dr. Jeff Mirus at Catholic Culture makes a slightly cryptic claim:

...it is a serious error—to morally condemn those who elect not to cooperate remotely with evil in this case, based on the perceived consequences of their decision. It is important to remember that while remote material cooperation with evil is permissible, no cooperation with evil can ever be mandatory. Forgetting this causes people to slip into the faulty logic of consequentialism. Only the prudence of the decision is up for legitimate debate.

Is this right? No; or at best it is highly misleading. Since formal (i.e. intended) cooperation with evil is never permissible, the claim must be referring to cooperation that occurs as a side-effect of some other good and intended goal. For example, if my goal in using a vaccine is to prevent some serious illness, that is certainly a good goal, even though it may have the side-effect of passive, remote cooperation with an evil (e.g. it may falsely seem to others that you support using aborted fetuses to develop vaccines). This is then a classic case of double effect -- I intend a good act which has an unintended evil effect. Then if the amount of good achieved by the act exceeds the evil, it becomes a morally permissible act.

If we suppose some situation where the good act is easy to accomplish, and the good far outweighs the unintended harm, it may simply be the case that the only possible prudent decision would be to perform the act. In other words, it is entirely possible for circumstances to exist where a good act would indeed be mandatory, despite the unintended cooperation with evil.