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Explaining Ratzinger’s “Proportionate Reasons”

Jimmy Akin

“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.”

So wrote Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in a confidential memorandum entitled Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles that became public earlier this year.

Many Catholics were at a loss to understand the cardinal’s statement. “Isn’t Ratzinger departing from sound Catholic theology?” some wondered. Others, including well-known dissidents, pounced on the statement as vindication for their cause and wrote newspaper columns trumpeting it as proof that in the Vatican’s view it is okay to vote for pro-abortion politicians as long as you don’t share their pro-abortion view. In other words, a voter can be “personally opposed but . . .”

Both responses fail to do justice to the Cardinal’s remark. Contrary to the first response, he is not departing from the established principles of Catholic moral theology. In fact, he is emphasizing them. Contrary to the second response, he is not offering an easy pretext for voting for pro-abort politicians.

Personally, I wish he had either not added this note to his memorandum or that he had elaborated the matter further to prevent the confusion that was sure to arise from it. But he was not writing for public consumption, and this may account for his writing on such a sensitive matter with such brevity.

Let’s try to clear up the confusion.


Humans work together to achieve common goals. But cooperation is not always good, particularly when the goals being pursued or the means used to achieve them are evil. It is tempting to take a rigorist position and simply declare that all cooperation with evil is sinful, but a few moments reflection reveals problems with this position.

Sometimes our own actions may be entirely innocent, yet they may be part of a chain of events that results in evil. For example, if you work in a bookstore you might sell someone an ink pen—an action innocent in and of itself—and be totally unaware that the person is planning to plunge it into someone else’s eyeball.

By selling him the pen, you cooperated with and enabled the action of the attacker. Yet a well-formed conscience would not say that you did something wrong by selling him the pen under the conditions described above. Clearly, then, some forms of cooperation with evil in some circumstances are not sinful.

Ignorance of the evil is not the only excuse here. Sometimes force is. Suppose you are in a convenience store when you encounter a man waving a gun. He points the gun at you and tells you to load up a bag with the money from the cash register.

Doing so would involve cooperating with evil—the robbery of a convenience store—but is it licit to do so with a gun pointed at your head? The Catholic Church places a high value on private property, but neither the Church nor, in all probability, the convenience store owner would tell you that a few hundred dollars are worth your life and that you must refuse to put the loot in the bag.

There are biblical examples of cooperation with evil being justified. When John the Baptist was preaching, Roman centurions and tax collectors came to him and asked what they must do. The Roman Empire was an institution that did all kinds of horrible things (including promoting emperor worship), but did John the Baptist tell them that they were morally required to quit their jobs because they were supporting an evil empire?

No, he told them that they personally should do no evil, neither collecting more taxes than their due nor oppressing anybody or extorting money out of him. They should be content with their pay and do their jobs (cf. Luke 3:12–14). As long as they did this, the kind of cooperation they were giving the Roman Empire was morally licit in their circumstances.

Situations such as this have forced the Church to examine what are licit and illicit forms of cooperation with the evil actions of others, and one fact that has emerged clearly from this reflection is that some forms of cooperation can be morally licit. In fact, since humans are sinners, the only way to avoid cooperating with the sinful actions of others would be to avoid cooperating with human beings entirely. That not only is impossible, but it would mean not doing the good that God commands us to do regarding others.

On the scrupulous “never cooperate when evil may result” view, even saving a drowning man would be prohibited on the grounds that the man surely will go on to sin in some way. Yet God expects us to save him if we can. By withdrawing from human society to avoid cooperation with evil, we would trade perceived sins of commission for actual sins of omission.

So we’re stuck. While we are in this life we have to cooperate with other humans, even knowing that they are sinners and that our cooperation will enable their sins in some circumstances. The question is not whether we should cooperate with others, but what kinds of cooperation with others are morally legitimate.

Traditional Catholic moral theology has discerned several different forms of cooperation. We do not have space here to offer a complete list of all the different kinds that have been proposed by moral theologians, but let us focus on the two Cardinal Ratzinger mentioned.

Formal Cooperation

The first is formal cooperation, which occurs when we mentally assent to the act with which we are cooperating. For example, if someone is robbing a bank, and we help him, agreeing to the bank robbery (not because we are being forced into it), then we are formally cooperating with the heist. In such a case, we share in the moral character of the act.

Ratzinger’s example concerns voting for a candidate for office “precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia.” In such a case, by voting for him precisely because of his stand on these issues, we would be endorsing them, and thus we would be formally cooperating with abortion or euthanasia. For a Catholic to do this would result in him being “guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion.”

But not all forms of cooperation with evil are of this sort, so let us look at the other form Ratzinger names.

Remote Material Cooperation

If one does not formally cooperate with evil, he may materially cooperate. This occurs when one does an action that is not sinful in and of itself and where he does not endorse the evil that his action facilitates.

For example, in our pen-selling example, the action you performed (selling an ink pen) was not immoral in itself, nor did we consent to the evil that was to be done with it (attacking someone so as to blind him). Our cooperation in that case was material rather than formal.

There is more than one type of material cooperation, as indicated by Ratzinger’s mention of remote material cooperation. The alternative is proximate material cooperation, and the difference is how directly involved our actions are in the event.

Suppose in our pen-selling example that at the very moment you hand the pen to the attacker, he lunges for another customer and tries to blind him. You put the weapon in his hand immediately before he used it. In this case, your material involvement in what happened was proximate (near) to the commission of the evil act.

But suppose you didn’t sell him the pen but only manufactured it. In this case, you didn’t put the weapon into the attacker’s hand. You simply made it and someone else handed it to the attacker. While your actions were still part of a chain of events leading to an evil act, they were much more remote from the attack and would be described as remote material cooperation.

It should be obvious that it can be perfectly legitimate for us to have this kind of remote material involvement in what happened. If we are pen manufacturers, we need to make a living, and we can’t be expected to shut down operations simply because some people will misuse the pen points we make.

We thus have a good reason for allowing the remote material cooperation. That reason, in the language of traditional Catholic moral theology, is said to be “proportionate.”

It is important to note that the mere use of the word proportionate does not mean that one is endorsing a dissident moral theology known as “proportionalism,” which John Paul II condemned in Veritatis Splendor 75–6. This is what confused some people about the Cardinal’s note. They thought it sounded as if he was endorsing proportionalism, but he wasn’t. The word proportional may be involved, but that doesn’t result in proportionalism.

In essence, proportionalism makes the presence of a proportionate reason the sole criterion for whether an act is justifiable. In other words, you can do anything if you have a good enough reason. There are no actions that in principle can never be done.

It is clear that this is not what Ratzinger is suggesting. In fact, quite the opposite: He recognizes that some actions (such as abortion and euthanasia) are intrinsically evil and can never be justified. What he is doing is discussing how far away—how remote—your actions have to be from these for you to be able to act in good conscience.

In the case of voting for a pro-abortion politician, the act of voting is remote from the act of abortion. A person may vote for such a politician, but he usually will get elected only when this vote is combined with the votes of many others. Then, once he takes office, he has the ability to influence public policy regarding abortion, but he does not commit these actions himself (at least in his capacity as an elected official). He leaves that to doctors.

The chain of human choices that interpose between one person’s act of voting and the end act of another person committing abortion show that the voter’s cooperation with abortion is remote. If he does not approve of abortion, it is also material rather than formal.

Proportionate Reasons

Traditional Catholic moral theology allows that remote material cooperation with an evil action may be justifiable in certain circumstances. In Ratzinger’s words it “can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.” Some may find this difficult to accept, but traditional Catholic moral theology is firm on the point.

Consider a parallel: God does things that enable others to commit sins (e.g., giving them life, free will, the ability to act). He even continues to supply them with these things when they are in the very act of committing abortion and euthanasia. What the proportionate reasons are that justify God in doing this forms a major part of the problem of evil, but we do know that God is justified in all that he does. Thus Catholic moral theology is on firm ground in acknowledging that remote material cooperation with an evil can be justified when there are proportionate reasons.

We might ask: What kind of reasons could there be to vote for a pro-abortion or pro-euthanasia politician?

Here is a clear case: Suppose that in a given election either Candidate A or Candidate B is morally certain to win, but it is not clear which will win. Candidate A’s only policy is that he supports abortion, while Candidate B has two policies: He supports both abortion and euthanasia. In this case, more harm will be done to society by the election of Candidate B, and so based on principles touched on by John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae 73, one may cast one’s vote in such a way as to limit the harm done to society.

In such a situation, casting one’s vote for Candidate A does not amount to an endorsement of his policies. It represents an attempt to reign in the greater harm that otherwise will result.

This is something many seem confused about. It often appears that people regard casting their votes as if they were swearing to a particular proposition, such as “I support all of the policies of this candidate.” If that were the case, then one could never vote for a candidate with a less then 100-percent perfect set of social policy views.

But voting does not entail this. Very likely votes are not to be understood as involving propositions at all, but to the extent that they can be translated into propositions, they would be something more limited, such as “Of the options available, I want this candidate to be elected this time.”

That doesn’t involve a personal endorsement of any of the candidate’s policies. In fact, one might oppose all of a candidate’s policies and vote for him purely to keep an even worse candidate out of office.

This was the case with voting for Candidate A to prevent the election of the even worse Candidate B. Candidate A’s policy was evil, but Candidate B’s policies were even more evil.

In the real world, the principle is more difficult to apply, because candidates rarely have entirely evil platforms. Many will have elements in their platforms, alongside support for abortion and euthanasia, that Catholics are permitted to support, and some will be tempted to support them for these reasons.

Many suggested Cardinal Ratzinger was giving his blessing to voting for pro-aborts if there were enough other good things about them. But having a number of good points is not enough. As the Cardinal indicated, there must be counterbalancing reasons proportional to abortion.

Such reasons are not easy to come up with, particularly for candidates seeking offices that have the ability to impact abortion law significantly. These include the presidents who nominate Supreme Court justices and the senators who confirm them. One wants to weed out pro-abort candidates on the lowest level possible so that they can’t use their political track record to get elected to higher office. But the more impact the office has on abortion policy, the more weighty a reason must be to allow a vote for them.

What kind of reason would be needed to vote for a pro-abort candidate for president? Something unimaginably huge.

The Abortion Numbers

Consider: A million and a half new Americans are murdered every year by abortion.

While particular historical circumstances increase or decrease the number of Supreme Court appointments a president gets to make (some presidents get many and some get none), if we average out the differences, it turns out that a pro-abort president on average could extend the abortion holocaust by four years equivalent to the four-year term he spends in office.

At 1.5 million kids killed per year, that means that a pro-abort president would be responsible for extending the abortion holocaust to include six million additional murders.

When one takes into account the fact that about half of the recent presidents have had second terms, that would mean a pro-abort president would be responsible for extending the abortion holocaust to include approximately nine million Americans.

No other issue involves numbers that high. Nothing short of a full-scale nuclear or biological war between well-armed nation states would kill that many people, and we aren’t in imminent danger of having one of those.

Not even terrorists with weapons of mass destruction could kill that many people. As vital as the issue of terrorism is, it does not get us up into the number of deaths caused by abortion. It would take three thousand 9/11-size events in a president’s average term of office (more than one a day) to rack up sufficient deaths to make terrorism proportionate to abortion. Al-Qa’eda simply does not have enough suicidal fanatics to make terrorism proportionate to abortion.

Jobs? The economy? Taxes? Education? The environment? Immigration? Forget it. We do not have nine million people dying in a typical president’s term of office due to bad job programs, bad economic policies, bad taxes, bad education, bad environmental law, bad immigration rules—or even all of these combined. All of them together cannot provide a reason proportionate to the need to end abortion.

Make no mistake: Abortion is the preeminent moral issue of our time. It is the black hole that out-masses every other issue. Presenting any other issues as if they were proportionate to it is nothing but smoke and mirrors.

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