In her article "Catholics as Citizens" (11/1), M. Cathleen Kaveny calls for new moral thinking to address the complex ethical dilemmas facing Catholics today. Kaveny argues that the moral theological category of "cooperation with evil" is insufficient to address questions such as whether Catholics can vote for a pro-choice politician or shop in a big-box store if some of the products are made in sweatshops. In such an environment it is necessary to "develop new ways of analyzing the involvement of individuals in systemic structures of complicity." America asked Lisa Sowle Cahill, John A. Coleman, S.J., and Lisa Fullam to address these and other issues raised by Professor Kaveny's article.
“Theoretical principles and ideal or absolute values are not enough to set the moral rules.”
Lisa Sowle Cahill
Cathleen Kaveny helps us recognize a basic fact about moral agency: individuals are always embedded in historical, cultural and social collectivities, networks, and patterns of action. The “aggregated agency” and “currents of action” in which we participate sometimes dilute or diminish the results of our personal decisions. Yet they also give our decisions power to reach across time and space, affecting an indefinite number of other people and social realities. The traditional principles of moral theology (such as double effect, direct and indirect intention, and cooperation) are not adequate to define what moral responsibility requires in the face of these new or at least newly recognized developments.
The idea, for example, that indirect causation of evil is inherently less wrong than direct causation becomes problematic once we recognize that all social causation is necessarily indirect as far as the individual is concerned; but it is precisely participation in social collectivities or movements that magnifies and extends the power of one.
One factor that needs greater attention in analyzing the morality of collective behavior is the importance of firm grounding in reliable factual evidence about actual and likely outcomes. Theoretical principles (double effect, cooperation) and ideal or “absolute” values (unborn life, women’s well-being) are not enough to set the moral rules. To understand what “incentives and pressures” social agents are likely to produce or reinforce by their policies and behavior requires data from the social sciences, for example.
It is interesting to apply the criterion of substantiated social prediction to the behavior of “the church” itself as a collective social agent, or constellation of such agents. (These include the Vatican, bishops’ conferences, religious orders, entities in Catholic education, the Catholic Health Association and other Catholic-affiliated organizations.) On abortion, for example, there is good evidence that illegality of abortion in any given nation does not correlate with prevalence of abortion; and domestically, studies have shown abortion rates decline in states where social services for pregnant women (like health care) are more generous. Moreover, polling data from the Pew Center shows that Catholics who oppose health care reform are much less concerned about abortion than they are fearful of government control and expense, and anxious that their own health care not suffer when benefits are extended more widely.
In their recent book, American Grace, social scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell argue that the increasing identification of organized religion with conservative politics is causing increasing disaffection among young adults. Beyond being ineffectual, do Catholic abortion politics create a huge distraction from the message of just access to health care, and tacitly validate voters who want to protect their own coverage but not pay for others, while actually scandalizing young people who are still idealistic enough to care about social justice? Such consequences cannot be dismissed as merely indirect or remote cooperation in outcomes that Catholic agents do not want.
Kaveny is absolutely right that we are morally responsible for the coordinated action we take or fail to take, and that social agency should not be eclipsed by personal moral absolutes. We also don’t have to choose between being a pilgrim or a prophet. It is a matter of when to engage in either mode, and on the basis of what evidence and to what probable effect.
Lisa Sowle Cahill is a professor of theology at Boston College and the author of many books, including Sex, Gender and Christian Ethics.
“Catholics should not be, lightly, called to heroic and exceedingly costly virtue.”
John A. Coleman, S.J.
Cathleen Kaveny has done us all a notable service in recalling very traditional Catholic moral theology about direct versus indirect (or more remote) material cooperation with evil. She notes that new social conditions, and a society increasingly based on networking, shifts but does not wipe out these distinctions.
Kaveny' s example of the taxi driver taking drunks to the Los Vegas strip reminded me that when I was taught these moral distinctions 45 years ago by Joseph Farraher S.J. Farraher enjoyed a reputation as a relatively strict or conservative moral theologian. Yet he once said in class that a taxi driver asked to drive someone to a place where abortions might be performed was, certainly, as such, not subject to excommunication for doing so. He claimed it was remote cooperation in evil. (Farraher was fiercely opposed to abortion.)
Kaveney's distinction between pilgrims and prophets also resonate with me, as does her evoking of alternative forms of protest, such as boycotts. I remember during the Vietnam War (which I judged an immoral war and thus returned my draft card), I withheld in protest a phone tax, levied to support the war, from my phone bill each month. Though the phone company continued to provide my landline, periodically the government seized the equivalent of the tax from my bank account. I did not, at that time, assume my many friends who paid the tax were, ipso facto, directly cooperating in evil.
Ordinarily, I have always thought Catholics should not be, lightly, called to “heroic” and “exceedingly costly” virtue. Thomas Aquinas teaches something similar. Sometimes, of course, such virtue is demanded of us. Even the “prophet,” however, remains a “pilgrim” in many areas of his or her life. Again, Kaveny helps us to gauge or ask how “seemingly” virtuous or well-meant actions can carry counterintuitive consequences. While Catholic moral theology is not consequentialist, traditional Catholic casuistry always demanded that we weigh—as best we can—the likely consequences, before we take action.
John A. Coleman, S.J., is a sociologist and assistant pastor at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco, Calif.
"Yet opposite scandal is still scandal—it still leads people to a misunderstanding of moral truth."
Cathleen Kaveny’s essay raises urgent questions about individual responsibility in the face of structural evil. She points out the shortcomings of cooperation in addressing complex moral, social and political problems. I want to expand on another bad side-effect of over-reliance on cooperation: over-emphasis on scandal.
As Kaveny states, one of the questions we ask in deciding whether to cooperate in another’s evil act is whether it will cause scandal. In general, people who are cooperating in evil should do so in a way that minimizes scandal. Scandal is, literally, a stumbling block: in morals it means an act or moral stance that might lead others to sin by confusing them about moral truth. To cooperate materially might lead others to wonder if formal cooperation—agreeing with the evil act—is OK.
Scandal is over-emphasized when the risk of scandal seems to decide the issue at hand, rather than taking its proper place fairly far down the “decision tree.” A current example is the question of the use of condoms by married couples, one of whom is H.I.V.-positive, to prevent infection of the seronegative spouse. On its face, it seems like a fairly clear case of double effect: one act produces two effects at equal causal “distance” from the original act. Here, using a condom in marital intercourse has the good effect of preventing infection, and the bad effect (under Catholic teaching) of acting as a contraceptive agent. In double effect, we ask, among other things, whether the good effect outweighs the bad effect—in this case, surely it does. For an H.I.V.-positive person to risk the health of his or her partner threatens not only the partner’s life, but, in many cases, the security of their children. Some describe advocacy of condom use in such situations as impermissible on grounds of scandal. Since condoms are a contraceptive device, people might think that church support for condom use in disease prevention means that the magisterium has moderated its stance against artificial contraception. A clear case of double effect is thereby reversed by concern for scandal.
Scandal, however, is always a double-edged sword. Those who oppose condom use in such couples on grounds of scandal court the opposite scandal. People might think—surely incorrectly—that the church is more concerned with sustaining its public stance on contraception than it is about the welfare of people in danger of H.I.V. infection. A similar situation arises when some say that voting for a pro-choice candidate is unacceptable under any circumstances on grounds of scandal. The scandal is that some might infer support for pro-choice policies; the opposite scandal is that some might infer—surely incorrectly, according to magisterial texts like the voter guide “Faithful Citizenship”—that abortion is the only important moral issue.
This is germane to Dr. Kaveny’s excellent distinction between prophets and pilgrims. Prophets, in their zeal for clarity of message, generally disregard “opposite scandal.” They set up stumbling blocks when any hint of contact with an evil act or stance is possible, no matter how distant from the original act, or how dire the effects.
Yet opposite scandal is still scandal—it still leads people to a misunderstanding of moral truth, generally by refusing to grant moral weight to the real complexity of our lives, individually and socially. Ignoring opposite scandal too often leads prophets to imply that Christian faith requires keeping one’s own hands completely clean of any involvement in morally messy situations. Jesus, however, seemed to wade into morally messy situations by, for example, getting a woman caught in adultery off the hook for a capital crime; inviting women, including healed demoniacs, into his inner circle; healing people with non-urgent troubles (like the man with the withered hand) on the Sabbath; receiving the ministrations of women of imperfect virtue; speaking of Samaritan heretics as moral examplars; and generally not seeming to care about the sinfulness or virtue of those who would follow him, so long as they would throw their hearts into the hard work of preaching the Good News and building the Kingdom. There is a role for prophetic zeal and clarity of message in the church; but it must not undermine that work of bringing about the Kingdom that is our most basic task as followers of the Lord.
Pilgrims, on the other hand, seek to navigate the road as well as we can, wary of all stumbling blocks. Pilgrims know that while it is important to note risk of scandal and to act in ways to counteract it, the route to the kingdom leads inevitably through complex and rock-strewn moral territory. And pilgrims know that an argument that stands or falls on risk of scandal alone is generally a weak argument, hinging as it does on asserting the lack of knowledge or discernment of those who would be scandalized. Better that we all talk together as we walk the pilgrim way, helping each other to grow in wisdom, not afraid to risk scandal, lest we stumble and fail in love.
Lisa Fullam is associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University at Berkeley.