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.

The Power of One

“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.

Traditionally Catholic

“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.


Giving Scandal

"Yet opposite scandal is still scandal—it still leads people to a misunderstanding of moral truth."

Lisa Fullam

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
10 years 9 months ago
What moral issue facing Christians in the industrial world should be considered more important than legal infanticide? If this issue is not given an unusual primacy by the Church on what issue can the Church confront? In contemporary industrial society where "poverty" has been completely redefined, thousands of couples go looking abroad for children to adopt, and where unwed parents are virtually free from social censure one must conclude that hundreds of thousands of the unborn are eliminated for convenience. If this is an issue on which we should compromise, let the Church junk the idea of objective truth and simply surrender to the "relativism" justly decried by the Pope. And if it does, that Slippery Slope, mocked elsewhere in this issue, will prove itself most real and the Church will slide into the "I'm OK, You're OK" ethical playground that guides our cursed age.   
Richard Smith
10 years 9 months ago
The Pro-Life movement would be greatly helped if the grave inconsistencies it carries were ever addressed.  Example: The doctor who performed the abortion on the very young girls in Brazil, who'd been raped by her father was excommunicated. But the father who raped her?  Check my facts and correct me, please.

I have no argument about the sacredness of life or the need to stop abortion. But, for those who do have arguments, glaring problems in the Church and in the Pro-Life movement at large serve to strengthen the resolve of those arguments.

A self-righteous moral high ground is usually built on sand and surrounded by slippery slopes of all kinds.

Given that there is no concept of any kind of "right" to anything in the Gospels, perhaps we would also be well served to shift our rhetoric and our attention to the grace that is at the heart of Jesus life, teaching, death, rising, ascension... The grace of life is a much more powerful reality than the right to life.
Michael Barberi
10 years 9 months ago

Bravo to Kaveny, Sowle Cahil, Coleman and Fullam for these A+ articles.

Some of these initial responses may have missed the point. No none is saying that abortion is not a primary concern for the Church and Catholics. The message is not to exaggerate the application of moral virtue and first principles beyond prudence, reason and circumstance.  In this case, the issue is cooperation with evil in a seemingly direct, indirect or remote way. 

Acqinas mentions some first principles of natural law that will never change in that they are moral absoutes such as killing another human being.  However, secondary conclusions deducted from many first principles can change under certain circumstances (e.g., killing in self-defense is permitted). Abortion is a first moral principle.  The Church condemns abortion under any circumstance. The recent case in Phoenix is a case in point. A Sister in charge of ethics at a Catholic hospital permitted the abortion of a fetus to save the life of the mother. The mother was expected to die shortly unless the fetus was aborted. If the fetus was not aborted, it would have died because of the very early stage of pregnancy.  The choice was (1) do nothing and lose two human beings or (2) abort the fetus and save the mother. The Sister made the correct decision to save one human being, but was ex-communicated for it.  This is a case of exaggerated application of first principles.  This example is somewhat off-topic but the message about exaggeration can apply to various forms of coorperation with evil.

A re-reading of Kaveny and Cahill, Coleman and Fullam again beyond the emotion of the moment will make clear their message.

laura sabath
10 years 9 months ago

We might consider how we go about discernments and advocacy, whether by competition or triage.

Each political party behaves much like a ball game in competition, and has chosen certain vulnerable groups to "sponsor". Victim deaths increase/decrease in different groups, depending on who wins.  Yet no child, born or unborn, should ever be put into competition with others, especially other children, for life itself. Or be subject to competitive methods that ignore or dismiss groups of humanity even though they are affected by the outcome.

 We can change the game in at least two ways:

1. We can change the game from competition to triage on the field of battle. The procedure is very different in attitude and in the attitude it creates in witnesses to our actions among the poor, etc, around the world.  A medic does not ignore any, but examines all, giving at minimum what is always available, the "Look of Love" (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est) (in advocacy, this includes public acknowledgment of all groups’ sufferings), and then judges triage—who will receive the limited human resources..

Then hatred aroused by being dismissed without consideration may be replaced by understanding: "These Catholics/Christians had the will to love even when they couldn't help us all."

Whether we have inwardly discerned our vote earlier or not, and many of us have a pretty good idea early on, the world—including the poor at risk for recruitment to violence— watches our statements for whether we will be fair about our discernments.  Will we ignore some of those that will be significantly affected by results?  Or do we affirm that we postpone our final judgment till all the data we can get about candidates' overall positions on all vulnerable groups, including any last minute changes, are in?

Natural law to me says that anyone significantly affected by an outcome should be taken into account in one's discernment.  So does the golden rule in the Catechism.

Known for being fair and just in her political methods gains respect for the Church and supports the mission of the Church, evangelization—witnessing to the inclusive saving love of God—the reason for her existence.

2. We can change our concrete strategy in the game. The strategy of an all out ignore-everything-else-push for a goal often works. In elections involving abortion, it becomes an illusion, as all-out efforts will be required to keep or try again time after time.  Another strategy is needed to work for Catholic concerns, one that fits better with John Paul II’s overall teachings.  Also, "While each question along the spectrum of life is in itself a distinct problem, the promise of the consistent ethic is that a relationship exists among these issues." (J. Bryan Hehir in The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, c1995, pp. 358-359). It may be we ignore interconnectedness at cost of real solutions.

Regardless, politicians can be redirected to compete for our Catholic votes instead of we for theirs, with better outcomes for all of our concerns:

a. Refuse party loyalty.  Archbishop Charales Chaput warns about party loyalty: “The sooner Catholics feel at home in any political party, the sooner that party takes them for granted and then ignores their concerns. Party loyalty is a dead end.”

Working with one's best-guess party is different from committing one's final voting decision to them.  It follows the same logic of the mega-business that donates to both parties but gives most where most cooperation is returned. Unlike the reciprocity of true friends, candidates and officials must give a minimum of commitment or results to those who are party loyal in order to maximize freedom to attract uncommitted voters with other interests. Party loyalty also turns the parish into factions, a broken body.

b. Routinely add words like the following to Catholic advocacy statements and letters. They can start to mold political parties toward serious support of all Catholic concerns:

"In this letter/address I focus on (name of issue)________.  Yet I’m Catholic, and Catholics look with loving concern on the life of every human being: the unborn, the elderly, the disabled, the poor, the victims of abuse, the victims of war, the sick, the unemployed, migrants, prisoners— all human beings who struggle. At election time I wait to see who will best fulfill the requirement of Christ’s universal love."

Sadly, those of us who don't do something like this will continue to give the world the public impression of excluding some groups from God's love. 




The latest from america

The pope urged people everywhere to reach out to older generations.
Associated PressJuly 25, 2021
The consolidated financial statement of the Roman Curia for 2020 revealed better-than-expected results even though the overall situation is still quite difficult.
Gerard O’ConnellJuly 24, 2021
Evyatar Marienberg, a historian of religion at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, has written a book about Sting’s Catholic imagination and how it fueled his creativity.
Some experts say the level of detail included in the story suggests that whoever provided the information has access to large datasets and methods of analysis that could have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars—or more.