Comment Of The Day: “Comment Of The Day: ‘Ethics Heroes: The US Conference of Catholic Bishops’”


We have a veritable Comment of the Day chain. Sarah B.’s COTD yesterday on the Ethics Alarms post applauding the U.S. Catholic Bishops for preparing to hold Joe Biden accountable for his open support of abortion had inspired two excellent questions, in sequence, from reader Curmie. Both were answered with brio by Ryan Harkins.

We’ve never had such a Socratic Comment of the Day exchange before, and maybe I should have a separate category for such delights, but I don’t. So I’ll just introduce this by saying, “Here is Curmie and Ryan Harkins collaborative Comment of the Day on the post,Comment Of The Day: ‘Ethics Heroes:The US Conference of Catholic Bishops.” (Curmie plays Socrates.)

Curmie: One question, or rather series of related questions, for Sarah B, from a long-lapsed Protestant:

As respects “grave matter,” is there an inherent element of volition in the act itself (it wasn’t an accident), and if so, is there a distinction between literally not knowing the sinfulness of an act (had no idea the Church forbids a certain action) and deciding for oneself that the act is innocent, despite Church doctrine? And, assuming any of these distinctions are relevant, are we talking about a disjunctive yes/no, or something along the lines of a continuum?

I’m thinking of the Ancient Greek and Shinto (to name two) concepts of pollution (as opposed to sin), and wondering if Catholicism is closer to the former than I had hitherto believed.
In a pollution-based theology, Oedipus is still guilty of incest despite his active attempt to avoid it. In today’s world, according to this idea, a driver who hits and kills a child who ran out into the street is still guilty, although the event was entirely accidental, and the driver did everything possible to avoid hitting the child.

Ryan Harkins: In backing up, the Catholic Church teaches that a sin is mortal if it meets three requirements: first, that it is grave matter; second that the sinner knows that it is grave matter; and third, that the sinner consents, or intends, to commit that act. Grave matter is grave because of the extent of damage it does, and this is regardless of intent. Killing someone is grave matter; they are just as dead if you didn’t intend for them to die. I think St. Paul encapsulates this idea in his letter to the Romans when he writes, “Sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses (Rom 5:13-14).” The point is that even though you don’t know that what you are doing is wrong, because the act itself is inherently wrong, it will still cause harm. So the gravity of an action is not a matter of volition.

Where volition enters the picture is in the second two conditions. A person might not know that an act constitutes grave matter, but this could either be an unintentional state, in which he is not culpable for his ignorance, or it could be willful ignorance on his part. One aspect of being Catholic is the assent to the Church as authoritative, infallible on matters of faith and morals. A Catholic then has an obligation not just to follow the Church’s instructions, but to learn what the Church actually instructs. This touches on what Sarah B was saying on primacy of conscience: we should follow our consciences, but we have a duty to properly form our consciences as well. On some matters where the Church has not made any official pronouncements, the faithful are allowed flexibility of opinions. But on many issues that are hot topics today, the Church has made pronouncements, and those are, as far as any Catholic is concerned, infallible and made so through the protection and guarantee of the Holy Spirit.

A Catholic does not evade culpability by concluding privately that an action the Church condemns is actually innocent. His rejection of Church authority would actually be itself grave matter, on the order of the great sin of the Devil, who said, “Non serviam.” The sin of pride has long been held as the father of all other sins. It is the sin by which we seek to supplant God as the arbiter of good and evil. For a Catholic, who ought to know that the Church claims infallibility on matters of faith and morals, to reject Church teaching, he either has to deny the Church, or he has to believe he has some higher authority than the Church.

As for whether we are speaking of a disjunctive or a continuum, my answer is both. When it comes down the end of the day, either you have committed a mortal sin or you haven’t. But because of the third condition for a sin to be mortal, the question of whether one actually committed a mortal sin can become murkier. Take an addict, for example. It is a sin of gluttony to engage in debilitating drug use. So the use of hardcore, recreational drugs like meth, cocaine, and heroin is grave matter. (The use of lesser drugs like caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and a few others do not fall into this category because the impact of moderate use is not very large. Drugs that have practically no “moderate” dosage are the ones that would constitute to grave matter.) But an addict has lost a great deal of his capacity to resist temptation. As he tries to quit, his falling of the wagon and using is of lesser severity than someone taking those drugs the first time. As he progresses, and he regains control over his appetites, then his culpability in slipping up and using again increases.

So there can be debate over whether a sin was actually mortal, due to the degree in which a person consents to a wrong. If someone resists temptation for a long time, but is eventually worn out by the struggle, did he really consent when he finally gave into temptation? However, this line of questioning can be destructive. Overly scrupulous people can argue themselves into condemnation over the slightest of offenses, and any of the rest of us would really like to rationalize our sins into the venial category, given the opportunity.

Of course, any of this is tangential to the question of public support of abortion. On this the Church is very clear. Abortion is a grave evil, perpetuated against the most defenseless and the most innocent members of the human race. Any Catholic politician who advocates for expanding access to abortion is defending an intolerable evil, and any excuse of being personally opposed is insufficient. A politician is to be held to a higher standard in this regard than a private citizen because of his capacity to influence legislation one way or another. Since the Church has expressed all this, there should be no excuse for any Catholic politician.

Curmie: This is very helpful, thank you.

One further question: Let us suppose that a Catholic politician professes personal opposition to abortion, but says that this is a matter for the courts, and as a nation we need to be bound by the law.of the land, which may conflict with any individual’s personal beliefs. Let us suppose, further, that unlike many if not most who make such a statement, this politician actually believes what s/he’s saying rather than simply trying to negotiate a political minefield. Absent other evidence (a President who uses a litmus test on abortion to appoint judges, for example), how does this position hold up to theological scrutiny?

Ryan Harkins: As you state it exactly, whether or not this position stands up to scrutiny would depend upon the actual role the politician plays. For a legislator, I don’t quite think this would hold, because a legislator would have the responsibility to write ethical laws, and a Catholic legislator would have the obligation to propose laws in accord with his beliefs. (Actually, I would propose that any legislator of any faith background would be obligated to craft laws in accord with his beliefs.) Thus for a legislator, that stance would be passing the buck, and I would think would be unethical. It would certainly incur a sin of omission, but in this situation I would hesitate to say it demands that a priest withhold communion from him.

For a member of the executive branch, this position would hold up to scrutiny. Such a politician could not simply demand that abortion clinics close or prohibit women from procuring abortions, because the rule of law is truly that important. Certainly this politician still could not personally assist a woman in procuring an abortion, and if his office required him to actively aid a woman seeking an abortion, he would be obligated to do everything in his power to avoid directly assisting with the abortion. For example, if a crowd of protestors were blocking the access to an abortion clinic, this politician would be justified in dispersing a crowd that was illegally assembling, knowing that it would let a woman then access the clinic. Certainly one of the distinctions to pay attention to here is that the law currently allows a woman to procure an abortion, but does not force any woman to get an abortion.

For a judge, it is perfectly legitimate to be a faithful Catholic and rule against laws that restrict abortions. Here the importance of following the rule of law exerts itself again. If abortion is constitutional, then any legislation that falls short of a constitutional amendment to prohibit abortion could be legitimately rejected as unconstitutional. However, a judge (I assume we’re all thinking of the fact there are six Catholics on the Supreme Court!) could look at the case in the United States, where abortion is not an enumerated right, and look for any justification to overturn Roe v Wade. I think they would obligated to look for justifications to overturn Roe v Wade, but they couldn’t just mandate it by fiat, absent good legal arguments.

What a Catholic politician could not morally do is propose legislation that offers additional protections to abortion, to expand abortion access, or in any other way directly promote abortion. This is, unfortunately, where a lot of liberal Catholic politicians run afoul of Church teaching. They not only publicly declare they would defend a woman’s right to choose, but many even say they would seek to expand access to abortion, such as by providing additional federal funds to abortion clinics, or declaring abortion to be an essential practice that would not have to shutter its doors during a pandemic.

The key principle in play here is the law of double effect. If a neutral or good action (one that in and of itself is not wrong) has several effects, and one of them is an evil effect, that action may still be permissible as long as the evil effect is not intended (even if it is foreseen). Proportionality plays a role: if the evil effect outweighs the good, then the action is not permissible. But if the good outweighs the evil, the evil can be tolerated because it was not intended.

5 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Comment Of The Day: ‘Ethics Heroes: The US Conference of Catholic Bishops’”

    • You did all the heavy lifting, Ryan, so thank YOU!
      And whereas I appreciate the reference to Socrates, Jack, I tend to think of it more as being the dumb guy in the room… a position I am always happy to take on.

  1. All I can say after reading this is: Wow!

    Other blogs and web sites I follow, I almost always just read the blog / columns / stories. Here the comments tend to be nearly as interesting and as informative as the original blog posts (not quite, but the commentariat does you proud, Jack).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.