Faithful citizens must consider all evil acts when casting their ballots



Your readers might appreciate some clarification regarding the ethical terminology employed in your October 21 cover story, “Living as a Faithful Citizen,” in which the bishop of Providence appears in a “photo op” with Republican congressional candidate John Loughlin.

Exhorting Catholic voters to “take their faith with them into the voting booth,” Bishop Tobin notes that “it can be complicated.” But it is evidently not complicated to either him or to Rhode Island Catholic. Your story, after all, mentions just two “intrinsically evil acts” (abortion and homosexuality) that voters should keep in mind as they enter the booth. By contrast, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993), which defines an “intrinsically evil” act as one that is evil in itself, apart from any good intentions motivating it or consequences that might flow from it, includes in the category of intrinsic evil, for example, along with evils like abortion and euthanasia, “degrading conditions of work which treat laborers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons.” Moreover, whether or not an act is intrinsically evil is not in itself indicative of its degree of evil. The failure to help someone in need or to prevent harm, while not intrinsically evil, can nevertheless quite grave.

For this reason, I hope that in his conversation with Republican congressional candidate John Loughlin, the Bishop stressed that while a stronger prohibition on the use of federal funds for abortion should be added to the federal health care bill, adequate health care for all is mandated by Catholic social teaching, whereas Mr. Loughlin supports repeal of the health care bill. Indeed, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, "health care is not a privilege but a right and a requirement to protect the life and dignity of each person" (USCCB, July 17, 2009). While the failure to provide adequate health care to all is, presumably, not an “intrinsic evil,” it is nevertheless a very grave one, and I therefore trust that Bishop Tobin instructed Mr. Loughlin on the matter.

Similarly, while Mr. Loughlin opposes government action on climate change (bizarrely claiming that increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are “caused by nature”), Pope Benedict XVI has called climate change a “grave concern,” and noted its ethical implications: “Preservation of the environment, promotion of sustainable development, and particular attention to climate change are matters of grave concern for the entire human family. No nation or business sector can ignore the ethical implications present in all economic and social development” (September 6, 2007). Once again, while the failure to address climate change is not an “intrinsic evil,” it is, according to Pope Benedict, at least, as a very grave one, indeed a matter of “the rights of citizens who desire to live in a safe environment.” Again, I trust that the bishop, in his meeting with Mr. Loughlin, stressed Pope Benedict’s position on the matter.

I’m sure that neither Bishop Tobin nor Rhode Island Catholic would wish to give the impression that their exhortations for Catholics to take Catholic social teaching with them to the voting booth are code for “Vote Republican.”

Dr. Joseph K. Cosgrove

Associate Professor of Philosophy