July 10, 2009

Be Our Guest/Fr. Douglas Clark

Cooperation is necessary to bring about the good

In the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame in May, many Catholics have been perplexed by the “official” Church’s cautious approval of many of the president’s remarks. A divide threatens to open up or under between some of this country’s most ardent Catholics and the hierarchy. Such a divide would be a great pity.

Obama’s record on life issues is, by Catholic standards, alarming—hence the firestorm of disapproval directed at the University of Notre Dame for honoring the new president with an honorary degree and affording him a platform to express his views without any possibility of anyone rebutting those views.

Many of the nation’s bishops publicly questioned or even condemned the invitation, and many of their diocesan newspapers, including The Southern Cross, did likewise. So why, then, were their “postmortem” analyses of the address cautiously positive—from The Southern Cross to L’Osservatore Romano.

First of all, the Church is very concerned about promoting respect for human life at all its stages from conception to natural death. To do so, she must use all legitimate means and work with anyone who evinces any willingness to reduce the demand for abortions, for example, even when she has grounds for suspicion as to the other party’s sincerity.

The question has arisen as to whether or not working with pro-choice politicians in order to reduce the demand for abortion would in some sense amount to cooperation in evil, which is always morally unacceptable. The answer is clearly “no.”

“Cooperation in evil” refers to working with others in an objectively evil project. To do so would be objectively sinful and must be avoided.

What about “cooperation with evil,” that is, working with “evil” people even to achieve a good end? There is no such category in Catholic moral theology. That is primarily because there is no such thing as an intrinsically evil person. (See the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas.)

While we may judge certain actions to be objectively wrong, we cannot judge those who do them to be subjectively culpable— because we cannot know the extent of their freedom and knowledge—let alone “evil.” Hence, the Church cannot condone the “demonizing” of anyone, no matter how wrong we may judge that person to be.

To a Christian, an opponent always remains someone whom we are commanded to love, even if that love is not reciprocated and, indeed, even if that opponent should persecute or even kill us.

Scott Roeder apparently did not understand this basic point (“hate the sin, love the sinner”) when he allegedly shot Dr. George Tiller to death in a Lutheran church in Kansas on May 31.

Tiller’s actions—he performed countless late-term abortions—were objectively evil.

But he was still a creature of God, for whom Christ died. What pro-life Christians should have worked toward was his conversion; what one of them apparently did was to kill him in cold blood. “Killing for life” is an oxymoron.

In this world, those seeking to achieve good ends are constrained to cooperate with others to achieve those ends. Some of these others may have different agendas. They may support some policies that we cannot support. But we can and perhaps must work with them on specific projects to achieve good and moral ends. This is not cooperation in evil, but cooperation in good.

If the president is sincere in his claim that he wants to work with Catholics to reduce the demand for abortion—admittedly, a big “if”—then we would respond positively, provided that the means employed to achieve this end were moral in themselves.

The principal “olive branch” offered by Obama at Notre Dame was to offer some kind of “reasonable” conscience protection to health care workers who oppose abortion, cannot in conscience participate in this evil, and fear for their jobs.

What kind of protection will in fact be offered remains to be seen, but Church leaders are encouraged that the president expressed a willingness to keep some sort of conscience protection, rather than jettison his predecessor’s executive order completely.

There is much in Obama’s record that is unsettling for those who believe in the sanctity of human life. They may have good reason to be skeptical of the president’s words. What he actually does, how he actually follows up on his statements at Notre Dame, will eventually demonstrate how sincere he was and the extent to which Catholics can work with his administration.

We will be watching him closely, praying that his promised initiatives to reduce the number of abortions will be crafted in such a way that we can support them, and that he will act to protect the consciences of health care workers who regard the taking of innocent human life as a monstrous evil.

(Father Douglas Clark is the editor of The Southern Cross, the newspaper of the Diocese of Savannah, Ga.)

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