Cautious Incoherence

I was giving a talk for adult education in the faith at a parish not my own, and the subject of cooperation in abortion was discussed. In the small group session, a young lady said to me that she was upset to feel criticized because she had accompanied a friend to an abortion clinic. “I didn’t have the abortion and never would, but I wanted to support my friend.”

She was puzzled when I said that sort of “support” was mistaken. It didn’t occur to her that accompanying someone to an intrinsically evil act was problematic. What mattered to her was her friendship. I referred her to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which reads:

Sin is a personal act. Moreover, we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them: by participating directly and voluntarily in them; by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them; by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an obligation to do so; by protecting evil-doers. (1868)

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If you lent someone a gun to shoot another person, that might be a gesture of friendship but certainly morally objectionable if you knew the purpose of the borrowing. Transporting a murderer to the place where he would meet his victim is more than just giving a person a ride. There is no way that accompanying a woman to an abortion clinic could not be interpreted in some way as an approval of the action. “Solidarity” in such a case would be complicity.

I was shocked when reading of the conversion and vocation of a young priest in a book put out by EWTN that, while a college student, the man had offered to go with a friend when she aborted her child. This is considered an irregularity for the reception of orders, which means it is a perpetual impediment to ordination, unless dispensed by the Apostolic See. In the event, the young lady in question was not pregnant and the man was thus saved from his imprudent promise. The Holy Spirit continued working in him, and he eventually was ordained to the priesthood. But the point of his revelation was to show how far removed he had been from basic Christian values before his call.

There are two types of cooperation in evil: formal and material. Formal has to do with the intentional element of an act. Material can be both proximate and remote and can be accidental, like a taxi driver who delivers a perpetrator to the scene of his crime. However, we should not forget that material cooperation built the railway leading to Auschwitz, and it was constructed by some who, no doubt, were “personally opposed” to genocide.

The draft of the proposed USCCB document on “Eucharistic Coherence” turns out to be a beautiful essay on the Real Presence. That will please all those who were upset about the bishops taking on Catholic politicians who support and promote abortion but has to dishearten those of us who expected a clear message about receiving the Eucharist worthily.

Most of us expected the bishops to comment on the cooperation in evil that is the act of promoting or voting for practically unlimited abortion or its funding by government programs. The voices in the bishops’ conference against the production of the document were obviously afraid of political repercussions to calling out allegedly Catholic politicians who by their own choice and with untroubled conscience approve support and do not hinder abortions. They even prematurely released a letter some of whose “signatories” denied having approved of the text. Nevertheless, as a friend of mine said, the hawks lost to the chickens again.

Is it too much to ask for the bishops to say clearly that not only is this proposed legislation morally wrong (which they have done about the suppression of the Hyde Amendment partial guarantee against federal money going for abortion) but that those who support it are doing wrong? That is, they are personally objectively sinning by “ordering, advising, praising, or approving” abortion; “by not disclosing or not hindering” abortion when they have an obligation to do so; and “by protecting evil-doers.”

There is no way anyone could defend Biden’s radical pro-abortion stand as something other than formal cooperation with evil. If the bishops’ conference would clearly state that any and all politicians of whatever party who promote legislation that has as its goal using tax money to pay for abortions are cooperating formally with evil it might not change policy, but it would clarify for the public what is at stake in this controversy. 

Some might say that it is merely material cooperation, but that is not true when the president: (1) says he does not “believe” life begins at conception, which implies that aborting a fetus does not mean taking a human life (has anyone asked him what does begin? Has he ever been in the pews when the Annunciation is explained?); and (2) says that every woman should have the right to taxpayer-financed abortion and that any restriction of abortion throughout pregnancy (from heartbeat to viability) is unconstitutional. He and Congresswoman Pelosi don’t even say they are personally opposed to abortion. She invokes the principle of free will to explain her position on legislation. What sin does not involve free will? 

While there is some evidence of invincible ignorance in the political world, part of that invincibility is the fault of lack of clarity in moral guidance by the shepherds of the Church. All summer we have had rumors and alarms about the document about “coherence.” Most of us expected some mention of formal cooperation in abortion, at least in quoting the Aparecida document from CELAM. 

Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus. Was all that fuss for nothing? What can the bishops say when some will accuse them of being afraid to address the issue? It is as if John the Baptist were asked to comment on the tetrarch’s adultery with his sister-in-law and only replied by saying his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, were a beautiful example of married love. No doubt the high priest had dealings with King Herod when he came down from Galilee and met him in the temple precincts and things were hunky-dory. The Baptist obviously decided for a more controversial approach. The Gospel definitely seems more interested in the Baptist’s “public” theology than the accommodation of the leaders of the time.

As we should be.

[Photo Credit: Catholic News Agency]


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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