Professor Christopher Wolfe Replies


August 1, 1983

Mr. Peters, in his fifth paragraph, describes our present situation (virtual abortion on demand) as a compromise of the vilest sort. I should make it clear that I do not regard it as a compromise at all, and did not at all have that in mind when I argued that Catholics might have to fight for compromises. Abortion on demand is, I think, intolerable, except perhaps in the different sense that it does not automatically require Catholics to revolt and try to overthrow our regime.

What I did mean is expressed in the position which Mr. Peters attacks in the balance of his remarks: that Catholics might have to fight for compromises such as exceptions for rape and incest (or life of the mother). Let me say at once that I have great respect for Mr. Peter’s argument, which is a serious one. I do, however, reject it.

The whole issue falls within an extremely complicated area of moral theology dealing with “material cooperation in evil”. A Catholic may never formally cooperate in the evil done by another (intending and consenting to the evil done). There are limited occasions, however, when material cooperation (cooperation without desiring or consenting to the evil) can be justified if it is the only way to achieve a necessary good or avoid a great harm. The conditions for each material cooperation are very restrictive. First, the action itself of the person cooperating in evil must not be intrinsically evil. Second, the intention of the cooperator must be good. Third, there must be just cause, i.e., a due proportion between the good achieved or evil avoided and the evil which occurs because of his cooperation. (The cause must be greater insofar as the evil cooperated in is greater or the cooperator’s participation is more necessary for or closer to the evil). Fourth, the good effect must be the direct result of the cooperator’s action and not of the evil in which the person is cooperating. Moreover, scandal and proximate occasions of sin (especially drifting toward consent to the evil done) must be avoided. (These principles can be found in standard books of moral theology, and are vindicated in a decree by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Quaecumque Sterilizatio, March 13, 1975).

Given these traditional theological principles, how ought one to evaluate the material cooperation in evil which voting for an abortion law with exceptions constitutes?

Given the enormous evil which abortion is, it requires very serious causes to justify material cooperation in even a remote, indirect, or mediate form (participation in the act itself or in acts which are immediate or proximate to the abortive act are out of the question, of course — indeed they are grounds for excommunication).

Voting for a law which allows exceptions to the prohibition of abortion is material cooperation in evil, since the exceptions allowed would directly contravene very serious commands of the natural law, and thus constitute a serious evil. Moreover, what the law permits has an effect (in the case of exceptions, a bad one) on what many people consider to be morally acceptable, and exceptions can serve as a starting point for yet more exceptions. Can such voting, then, be justified? I believe that it can be.

It is licit to vote for civil laws which refrain from repressing objective evils. Pius XII addressed himself to this issue:

The duty to repress moral and religious deviations can never constitute an ultimate rule of action. It has to be subordinated to higher more general rules, which in some cases permit a course of action, or even render it the better course, by which an error is not impeded for the sale of fostering a greater good. . . .

First: anything which is not in accord with truth and the moral norm does not possess any right to exist or to be disseminated or to be acted upon. Second: the failure to impede it by means of civil laws and sanctions may be justified in the interests of a superior broader good. Whether this condition is verified in a given case — this is a question of fact — or not is a matter which has to be judged in the first instance by the Catholic Statesman. (Dec. 1, 1953)

Thus, the failure to impede an objective evil by law can be justified in Catholic moral teaching, in some cases.

In terms of the conditions discussed above:

1. Voting for a law which fails to impede abortion as much as the law ought to is not necessarily an intrinsically evil act — the form of the law (that it be phrased so that it tolerates the evil rather than expressly authorizing it) would be crucial factor here;

2. A Catholic legislator could vote for a law allowing exceptions, not intending the deaths that the law refrains from prohibiting (indeed grieving about them), but intending the saving of the lives the law would protect;

3. There could be just cause for the Catholic legislator to support the law allowing exceptions, in the very large number of lives that could be saved thereby, which could be considered to outweigh the number of lives still lost and other factors such as the bad educative effect of the law;

4. The good achieved (the saving of many lives) would not be a direct consequence of the evil (the deaths resulting from the failure to prohibit more).

The Catholic legislator would have to be extremely sensitive to the requirement that he not give scandal. His support for the law would have to be explained in terms which make it extremely clear that he recognizes the terrible evil of the exceptions, that he is only cooperating in the passage of the act because it is necessary to avoid greater evils (i.e. even more deaths), and that he hopes to bring about a truly just law (i.e., with no exceptions) when that is possible. Having said that, he would be justified in fighting to have the law passed, engaging in the political maneuvering and persuasion and bargaining necessary to get it passed.

It is not “logical” that so many Americans are willing to oppose most abortion, but feel that it is allowable in some exceptional cases. I believe that this is an indefensible position morally. But if I were working in a legislature to eliminate abortion, and if only a small minority would support complete elimination of abortion, while a majority could be brought to support severe restriction of it, I do not think Catholic moral principles would prohibit me from trying to obtain passage of the law which severely restricts it (although I would have to make the just principle clear and indicate that an incomplete ban falls short of what elementary justice requires).

I concede that judgment regarding the third condition would require consideration of the serious prudential question — an obscure one — as to what action now will most likely make it possible to achieve a complete ban in the future. I am not persuaded, however, that fighting for laws permitting exceptions, if it is done properly, makes it more difficult to obtain a complete ban in the long run. It is worthwhile to recall that it is not a question of “restoring” a complete ban — we have never really had one (due especially to the life of the mother exception). A complete eradication of this evil will be possible, I think, only in the event of a radical moral regeneration in this country, the achievement of which depends on circumstances far beyond the character of attempts to fight abortion in the short term.

This is what I meant in the remarks which were the basis of Mr. Peters’ comments, and I believe that this is a position which a Catholic may adopt. (It goes without saying that I submit my whole line of argument to the judgment of the Church). I do freely acknowledge that Mr. Peters’ position is also one that a Catholic has a right to adopt. Indeed, I am happy that he, and others I greatly respect, make this argument strongly, for they serve as a constant reminder that such compromises require very serious justification and that we must all strive to remove the conditions which make them admissible. The primary obligation of Catholics is not to justify complacent acceptance of compromises which are lamentable though necessary, but to engage in an effort to make true justice possible.


  • Christopher Wolfe

    From 1989 to 2021, Dr. Wolfe was President of the American Public Philosophy Institute, an interdisciplinary group of scholars from various universities, supported by local business and professional leaders, that promotes a natural law public philosophy rooted in the principles of the American Founding. The APPI is now the Dallas Forum for Law, Politics, and Culture, and Dr. Wolfe is President Emeritus. He also is one of Crisis Magazine's original writers.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

tagged as:
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...