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Limiting the harm using proportionate reasons

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p>By Barbara Kralis
©Barbara Kralis 2004

In Romans 3:8, we read that 2,000 years ago the Apostle St. Paul is falsely accused of teaching that 'evil can be done to bring about a good end.'  St Paul did not even defend himself for the reason that the accusation was so grossly misrepresented.[1]

We witness today the same accusations St. Paul endured, this time aimed at a Catholic Cardinal and a Catholic Bishop.  Noteworthy, the accusations come from a diverse group of people nationwide who know not what they say. 'Damnant quod non intellegunt.'[2]

The accusing group consists of secular and Catholic media, faithful Catholics and dissenting Catholics.  This group accuses Ratzinger and Burke of watering down the Church's infallible teachings on abortion in order to get a pro-abortion candidate elected in the United States.

The high ranking Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the doctrine of the Faith, and the staunchly loyal Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis have stated that Catholics may vote for pro-abortion politicians for 'proportionate reasons.'  Several other Bishops have also stated this teaching, but since the accusations are against Ratzinger and Burke, we will regard only these two at this time.

Cardinal Ratzinger made this statement in his Nota Bene in June 2004:

"When a Catholic does not share a candidate's stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons." -Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Many confused persons wrongly accused Burke of flip-flopping on abortion.  Archbishop Burke has recently stated he will soon issue clear Church teachings on this matter in the form of a 'Pastoral Letter' to his flock in St. Louis Archdiocese.  Catholics everywhere will appreciate, as always, his magisterial teaching.

In the meantime, while we await the Archbishop's further clarification, we ask the question - are these two hierarchs really teaching against the Church's doctrine regarding abortion?  Furthermore, why is there confusion regarding this traditional Church teaching of 'proportionate reason?

The understanding of this teaching is not necessarily confusing but is certainly confused by many.  Some perhaps confuse it purposely, with expectation of a great pro-abortion political victory this November.

What is most perplexing is that both faithful and not-so-faithful Catholics hold to the confusion, but in different ways. 

Faithful Catholics, not purposely, confuse the teaching 'proportionate reason' as being against the teachings supporting 'Life.'  On the opposite side of the aisle, unfaithful Catholics bamboozle this teaching as carte blanche to do evil for an evil gain. 

The teaching of 'proportionate reason' is not about Republicans vs. Democrats, it is about life vs. abortion; it is about evil vs. good.  It is about 'limiting the harm.'

The confusion originates from several misunderstandings: 1) those who think President Bush is 100% pro life; 2) those who don't know what 'proportionate reason' means; 3) lack of knowledge of prior Church documents and how they have used the traditional teaching of 'proportionate reason.'

Without recommending one candidate or one party over another, let us look at the first misunderstanding.

Firstly, President George W. Bush is not 100% pro life.  This is where the greatest confusion comes from.  This reality surprises many people who support President Bush and appreciate his pro-life efforts and legislation. 

In fact, many people, when asked if they believe our President to be pro life or pro abortion, answer they believe him to be 100% pro life.  The reality is that he is pro life only some of the time, not most of the time. 

President Bush still supports procured abortion in cases of rape or incest.  In fact, his position is the same position as the National Right to Life Committee, who is also not pro life and whose history is detailed in an earlier article.  This position to support some abortions is an abomination against God. 

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One cannot be almost pro life while allowing a little murder each day.  Allowing abortion for a few reasons, however serious and tragic, can never justify the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.  [3] 

On the 2000 campaign trail, Bush said he did not think Roe v Wade should be overturned and that good people can disagree on this issue.  As Governor of Texas, he did appoint pro-abortion judges.  George W. Bush is not pro-life all of the time.

However, Bush is certainly not promoting procured abortion for all women or for all reasons.  Moreover, he has attempted several noteworthy legislations to limit the number of abortions, perhaps as no other President before him. 

Since Bush is trying to 'limit the harm' more than his opponent, here is where we realize the apparent value of Cardinal Ratzinger's timely teaching of 'proportionate reason.'  In fact, it is possible that if Bush were l00% pro life, Cardinal Ratzinger would not have had to introduce the teaching of 'proportionate reason' and we would not be having this discussion today.

This is the circumstance where one could apply a 'proportionate reason' to vote for President Bush because Bush would limit the harm.  The good that Bush would do would far outweigh any evil that Kerry would do.

Cardinal Ratzinger, Archbishop Burke, Bishop Gracida, Bishop Carlson and others correctly teach that a Catholic could vote for a pro-abortion candidate without incurring formal cooperation in evil (mortal sin) if that candidate would limit the harm by lessening the number of abortions.

It must be reiterated that the Church teaches one cannot deliberately vote for a candidate because they favor abortion and/or euthanasia.  Nor, can one vote for a pro-abortion candidate because the voter believes all moral rights have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.  The right to life is inalienable moral right; this is the first right that grounds all other human rights.  Without life, no other moral issues are important.

Recently, Bishop Rene Gracida, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas, wrote a clarifying statement is extremely helpful.  Below is one excerpt:

"There is only one thing that could be considered proportionate enough to justify a Catholic voting for a candidate who is known to be pro-abortion, and that is the protection of innocent human life.  That may seem to be contradictory, but it is not. 

"Consider the case of a Catholic voter who must choose between three candidates: candidate (A, Kerry) who is completely for abortion-on-demand, candidate (B, Bush) who is in favor of very limited abortion, i.e., in favor of greatly restricting abortion and candidate (C, Peroutka), a candidate who is completely against abortion but who is universally recognized as being unelectable. 

"The Catholic voter cannot vote for candidate (A, Kerry) because that would be formal cooperation in the sin of abortion if that candidate were to be elected and assist in passing legislation, which would remove restrictions on, abortion-on-demand. 

"The Catholic can vote for candidate (C, Peroutka) but that will probably only help ensure the election of candidate (A, Kerry).  Therefore the Catholic voter has a proportionate reason to vote for candidate (B, Bush) since his vote may help to ensure the defeat of candidate (A, Kerry) and may result in the saving of some innocent human lives if candidate (B, Bush) is elected and introduces legislation restricting abortion-on-demand.  In such a case, the Catholic voter would have chosen the lesser of two evils, which is morally permissible under these circumstances."

Bishop Robert J. Carlson of Sioux Falls, S.D., released a statement in his diocesan newspaper recently that explains how voting for one of the candidates would limit abortions:

"If one had a properly formed conscience admitting the grave evil of abortion and euthanasia, as the Church teaches, and does not share a candidate's stand in favor of abortion and euthanasia, but votes for the candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation which can be permitted, Cardinal Ratzinger states, if proportionate reasons are present, e.g., the candidate would limit abortions."[4]

Secondly, let us look at the confusion caused by not understanding what the term 'proportionate reason' means and what the Church intends when she speaks of 'proportionate reasons.' 

The most succinct answer to the question is 'the proportion between the good and the harm that may come.

This writer has a hypothetical reason why one might vote for a candidate who supports procured abortion in all instances.  The reason might be that the opposite candidate, the one who would limit the number of abortions, suddenly turned psychotic.  He promised if elected he would release 50 nuclear missiles throughout the world to eliminate most of mankind, and he would then reign as King of the earth.  Then, someone might vote for a candidate who supports abortion in all instances, without incurring formal cooperation in evil by limiting the harm.

Thirdly, let us look at some of the recent documents supporting the traditional teaching for a 'proportionate reason.'

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical letter 'Evangelium vitae,' addresses this teaching of proportionate reasons to limit the harm:

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"...When it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.  This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects."[5]

Some might question using 'Evangelium vitae' n.73, pointing out that the Pope was speaking to legislators regarding legislation and bills.  However, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did use EV n.73 and n.74 to clarify the Church's position on cooperating 'formally' in the evil of abortion.  The points made were different, but the teaching was the same.  This was done in his June 2004 memorandum to the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops.

We can go to another vital encyclical letter, 'Humanae vitae,' by Pope Paul VI.  Could anyone dispute that Pope Paul VI used proportionate reason' in reiterating the Apostle Paul's warning in Romans, 3:8, regarding the false theology that the end justifies the means.

In 'Humanae vitae,' Pope Paul VI teaches the immorality to commit evil for a greater good:

[Part 1]  "In truth, if it is sometimes licit to tolerate a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater evil or to promote a great good, [6]

[Part 2]  "It is not licit, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil so that good may follow therefrom, [7]

[Part 3]  "That is, to make into the object of a positive act of the will something which is intrinsically disordered, and hence unworthy of the human person, even when the intention is to safeguard or promote individual, family or social well-being."[8]

Paul VI was clearly using a 'proportionate reason' in Part 1.  [9]

Another document that supports 'proportionate reason' is found in the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith "Declaration on Procured Abortion."  In paragraph n. 20, the Prefect Franciscus Cardinal Seper concludes that civil law "must often tolerate what is in fact a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater one."  This would be 'proportionate reason' in civil laws regarding procured abortion.

Dr. Arthur Hippler points out three areas in The Catechism of the Catholic Church where proportionate reasons are used to avoid a great evil regarding other issues, nos. 2237, 2269, and 2491.[10]

Deacon Keith Fournier Hi readers, it seems you use Catholic Online a lot; that's great! It's a little awkward to ask, but we need your help. If you have already donated, we sincerely thank you. We're not salespeople, but we depend on donations averaging $14.76 and fewer than 1% of readers give. If you donate just $5.00, the price of your coffee, Catholic Online School could keep thriving. Thank you. Help Now >

In conclusion, we realize that we are not talking about the principle of 'the ends justifying the means.'  Instead, we are measuring the outcome - what is the proportion of good or evil that can be done.

©Barbara Kralis 2004, All Rights Reserved.


[1]  When the Apostle St. Paul's adversaries grossly misrepresented and accused Paul of having said that 'evil had to be committed for good to be made manifest,' Paul said: "And why not do evil that good may come?  - As some people slanderously charge us with saying.  Their condemnation is just."  St. Paul did not defend himself here but agrees that the condemnation is correct of any such teaching which would blur the difference between good and evil or to argue that the end justifies the means.

[2]  In English, "They condemn what they do not understand."

[3]  Encyclical Letter "Evangelium vitae," or in English, "The Gospel of Life," no. 58, by Pope John Paul II, given in Rome, at Saint Peter's on March 25, 1995, in the seventeenth year of his Pontificate.

[4]  August 2004 Sioux Falls Catholic Diocese, The Bishop's Bulletin, "The responsibility to have a well informed faith life," by Bishop Robert J. Carlson.

[5]  Cf. "Evangelium vitae," n. 73.

[6]  Cf. Pius XII, alloc.  To the National Congress of the Union of Catholic Jurists, Dec. 6, 1953, in AAS XLV (l953), pp 798-799.

[7]  Cf. Rom. 3:8

[8]  Encyclical Letter "Humanae vitae," n. 14, Pope Paul VI, given at Rome, from Saint Peter's, July 25, 1968, in the sixth year of his Pontificate.

[9]  Cf. St. Augustine, 'Contra mendacium,' chapters 1 and 7; Pope Pius XII, 'address,' April 18, 1952.

[10]  'The Wanderer Newspaper,' September 9, 2004, "What did Cardinal Ratzinger's Nota Bene mean?" by Dr. Arthur Hippler.

Barbara Kralis, the article's author, writes for various Christian and conservative publications.  She is a regular columnist at Catholic Online,, Intellectual Conservative, Life Issues, The Wanderer newspaper, Phil Brennan's WOW, New Oxford Review Magazine, Washington Dispatch, Catholic Citizens, Illinois Leader, NewsBull, MichNews, and others.  Her first journalism position was with Boston Herald Traveler, l964.  Barbara published and edited 'Semper Fidelis' Catholic print newsletter.  She and her husband, Mitch, live in the great State of Texas, and co-direct the Jesus Through Mary Catholic Foundation.  She can be reached at:


Jesus Through Mary Foundation TX, US
Barbara Kralis - Director, 903 532-5555



proportionate reasons, church teachings

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