Tobin vs. Kennedy: grow up, both of you

The skirmish between Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin and Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy has grabbed national headlines.  The Congressman has criticized the Church for opposing health-care reforms that would include taxpayer-funded access to abortion.  Furthermore, Kennedy has alleged that Bishop Tobin instructed him not to receive Holy Communion on account of his (Kennedy’s) public stance on abortion.  In response, Tobin claimed that he never instructed or demanded that Kennedy refrain from receiving communion, but only “requested” that Kennedy do so.  While I have no special affection for either of these men, I wanted to make a brief observation about Catholic teaching and the Catholic tradition that Bishop Tobin claims to be defending.  If he believes that traditional Catholic teaching requires Catholic politicians to support the legal prohibition of abortion, then the Bishop would be misunderstanding his own tradition.  In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas (indisputably one of the most important and canonical sources for Catholic ‘natural law’ thinking) argues that all law (including the eternal law, natural law, and human law) exists for the sake of the common good.  Because law exists for the sake of the common good, and not just particular goods, there will be instances in which “rulers rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be prevented, or even worse evils incurred” (Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 10, a. 11).  St. Thomas himself gives the example of prostitution: while acknowledging that prostitution is an evil, St. Thomas (referring approvingly to St. Augustine’s argument in De Ordine II, 4) holds that prostitution should not be prohibited by law, since the legal prohibition of prostitution would prevent certain other goods (e.g., the relative good of providing a tolerable and safe outlet for unpreventable, deviant sexual behavior).  Note well: Aquinas’s argument here does not imply in any way that prostitution (or abortion) is morally neutral or morally acceptable.  Indeed, prostitution — as well as the destruction of innocent human life through abortion — are instrinsically evil, according to traditional Catholic teaching.  But while certain practices (such as prostitution and abortion) are intrinsically evil, it does not follow that it is always right, or even prudent, to combat such evils by means of legal prohibitions.  Finally, these observations should not be taken to imply that Rep. Kennedy’s own position is entirely without flaw.  While it is consistent with traditional Catholic (and ‘natural law’) thinking to hold that not all evils (including intrinsic evils) should be prohibited by law, it is probably inconsistent with traditional Catholic (and ‘natural law’) thinking to hold (as Rep. Kennedy seems to hold) that intrinsic evils ought to be supported by the use of public funds.  In spite of their self-assured, righteous grand-standing, both of these men have alot to learn (and, I think, alot of growing up to do) if they want to be good representatives of their own tradition.

3 Responses to “Tobin vs. Kennedy: grow up, both of you”

  1. djr says:

    I’ve only just stumbled upon your blog in the last few weeks, but I thought I’d comment here to thank you for your refreshingly sensible take on the issues you’ve been writing about. This one in particular is especially important for Catholics. It’s a sign of your reasonableness that most conservative and liberal Catholics I know would be irritated by it. ;-)

  2. Bonnie says:

    Prostitution and abortion can not be compared. Hitler could have used this argument - “rulers rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be prevented, or even worse evils incurred.” Thankfully the world knew how evil Hitler was. And thankfully people are beginning to understand pre-birth *life* better as science becomes more sophisticated. Bottom line - abortion is wrong. I think the Catholic pro-life stance calls people to be better. We have a long way to go.

  3. michaelbaur says:

    Bonnie’s latest comment is much appreciated, even though it appears to be muddled. The muddle appears to be two-fold:
    1) Bonnie’s comment implies that if X is an argument that Hitler could have endorsed, then X is a faulty or defective argument. But that implication is false. Consider:
    “Thomas Aquinas argues that unemployment is a bad thing, since it is demoralizing to people who are out of work.”
    “Hitler could have used this argument.” (Hitler actually *did* make this argument.)
    “Because Hitler could have used the argument put forth by Thomas Aquinas, it follows that Thomas Aquinas’s argument is wrong.”
    The problem here is obvious: an argument is not made wrong, simply because bad people would agree with it. If an argument is wrong, it is wrong on account of some defect; but instead of explaining why there is any defect in Aquinas’s position, Bonnie tells us only that Hitler could have agreed with Thomas Aquinas’s argument; that, of course, is true, but irrelevant to the merits of the argument itself.
    2) Bonnie’s comment tells us, “Bottom line - abortion is wrong.” But there’s no disagreement on that point; that point is not at all what’s at issue. What’s at issue is something rather different, namely whether or not everything that is morally evil (or wrong) ought to be made illegal. Following St. Thomas Aquinas, I have said that it is NOT the case that everything that is morally evil (or wrong) ought to be made illegal. Bonnie seems to hold the opposite, namely that everything that is morally evil (or wrong) OUGHT to be made illegal. Bonnie is free to hold that position, but if that is really her view, she is also committed to the seemingly untenable view that we should pass laws against: every act of lying, every act of promise-breaking, every act that is degrading to any human being, etc. Bonnie is free to hold this view, but it seems (as Aquinas argues) that a policy of outlawing every act that’s morally wrong would be unreasonable, and ultimately damaging to the very common good which the law is supposed to protect.

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